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Feedback loops are everywhere. In the example the simple act of pouring a glass of water can be understood at a much deeper level by drawing a simple diagram representing the major feedback loop involved. Starting at the top, the faucet position affects the water flow, which affects the current water level.

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The desired water level minus the current water level equals the perceived gap. As the water level rises, the gap closes, which affects the faucet position, which affects the water flow, which causes the water level to gracefully rise to the desired water level, and not overshoot.

How To Be a Systems Thinker |

While this simple example does not lead to any powerful insights, the application of systems thinking to more complex problems can often turn a problem from impossible to solve into one so easy to solve that you may forget that moments ago, or years ago, it was impossible. Long ago when I was in my twenties, a fellow at a party made one of the most sagacious statements I've ever encountered.

He went on to explain that those who watched TV tended to think like the herd and those who didn't watch much TV were original thinkers leading far more interesting and fulfilling lives. He pointed at people around the room, easily dividing them into those two groups on the basis of who was dull and who was interesting. Then he confirmed his decisions by observing how frequently they referred to TV shows and characters as they chatted, as well as asking some how much television they watched.

It was a marvelous display of a theory proved right. Everyone in the world can also be divided into two groups based on how they see the world around them: event oriented thinkers and system thinkers. They see the world as a rag tag collection of parts and events. Each event has a cause and if you want to solve a problem, find the cause and fix that. The solution, then, is to get them to stop behaving so irresponsibly. This can be done with laws stating what to do and not to do, plus emotional appeals to be nice to the environment. When that solution fails, as it has for over 40 years, they just throw up their hands and call it a hard problem.

This mindset is also known as Classic Activism. Systems thinkers see the problem entirely differently. They see immense positive feedback loops causing swarms of agents to exploit the Earth for their own benefit and population growth. This mode becomes unsustainable when negative feedback loops finally start to push back as environmental limits are approached. Instead, they see the structure of the system as causing that misbehavior. To solve the problem, system structure must be understood and changed, so that feedback loops can be redesigned to cause people to behave sustainably as a natural part of their everyday existence.

Creating Systems Changes Means Creating Systems Thinkers

This takes far more work than writing a few quick new laws and pleading to save the world. Systems thinking revolves around a handful of concepts that anyone who is determined to learn can master, with study and practice. The key concepts are:. All systems are composed of inter-connected parts. The connections cause behavior of one part to affect another. All parts are connected. A change to any part or connection affects the entire system. The structure of a system determines its behavior. Structure is the pattern of part connections, which is how the system is organized.

System behavior is an emergent phenomenon. How a system behaves cannot be determined by inspection of its parts and structure. This is because parts are tightly coupled, the parts and structure are constantly changing, feedback loops are present, nonlinear relationships exist, behavior paths are history dependent, the system is self-organizing and adaptive, emergent behavior is counterintuitive, time delays exist, the human mind has very limited calculation abilities, etc.

Once you realize how complex the behavior dynamics of even a simple system really is, you will never again assume you can look at a system and predict how it will behave. A feedback loop is a series of connections causing output from one part to eventually influence input to that same part. This circular flow results in large amplification, delay, and dampening effects, which is what causes the gross behavior of the system. Every part is involved in one or more feedback loops.

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Systems have more feedback loops than parts, which causes unimaginable complexity. Complex social systems exhibit counter intuitive behavior. The problems of such systems therefore cannot be solved using intuition and our everyday problem solving methods. The use of intuitive methods to solve difficult complex social system problems is a common trap, so common the entire environmental movement has fallen into it.

Only analytical methods using tools that fit the problem will solve difficult complex social system problems. The first such tool to adopt is true systems thinking. The second one is a process that fits the problem.

The third one, unless it is an easy problem, is system dynamics. Level 0. Unawareness - Completely unaware of the concept of systems thinking. Level 1. Shallow Awareness - The person is reasonably aware of the concept but does not understand it to any serious depth. He or she throws around the right buzzwords, and may have some good systems thinking intuition, but with few effective results. The problem here is this type of person may strongly feel they are a systems thinker. But they are not, so they do not gain any of the benefits of true systems thinking analysis.

They also cannot tell a good systems analysis from a bad one. This type of person can be called a pseudo systems thinker. From what I've seen, most people who use the term systems thinking are on this level or the next, or somewhere in between. Image: The Seedling at Sagada. Systems thinking is emerging as a powerful way to address social challenges. Big data refers to data sets that are so large, commonly used software tools are unable to capture , curate , manage, and process that data within a reasonable period of time. Big data encompasses both unstructured and structured data.

A definition states that: "Big data represents the information assets characterised by such a high volume, velocity and variety to require specific technology and analytical methods for its transformation into value. Image: Visual Capitalist.

Systems theory

Big data can be used to reveal patterns, predict risks and opportunities, and offers new insights into systems. An example of big data in action is the Netflix algorithm , which draws on your personal data and combines that with the data of more-thanmillion users worldwide. The data is fed into an AI algorithm, which predicts patterns in what you are likely to want to watch next, offering you recommendations which are, generally speaking, pretty spot on!

The stories we hear about big data are often framed through a negative lens.

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We need to be thinking more about how to reclaim the value that big data offers and apply it for social good. Systems thinking and big data as independent fields have real strengths, but also some key weaknesses. Big data is great for observing broad patterns and trends, but can miss nuances that would be obvious to the human eye, and which form an important part of the stories of individuals and communities.

On the other hand, systems thinking as a methodology can unearth powerful and complex insights, but this happens very slowly, and is hugely resource intensive. The complementarity that each field offers the other is clear.

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When looking to understand communities and solve social challenges, systems thinking injects depth and nuance, while big data provides insights into patterns and risks that are only possible to unearth with the assistance of some computing power. Open data portals , for example, are extremely useful resources for those wanting to gain deeper insights into communities.

The datasets published can be used to develop a sophisticated understanding about social wellbeing within a particular community; can reveal trends and spending patterns in the field of health and social care ; and can even support a deeper understanding about how people travel within a city.