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We are a multidisciplinary innovation studio working with diverse partners to understand sustainability challenges and identify holistic, resilient solutions, and we are committed to training the next generation of leaders.

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Insights, inspiration and opportunities to create a more vibrant and resilient future.

What Does Systems Thinking Even Mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

Systems change seems to be on everyone’s mind today, whether we are making big bets on climate change or striving for criminal justice reform. Whole systems need changing, and our ways of thinking and solving must be more holistic. But what does systems thinking even mean?

Systems thinking is a problem solving approach that considers both the overall system, as well as its parts, to develop holistic solutions and avoid contributing to further unintended consequences. A system, in the way we are talking about them here, can be defined as a set of interacting elements that support or maintain a certain process, like cells in a body or pipes in a sewer system. Whole systems can be self-sustaining over time, but not all are operating with the greatest efficiency or in the most optimized way. The massive waste in our food system is a prime example. 

Systems thinking has roots in a diverse range of disciplines, including mathematics, psychology, ecology, and organizational development. The concept of “general systems theory” was advanced by Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1940s and picked up by others like Ross Ashby, a pioneer in cybernetics in the 1950s. The field was further developed by Jay Forrester and members of the Society for Organizational Learning at MIT, which culminated in the popular book (and one of my personal favorites) The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge.

In contrast to design thinking, systems thinking fully recognizes the complexity of the systems in which we are trying to intervene. The design thinking methodology, explored last week, starts by generating a clear and focused problem statement for which to solve. However, defining a discrete user-centered problem depends on very deep (and sometimes narrow) examination of its root causes, which can result in missing the greater context or consideration of potential unintended consequences of solutions.

A critical first step in systems thinking is visualization. Foresight starts almost every project by creating a “systems map” (or diagram) to better understand and make explicit the key elements, root causes, feedback loops, and forces of change in a system. Produced with stakeholders within the system, this map can reveal key pain and opportunity points for strategic interventions to move the system closer to optimization. We believe that you must take the time to “see” the system before you can change it.