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

What does a systems archetype even mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

Systems thinkers seek to understand the root causes of problems. More specifically, they are uncovering the underlying dynamics that drive the problems. After decades of study and practice, a series of systems archetypes have emerged to describe most of the troublesome dynamics we find. But what does a “systems archetype” even mean?

Systems archetypes capture the “common stories” that are repeatedly found in diverse situations. By articulating these archetypes, problem solvers and decision makers can better diagnose a problem and identify high-leverage interventions that can create transformative change. Here are few examples of these systems archetypes. 

1. “Shifting the Burden”
This archetype describes the common situation when a problem is “solved” by applying a symptomatic solution which diverts attention away from more systemic or fundamental solutions. Here we might look at Chicago's recent school closings, which were driven by a loss in school-age population, and consider the underlying forces of community disinvestment and the foreclosure crisis, that contributed to the student population decline. 

2. “Fixes that Fail”
In this situation, a solution is quickly implemented to alleviate the symptom of a problem, but the unintended consequences of the “fix” exacerbate the problem. And over time, the problem symptom returns to its previous level or becomes worse. Think about the opioid crisis, which has in part sprung from decades of over-prescribing addictive pain medicine.  

3. “Tragedy of the Commons”
This is one of the most well-known systems archetypes, and describes a dynamic that plays out when each person pursues actions which are individually beneficial. This activity reaches a point where the amount of activity grows too large for the system to support and the benefits are diminished for all. Here we might celebrate the Great Lakes Compact and its attempt to intervene and protect 90% of North America’s surface fresh water. 

Learning about these common dynamics helps us better understand the world around us. And, more importantly, they can inform more lasting, holistic, and transformative interventions for change.