Guest Blog Post: Why Systems Thinking? Why Now? – Part One

NWEI Board Member, Rod MacDow
NWEI Board Member, Rod MacDow

Last year NWEI shifted course slightly and created a course book focused on systems – a reflection of our desire to address the intersections between peace, justice and sustainability issues. We’ve always approached this work with a systems approach, but have been focusing on more directly infusing our programs with a systems thinking perspective. We’re delighted that Rod MacDow, NWEI volunteer and former Encore Fellow with NWEI will be guest authoring two posts on systems here on our blog. Here is the first of two installments. 

“The weight of our civilization has become so great, it now ranks as a global force and a significant wild card in the human future along with the Ice Ages and other vicissitudes of a volatile and changeable planetary system”
– Dianne Dumanoski, Rethinking Environmentalism

This is a series about systems, how they work and how they don’t work. I believe Dumanoski is correct – we humans are such a force on our planetary system that we are changing the quality of life on Earth. We can see the stresses. The climate and the very chemistry of our oceans are changing, species are disappearing. We face the challenge of managing our force in ways that mitigate that stress, or we will face the far greater challenge of surviving its consequences. To do that, we must increase our understanding of systems.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the word “system” was rarely used unless you were an engineering student. The science we learned was mostly about rules and the names of things, not how they all worked together. In those days, a computer system was a great big machine in its own special room, with people in white lab coats guarding it from, well, people like me. I think we can agree that things have changed.

The word “system” is everywhere these days. Articles and books appear every day, talking about business systems, information systems and everything-else systems. When a word gets that familiar, we tend to stop thinking about what it really means and just say to ourselves “Oh yeah – system.” But understanding systems – developing our ability to engage in “systems thinking” – is vitally important if we are to deal with some of the critical issues of our time.

Therefore, the purpose of this blog series is to help you gain a foundational understanding of what systems are and how they behave. My goals are to get beyond “oh yeah – system,” and improve your ability to observe how objects interact in the world, and to identify the system elements in that behavior. The systems may be as small as the cells in your body or as large as our planet. The universe itself is a system. Within that goal, I have two interrelated objectives: 1) The first is to create a robust view of what a system is and how it behaves. We use the term all the time, but many people have only a passing acquaintance with it. 2) The second objective is to use system thinking in the context of science, to help understand science itself. We are concerned about our home planet. The information we get about our planet comes from many sources, often with conflicting conclusions. A better understanding of what science really is, and how it operates, may help balance those perspectives.

Why should you believe me? Well, in a sense, you shouldn’t.

I’m not a scientist, but I have worked in the high technology industry for more than 40 years, where familiarity with physics and chemistry is assumed. I’ve had a long personal interest in how life works, evolution and the brain.

Think of me as a reporter. My goal is to spur your thinking in new directions, even when you reach different conclusions. Earth’s climate is complex and so is human activity within it. Systems thinking will allow you to consider the evidence – in all its complexity – from a more structured view point. From there, you can develop your own opinion. Please be skeptical. Please argue.

I believe it is more difficult for people to take responsibility for a planet if they do not understand it. Science tells us what the planet is. Systems thinking tells us how it works and how we relate to it. We have a responsibility to think carefully and reflect the best of what science and systems thinking have to offer. We’re going to begin by looking at systems in the context of science. You might be thinking “Eww, science? Do we have to?” But there’s a reason: The word “system” has lots of definitions – at least fourteen in some dictionaries. Science needs precision in order to communicate.

We will focus on physics, the foundation of science. Its single, precise definition of systems is a solid starting point for us. All systems use energy to do work, and physics tells us the rules that govern much of our daily experience in the world. From there, we will look at how systems relate to information. Any system that uses energy leaves information about how that energy was used. Finally, we’ll look at intelligence in its broadest sense. Living things use intelligence to understand the information that systems create. They use that intelligence to adapt – to survive, to grow, to fit in, and to reproduce. We humans tend to think we’re better at this than other living things, but there are plenty of life forms that have used exactly this process to thrive on Earth for hundreds of millions of years. Perhaps we should be attentive to their success, and maybe a bit more humble.

Just for fun, let’s take that last paragraph and say it again in the language of systems: We will define physical systems in terms of their internal and external behavior. We will then identify the means by which that behavior is observable. Then we will discuss the means by which we can understand that behavior and either control or adapt to the system. The result will be that you can apply this knowledge to the behavior of any system. It won’t tell you everything about the system, but it will give you some important and useful insights on which to seek deeper understanding.

There’s a payoff for making the effort to accompany me on this trip: By understanding the way systems and science work, you can become better at understanding how the world works, how your environment works, and how you yourself work. Moreover, you can become better at understanding how things might be not working. Along the way, you might become more inspired to take action, to make this beautiful but damaged world a slightly better place. That’s a reward for all of us.

Stay tuned for Rod’s second post on science and systems. Before coming to NWEI, Rod was part of the high-tech industry for 42 years. His primary contributions have been in strategic planning and business development. He is excited to use that experience to help improve the balance of human activity and nature. Rod has lived in all four corners of the U.S. and in Asia, currently lives in NW Portland, and loves visiting friends and family in other corners of the world. He is actively involved in community gardening, mental health training and making his own ales and breads. 

*For an exercise that will help you apply systems thinking skills to any situation, check out the Iceberg Exercise. We hope these posts have spurred some thinking about systems – and how thinking systemically can assist in creating change

2 Responses to “Guest Blog Post: Why Systems Thinking? Why Now? – Part One”

  1. Ann Deupree

    Rod’s blog comes just when I need it. We plan to start a new series using the PJ&S Workbook. I will be a co-convener. Having taken the course myself last fall, I know that a good understanding of systems theory would make a real positive difference in grasping the meaning of this course. Rod’s blog will enable me to clarify the course concepts for others.

    Thanks, Rod, Deb, and NWEI.

    • Deborah McNamara

      Ann, Wonderful! Glad to hear it. We plan on posting every few weeks – but if you are finding you want more sooner, please be in touch and we’ll see what we can do. So nice to connect with you here! Thanks for reading! Deborah and the NWEI team

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