02/01/2013 06:01 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Rethinking in Systems

The landscape of our cultural life is littered with broken systems. A quick pass at any daily newsfeed will inevitably reveal a politician or a pundit declaring that, "the system is broken."

Congress is a broken system. Healthcare is a broken system. Corporate finance, public education, the electoral college, food systems, mental health, patent law, prisons, immigration, tax law... even college football is broken. Increasingly our wellbeing is put at risk by the symptoms of wheezing and sputtering systems. And we seem only to be getting sicker. More than just the latest meme, this proliferation of "broken" systems seems to exemplify our current national zeitgeist.

Figuring out how to remedy broken complex systems would seem to be the signal challenge of our time. If so, then we need to reimagine how we are preparing our students to take on that challenge. And it probably doesn't help that our university system is broken, too (as the Occupy movement helped to point out). For several years I have been requiring students to read Donella Meadows' brilliant book Thinking in Systems, a primer on the power of systems thinking. In it, she makes the compelling case that most of our complex contemporary problems are manifestations of systems gone awry. Like a sleight of hand magician, Meadows deftly boils down complex technical, political, cultural, and ecological problems to basic system behaviors. Only when I ask my design students to diagram a simple system -- as she does throughout the book -- does the subtlety of her own thinking shine through. We all struggle to identify even the most elementary stocks, flows, and feedback loops.

Historically, systems thinking emerged in the mid-twentieth century out of the fields of human computer interaction and engineering. Perhaps for that reason, many suspected its usefulness, viewing the approach as overly mechanistic, reductive and of only marginal relevance. But our current climate crisis has brought systems thinking back into our consciousness, as we experience stranger and more violent weather. It is impossible to ignore how our everyday choices and behaviors -- magnified by the lifestyles of billions people on the planet -- are gradually putting at risk the larger, interconnected ecosystems that we inhabit.

The influence of environmental science and activism has also precipitated a subtle but significant shift in how we conceptualize systems. Mechanistic system modeling is now giving way to ecosystem thinking; we are describing the behaviors and interactions of system actors in ways that are more dynamic, flexible, fuzzy and adaptive. This mirrors a larger, paradigmatic shift from mechanistic metaphors and modes of problem solving in the twentieth century to biological ones in the twenty-first century -- just as the engines of innovation in our economy have shifted from industrial manufacturing to biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and genetics. Systems thinking is thus mutating into ecosystems thinking, and our models of change also evolving from static to fluid and from inanimate to animate.

Understanding the interconnections of technical, social, and natural systems requires that we fluidly shift our scales of thinking between the individual, the local, the national and the global.

Even just making the decision between paper and plastic (or bringing one's own bag) forces us to examine the larger, global, systemic implications of our everyday choices. In order to think and act and nudge these systems toward more optimal states, we need to prepare our students differently. In the projects that my students undertake, four skills in particular have proven critical to even the smallest steps forward: context mapping, or making visual in the problem space the interrelationships between stakeholders and resource flows; problem re-framing, or finding creative and alternative vantages for defining the problem and a potential path forward; collaboration, or working across boundaries of expertise, which often aids in catalyzing problem re-framing; and finally prototyping, or making tactical interventions at key leverage points -- as Donella Meadows calls them -- by distributing agency to the lowest-level actors in the system. None of these specific skills is new, but together they form a strategic, bottom-up method for catalyzing small changes that may, we hope, ripple into bigger impacts on the system.

Analysis and synthesis; reflection and action; assessment and intervention; theory and practice; uncertainty and resolve. These coordinate pairs have usually made for strange bedfellows in academic settings. But we are all going to have move outside of our comfort zones if we hold out any hope that we can remediate the scrapheap of broken systems that seems to be building with each passing year.