How systems thinking helps society (or not)

Thalia Verkade's article in De Correspondent about Systems Thinking, inspired Rembrandt Zegers and Eline Faber to zoom out further, with the question: does systems thinking help us as a society, or does it not?

Systeemdenken Stichting Organisatie Leren


Thinking in systems

Donella Meadows describes in her book of the same name the principle of Thinking in Systems† In it she describes how important it is to realize that everything is connected, and that you should therefore always keep zooming out. This principle can also be found in physics, chemistry, computer science, biology and also psychology (group dynamics). After centuries of zooming in on the smallest to find out how something works, some scientists suddenly realized that something essential was being lost because of this. By zooming in on the smallest, you actually lose the cohesion and relationships between 'things'.

Different perspectives

So Meadows was not the first scientist to gain insight into systems thinking. Call it serendipity or quantum physics, but it's as if the time was right in the middle of the last century to discover this systems thinking. They were pioneers such as Ludwig von Bertallanfy (computer science), Gregory Bateson (ecology of mind), Fredric Vester (ecopolicy game), Ilya Prigogine, Isabelle Stengers (irreversible thermodynamics) and Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (autopoesis).
Jay Forrester is also ascribed a major role. He was the leader of the group at MIT that Meadows joined after her PhD. This group created the computer model that led to the Club of Rome report on the limits to growth. It is clearly visible that the systems thinking of that MIT group and of Meadows has its origins in technical thinking. That doesn't diminish its importance and power.

From Model to Reality

Thalia Verkade puts it in the title of her article in the Correspondent for a reason, it's about 'thinking'. However, it is still a 'thinking' in the form of 'the map', or the model, and not 'the territory', or the reality. When you approach systems thinking as a model or a construct, you will always lose some of its power.

Way of looking and learning

What would help us as a society is if we start to see systems thinking more as an elusive reality. A way of looking and learning, if you will. Without having to immediately look for a solution or a way from A to B. And that is precisely what we people find difficult. We feel uncomfortable if we don't have a solution or can use a model right away. In order to get rid of the inconvenience as quickly as possible, we then look for a construct or a model. But precisely when we remain in that discomfort, and when we take the time to observe how one is connected to the other, then we watch and learn from the system. Then we suddenly see that many groups of people or animals or natural phenomena do not participate, while they are connected to the system.

If problem solving is connected on a deeper level with people's values and beliefs, systems thinking mainly makes us aware that everyone is part of systems or 'the system'. It rather becomes an awareness tool, a way to get a better view of ourselves and what we do 'in the world'.

Group dynamics and systemic work

Simultaneously with the technical development of systems thinking, such as with Meadows, there are traces of social psychology (with Kurt Lewin as an important founder) and phenomenology (from Edmund Husserl to Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Henri Bergson). This systems thinking started with the study of group dynamics, organizational dynamics and social dynamics. The development of systems thinking in the social domain lies with people like Wilfred Bion and Eric Miller (both from the early days of the English Tavistock Institute of Human Relations) and people like AK Rice in America.

Relationship with nature

This is the step towards looking at human, social and ecological relationships. From a systemic consciousness, fueled by the social sciences, we are now attempting to deeply understand our Western culture in how destructive it is (and has been) when it comes to minorities and other cultures. We also look again at our relationship with nature, from which we have been estranged for several centuries. We are only now beginning to see nature and the non-human others (really) as entitled players in the world. We begin to experiment very carefully with what it means to be with nature, rather than above or against nature.

Meaning economy

In the meantime, as right-minded liberals, we again have a range of images and concepts that try to grasp something of this. The model of the Social Development Goals, the various models of Purpose economy or Meaning economy, the Donut economy. They are all pretty nice and they also try to provide handles. We need them. However, it is advisable to keep in mind that they provide a new 'map' (ie the model) and not the 'territory' (ie the reality).

Systems thinking is not without risk when it is used based on a desire for technical progress. The desire for progress is deeply embedded in people and even revolutions are born from it (to create equality, secure civil rights and end poverty).

False systems thinking

There is no question that people have rights and deserve full lives. But before you know it, systems thinking can also be thinking without a sense of reality, without limits. For example, that the planet cannot handle everything that people do to it. We call this false systems thinking, because very paradoxically it is about thinking about progress, individualism and even more consumption, which cannot be relativized in any way.

If that is the intent of systems thinking and it continues to feed on this type of progress thinking, we can wait for more dictatorial politicians and dictatorial regimes who do the very opposite of systems thinking, which is to propagate and exercise arbitrariness and oppression.

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