Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Calling all systems thinkers — can systems thinkers work together?

Organised within the Global Regeneration CoLab community on the 7th December was a one hour discussion calling all systems thinkers into opening the conversation on collaboration, weaving and increasing effectiveness of practitioners.

Firstly — what is systems thinking?

Systems thinking is a holistic way to investigate factors and interactions that could contribute to a possible outcome. Dr. Marie Morganelli

I find that this article by Michael Goodman illustrates it quite well:

Three lines of inquiry

Can systems thinkers work together?

With a poignant remark from Carrie as she observes that there is still a lot of siloing going on, can we continue to fragment and differentiate ourselves based on these different techniques and tools given the current state of the world — how do we knit that together to impact the world more effectively?

In truth there are already collaborations going on and here are more resources available that may help this weaving to continue and expand further:

Sarah Dubreil made an excellent remark that systems thinking at the most foundational levels are happening in forums such as this one linked below, where participants are re-imagining systems beyond surface level change.

How might we collaborate?

I suppose the answer here is tricky, there are many ways to collaborate, joining forces with other people and networks for such discussion would be a start or even diving in at the deep-end and joining ongoing projects. When asked what is the intention with this group, the answer was “A one off to open up the conversation.” The attendees voted 75% in favor of meeting again. From experience I expect that collaborations will start happening once people get to know each other a little better.

I decided it was time to stop inflicting my own individual models onto people and instead learn how to communicate, become a story teller, collaborate and improve over time, talk about relationships, recursions and iterative designs. We do not live in a cause and effect world, there’s always multiple impacts and causes. The implications of our actions are complex .Gene Bellinger

What is missing? what might be difficult in the world of application or advocacy of systems thinking?

There were various answers to this question as the different experiences and reflections started rolling in.

Carolina Carvahlo asked “how do we make systems thinking approachable by the mainstream without the technical jargon?”

For a case in point to the importance of the above see a little further below how some terms are alien to most people.

This theme of accessibility was picked up also by other attendees together with perspective, education, inter-generational and trans-disciplinary participation.

One interesting contribution by Alexa was that as we are experiencing whole system collapse there’s a need to focus on foundation systems on which to build on rather than making surface level changes, despite the challenges that brings with it. She is currently developing a framework with the same aim.

Fascinating contributions from participants work including holistic medical systems, new math for systems thinking, regenerative finance, food systems and education to name a few.

Kevin Maher said “since we don’t fully understand the systems we are in, maybe an Anti fragile framework could be helpful to reduce risk and allow us to operate even with unforeseen effects .”

Tony Korycki asked “Are Essentialist and Constructivist thinking oppositional?” He goes on to say “That may have a bearing on peoples’ ability to accept systems thinking. Here’s a possible definition of an systems thinking practitioner from England and Wales — might help describe what we might do (in an organisation/institution).”

Brian von Herzen said that it is no use looking at governments and multinationals to lead the way as they trail behind, the innovations particularly in systems moving from extraction to regeneration need to come from the people.

Michael Lennon quite aptly said that most of us are viewing systems thinking as sense making tool looking at something from a third party perspective. Another way to use it would be to see the system from a participant’s perspective ie our own perspective and rather than story telling we would then be doing story editing, living the transformation and evolving from within.

I think this kind of participant perspective is important in systems thinking and also design. I often find myself wanting to change that of which I am a part of because I am directly affected by it. This is a similar perspective often experienced by my permaculture students when learning how to design for themselves, they get to see and become aware of the systems within themselves and outside of themselves which they are a part of and get the opportunity to design for and live a different narrative.

The third party perspective is useful but in order to change the course of whole system collapse that we are experiencing taking the participant perspective adds value and insight particularly into the more uncomfortable realities we are experiencing up close.

One last thought…

Systems thinking approach to change may seem convoluted to people who are already overwhelmed with the system failures they are experiencing, the job simply seems too big to tackle, too complex and they become disheartened. It is this great discomfort that pushes them into trying to tackle issues in isolation. However, typically elements (resources, materials, tools, facilities) can often fulfill more than one function and in so doing as part of a system these elements can be used efficiently creating abundance and avoiding waste and pollution. However it is not only of materials that systems concern themselves with, it is also of the values that we share and that some of us are being deprived of. It is important to ensure that any system we design embodies them and any systems which omits them is changed to include them.

“No one can define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist.”
― Meadows. Donella, Thinking in Systems: A Primer

This meeting was facilitated by Carolina Carvahlo Eco networker at Systems Change Alliance, Felicia Chavez Director of Systems Thinking Marin & Carrie Norton Founder and CEO of Green Business Base Camp.

The Global Regeneration CoLab (GRC) is a lively cohort of people from all over the world offering a wide range of events to bring people together who are into different areas of expertise, disciplines and from a wide range of projects both commercial and non-profit. It is truly a melting pot of inspiration and a rich source when it comes to networking. It is supported by the community, you can support the GRC Activation team by making a donation here.

If you feel called to join the GRC, I would suggest attending Regeneration Pollination an event that happens periodically, facilitated by the wonderful Lauren Minis.

If you are interested in systems thinking I recommend reading Thinking in Systems. This is not an affiliate link ie I don’t get paid anything when you buy this book. I have treasured my copy since the first day it arrived and use it every time I have the opportunity to in my teaching. It has given me hope and inspiration at every step of my permaculture journey and I am eternally grateful to Aranya who recommended it to me.

  1. Envisioning a Sustainable World — a powerful video of Dana’s speech on the crucial role that visioning plays in bringing about the world we want
  2. Tools for the Transition to Sustainability — in this chapter, Dana discusses the importance of visioning, networking, truth-telling, learning, and loving in the quest for sustainability
  3. Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System — probably Dana’s most famous article, this piece illuminates Dana’s deep wisdom about how systems work and how we can manipulate them to create the most change
  4. Dancing with Systems — another powerful piece about how people can work with systems once they lose the illusion of control over them
  5. The Limits to Growth — the groundbreaking 1972 study that launched Donella Meadows onto the global stage as a leading climate thinker and writer

The list above comes from the Donella Meadows Project website.

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