My Journey of Systems Thinking – Part III

Where did I learn systems thinking? The answer is simple but confusing, even to me. Technically, I learnt it at my post grad college, Sadhana Center for Management and Leadership Development, Pune. This was a subject in our curriculum. We studied it for two years. First year we had systems thinking and then an elective on system dynamics modeling. Sushil Bajpai and Rajinder Raina were our mentors, professors, friends and fellow systems thinkers. They had this impossible task of teaching systems thinking to 160 idiots. When I reflect now I think my performance in class and particularly in exams was below par. That is according to my standards and interpretation. But my mark-sheet tells a different story. May be my professors were liberal, may be they saw something more than what exam results or written answers told them. They had an insight and a foresight on how to identify, nurture interest and develop potential systems thinkers.

But I did not really learn systems thinking alone in my college. I was introduced to it there, I read and heard it there, I also practiced it, applying to some of our corporate strategy cases. I had used it to study Dell company’s strategy on how their business model was different from others. Organised a systems thinking seminar calling the commissioner of Pune plus more audience. Sushil and Rajinder got Shiela Damodaran to Pune to conduct that seminar and we did more stuff.  Linking Vipassana to Systems Thinking, the business model of Dabbawalas to principles of systems thinking. All that was very good but I was not really a systems thinking practitioner back then.

When I joined WOTR, Sept 2009, I worked with Sushil Bajpai and a bunch of brilliant folks there working on really complex social and ecological issues. The project was on climate change adaptation. It had all the elements of real world complexity that one can imagine. It also had institutional complexity which was to dealt with bringing in elements of learning organization pedagogy (more on this later). The project was a pioneering effort in the field of climate change adaptation in India. WOTR had a credible name and evidence in field which made them a potent force for community based natural resource management. But this project was a different animal and it brought in new animals at WOTR. I was one of them.

I learnt systems thinking outside my class room. A lot was learnt by observation and not implementation. For around 2 years, I was a fence watcher. Not committing myself into any one activity of the project but learning and observing about what is going on everywhere and what I think could happen. All these years I had the luxury to learn, read, observe, unlearn, relearn. This opportunity was rare, perhaps once in a lifetime. Did I made most of it? Only time will tell. But I had a ball. We use to have intense practical and philosophical discussions on what is true adaptation, why humans fail to understand how their actions are killing themselves, why peak oil would redesign our lives, would peak water hit us first or peak oil or are we living in an age of peak everything? Lot of systems thinking was used in our discussion. I was a mere spect-actor and Sushil did most of the thinking, talking and doing. It was like we had a high quality TED talk every week, coming from our field experiences and books that we use to read and the project ambitions. We use to be very critical of ourselves, our actions and the project itself. Questioning the sustainability of the institution, the project, ourselves and should we even live in cities anymore? Should we reverse migrate? Those were crazy discussions, beyond office space, at our homes, common meeting places, over beer and biryani.

I learnt systems thinking by looking and observing reality and then linking it with the theory of systems thinking. By reading books, not only on systems thinking but on multiple disciplines. I learnt systems thinking at WOTR, by listening to Sushil, by working on field with the team, by talking to community, friends, remembering the theories of books while seeing real world dynamics unfolding on field. I learnt it by practice but not only through implementation. I saw why and how implementation often is weak in rural areas and how, while I was leading some verticals of the projects, I was still making the same mistakes. I understood the power of the system we are in and how it influences our behavior. How we speak one thing, but do another and then still are unaware.

I think I did multiple post grads while at WOTR from 2009 till 2014. Un-parallel to any other experience. I learnt systems thinking through that journey and the journey still continues bringing in more surprises, twists and turns.

One happening and happy journey, I must say.

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My Journey of Systems Thinking – Part II

For many years people have asked me how is systems thinking different and what is so unique about it. What is the advantage of using it over other methods and techniques? To be honest, I did not had a short and convincing answer back then. It would take me 15 mins of talking to convey what I wanted to say and that too was incomplete. This of course meant that people did not get a clean and cogent answer to their question. I would also substantiate in the end by saying please read on systems thinking and then verbally mention couple of books. With more people asking me this question over time my responses improved incrementally. But they were still not good enough. Probably what was lacking in me was a thorough, continuous application of systems thinking and modeling on real world situations. Every now and then I use to use systems thinking tools to understand peak oil impacts, localisation benefits, resilience to climate change etc. but then the result was my improved understanding of these issues which would help me in my research and community work. This was particularly helpful for the climate change adaptation project that I was part of at WOTR. But how do I communicate this to others? What evidence exists?

Three years back I got an opportunity to apply systems thinking and modeling for urbanization project at TERI. Kabir and I spearheaded a team of young researchers and developed a city model representing urban carrying capacity and people’s quality of life. We did lot of systems thinking training and use of causal loop diagrams to draw how we understood the city system. A two day training was conducted on system dynamics modeling. The project was successfully delivered and generated much interest among its readers. Then we embarked on economics of grassland degradation project. This was an almost impossible project. We had the task of modeling a grassland ecosystem, Banni, in Kachch. There were so many unkowns in the system that at one point we thought of giving up. But then we worked hard and got very good support from our colleagues at TERI and research support by (institutions) Sahjeevan and ATREE. That project was a leap for us to understand the potential of applying systems thinking and modeling to solve real world problems.

After doing further projects on application of systems thinking and then teaching it to over 1000 students, now I feel I have a better answer to the question, ” What is the advantage of applying systems thinking?”. What I am about to write is purely my interpretation of the benefits I see and is not coming out of a text book. So one must be critical.

Let me quote the great Albert Einstein here, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I paraphrase this, “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions and today’s solutions will create tomorrow’s problems.” This speaks volumes about our journey in life and how we adapt and live. If this is true then I think systems thinking and modeling has a big role to play.

I think the real benefit of applying systems thinking to real world problems and even for theory development is that, ” It could help us take decisions and design policies, rules which would reduce the recurrence and severity of the problem we are trying to solve”. This I think is the biggest (potential) benefit of applying systems thinking and modeling. This could be achieved through multiple pathways. It is not necessary that one needs to implement the solutions and only then the results would come. Even the improvement in our understanding about the complexity of real world is instrumental in improving the policy design and decision rules which we use to run our families, companies, society and nations.

The only rider I would attach is that one needs to be very very honest while applying systems thinking and modeling because unlike other disciplines (statistics, math etc.) this discipline depends a lot more on who is modeling and whose mental models really matter. The reliance on the honesty and capability of the researcher and actor is of paramount importance if the potential benefit of applying systems thinking and modeling is to be achieved, as I describe it.

I think my biggest strength, that I discovered, was not my ability to do advance math or expertise in software or field research. It was my ability to stay put, pursue systems thinking and work through my limitations over time. There were a bunch of my classmates and colleagues who, in my opinion, were far better at systems thinking than me. But today I am the only one using it for a living. And I am no scholar or genius like them.

So systems thinking and modeling is for people like us, who are ready to learn and build their capacities. Why? Because I think it is very useful. How?  Because, ” It could help us take decisions and design policies, rules which would reduce the recurrence and severity of the problem we are trying to solve”

My Journey of Systems Thinking – Part I

I write this post today after an engaging day with students at ISDM on systems thinking and sustainability. The classes start at 9 am and continue till 5 pm. Today was the fourth day and it seems like we have come a long way, not only in terms of students learning systems thinking but the quality of engagement has reached a new level.

The striking point came when students asked me to explain my day at work, on how do I use systems thinking there and the process of its application. The question was striking because it made me feel like the students wanted to know how I have managed to reach this stage where I am doing professional projects using systems thinking and system dynamics. More so because for them the subject looked too difficult to apply in real world for finding solutions. They couldn’t really imagine on how diving deep into complexity of real world problems could yield fruitful results and generate solutions in today’s world. The question was also striking because it gave me a sense of honor because here were a bunch of 65 students interested to learn from my experience.

I feel motivated now to write this post and more on this subject to explain how I started my journey of becoming a systems thinker and convert my skills into professional occupation.

It was in July 2007 when I first learned about systems thinking. Mr. Sushil Bajpai and Mr. Rajinder Raina took our first class on systems thinking at Sadhana Center for Management and Leadership Development (SCMLD), Pune. The first presentation showed to us was of images from zoom book,  a view of life going from microscopic to telescopic. That first presentation made an impression on me. What a fantastic way it was to show how things are interconnected and that we live in a world of systems and sub systems.

The next deck of slides explained us the definition of A System. How do we know what is a system and what is not a system. This was a tricky question. Reads easy but when one thinks about it, it is not so easy to define it well. After some deliberation out came the answer, “A System is made up of parts which are interrelated, interconnected, interdependent having a purpose”. We all went berserk in identifying systems all around us. Since then the subject never really left me. I went on diving deep into it. In the next classes we were introduced to Mental Models. That class in particular was fascinating. It introduced us to the fact that how all of us interpret reality, build images in our mind and use them to take decisions. More importantly that these mental models are flawed, because we use rationality to simplify reality which implies that there are lot of assumptions there which make our mental models inadequate and incomplete. This was quite a revelation for me. I came from a financial markets experience and there the whole game was who has got it right and who knows reality the best in order to predict it and mint money. The best analysts would draw large pay based on how well their models performed in relation with reality. This thought was so well rooted in me that learning about mental models was actually life changing.

The initial few classes had cemented a space for systems thinking in my life. Interestingly, one night in my hostel room, Amey Phadke and I were chatting just before calling it a day. Lying on our beds, with lights put off, we were asking each other where do we see ourselves after five years from now. I cannot remember what Amey replied, but I do remember clearly what I had said, because I said what I really deeply believed. I said, “It looks like I will join stock markets after college, but if you really ask me – deep within I feel that I am made for systems thinking and that’s where I would land up. Honestly speaking I think I would be doing systems thinking”. I did join stock markets after my post grad building equity valuation models for oil and gas companies, doing commodity research and interacting with institutional investors. But within six months I switched careers and moved on to work with Mr. Sushil Bajpai at WOTR and there began my journey of systems thinking and system dynamics, on job. And here I am today writing a post on it after 10 years of having that conversation with Amey at my hostel room.

The journey so far has been full of turning points and life changing moments, some planned, most unplanned.

….. to be contd.

Systems Thinking Definition

I have struggled to put what is systems thinking into a succinct definition for a long time. I have also struggled to find a definition of systems thinking which makes most sense to me and captures the gist of systems thinking through that definition. My struggle began 10 years back, when systems thinking was first introduced in my post grad. Since then I have been giving long answers (and different versions every-time) to anyone who asks or writes to me “What is systems thinking?”.

Somewhere between 2015 and 2016 I decided to make a glossary of systems vocabulary, more for my personal use and then again came the question of what is systems thinking. So I decided to write down a definition which made most sense to me. The first version of it I shared with Gene Bellinger and after a brief exchange of emails with him I zeroed down on a definition that was acceptable to me.

Two days back I was taking a day long workshop cum lecture at Indian School of Development Management at Noida in NCR (National Capital Region of Delhi). After going through the slides explaining what is a system, what is not a system, how to identify systems, examples of systems, types of systems I came to the slide having my definition of systems thinking. Mr. Arun Maira, former member of Planning Commission of India, was there in the class, with whom I was doing team teaching. He expressed that it was one of the most refined definitions of systems thinking that he had seen or read. This motivated me and today I decided that I should publish the definition (via informal means like this for now) for gaining more feedback and to improve it further. Thus, I am posting the definition here for readers to evaluate it and provide feedback on how much sense does it make and how well it captures the essence of systems thinking. All views are welcome.

Systems Thinking Definition:

Systems thinking is the process of understanding relationships between variables within a system and between different systems and how they influence each other’s behavior over time.

The above definition is typed by me but I think many people, entities and their work has contributed to my learning which has lead me to this definition. I may not be able to remember them all and write down here, but let me try.

Sushil Bajpai, Rajinder Raina, MS Pillai, Rajesh Rajak, John Sterman, Donella Meadows, Khalid Saeed, Jay Forrester, Andrew Ford, Kenneth Boulding, Gene Bellinger, Arun Maira, Kabir Sharma, Pradnya Mathur, Sadhana Center for Management and Leadership Development (SCMLD), Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS), Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), Sustainability Dynamics (my own unregistered consultancy), International System Dynamics Society, System Dynamics Society of India (IIT Kharagpur) and All my students at TISS and SCMLD.

Donella Meadows on Writing for Change

Came across this article this afternoon and it made so much sense to learn from that I thought of sharing it here. Please do read and share with others.

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Dana’s advice for writing for change, whether in an OpEd, article, blog, etc.

BE CLEAR. Be specific, not abstract. Give examples, and be sure your words make pictures in peoples’ heads. Tell stories, give statistics, show the impact of the problem or the solution on the real world. People can form their own conclusions, if you give them the evidence.

USE A HOOK TO THE NEWS. People have to know why what they’re about to read is important. They think the daily news is important, so use that hook, even if you’re not going to talk about the daily news.

WRITE AN INTERESTING LEAD. A friendly editor once blasted me with: “That was the most terrific column you ever wrote, but it had a boring, killer lead.” A killer lead is an opening sentence that makes the reader yawn and turn to the sports page. (E.g. instead of “I have just had the privilege of escorting six Hungarian visitors on a cross-country tour of the United States. All six are agricultural experts. They came to see our farms.” It would have been better to start with something right out of the middle of the story: “The Hungarians thought Burger King was great. ‘So clean,’ they said. When they saw people carrying their own trays, they said, ‘So socialist.’”)

NEVER WRITE IN AN APOLOGETIC TONE, or a defensive one. Never, ever, ever, condescend to the reader. Never present a problem without providing at least a hint of what to do about it. Don’t get people all riled up and then drop them into helplessness.

WHATEVER YOUR SUBJECT, TELL IT THROUGH PEOPLE. Human beings are much more interested in other human beings than they are in ideas. If you care about something, let your care show as well as your objective evidence. If you’re writing about someone else – hero or villain – make that person as real and whole on paper as you possibly can.

BE HUMBLE. You don’t know everything. In fact no human being knows much of anything, compared with the immense wonders and uncertainties of the universe, so keep a sense of perspective. Say just what you can say and no more, say it with the appropriate degree of certainty and no more. That is the hardest lesson for me to follow. It’s a torture every day and a duty, a wonderful discipline and a Zen koan, the bane of my existence and the best challenge of my life.

Re posted from: https://www.facebook.com/DonellaMeadowsInstitute/

Are you too young to be worried about climate change?

Ayesha Banerjee |  Updated: Jul 15, 2016 19:15 IST

Reposted from Hindustan Times: http://www.hindustantimes.com/education/are-you-too-young-to-be-worried-about-climate-change/story-xT8o5uDJ5tDZu2IxgTKGWM.html

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Mihir Mathur demonstrating solar parabolic cookers to villagers in Maharashtra. (Handout)

In the last few years the climate change threat has started to get a little too real to us. Temperatures have more or less stayed above 50 degrees C this summer in parts of India. The country has also been affected by drought for the second year running. “We have already done enough emissions which shall make the (global) average temperatures go up. Climate change is not something which will happen in the future. It is happening right now. April 2016 was one of the hottest months on record. Earth’s average surface temperature has already increased by around 1 degree C compared to pre industrial times and it is estimated that we are headed for up to a 3 degree C rise which could lead to dangerous climate change impact.”

The warning comes from climate change researcher Mihir Mathur, associate fellow, Earth Science and Climate Change Division at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Delhi, who is picking up danger signals from planet earth and wants to mitigate the impact. For Mathur, climate change is a personal as well as global issue. Every individual has to worry. “Those who think that it is the responsibility of only governments and researchers to learn (about) and find solutions to climate change are not thinking right. There is no point in having a national or a state level climate policy when people don’t understand its importance or rationale.”

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What is the world going to look like in 2050? Mathur works on developing future scenarios using computer modelling (simulating what happens or will happen in a situation) to understand how policies can bring about desired changes. (Handout)

Surprisingly this researcher in climate change adaptation for policy formulation at the local and macro level comes from a finance background. He received his bachelor of commerce in accountancy from Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara (his hometown), following it up with a master’s degree in finance from the Sadhana Centre for Management and Leadership Development, Pune.

What led to the switch? While working in the stock markets Mathur discovered how fossil fuel depletion would put a limit on economic growth. He asked himself deeper questions: was the nature of this growth sustainable? As he found out more about the interconnections between fossil fuels, emissions and climate change, he felt a “deeper calling to research upon sustainability issues rather than only use my skills in stock markets”. The turning point came when he discovered the issue of oil depletion (popularly known as Peak Oil) which could hit the world much before climate change. Research on peak oil (point in time when oil production peaks and then begins to terminally decline) made him realise that the world was very close to reaching the peak globally and that a systemic shift was needed if the world had to sustain itself. That discovery drove him to take up research on finding solutions to peak oil and climate change.

For field work, Mathur has to interact with farming communities to find out how weather variations challenge their agriculture decision-making. He studies how weather forecasts and agriculture advisories (sent by the India Meteorological Department and other private players) are helping farmers cope with these variations. He also works on developing future scenarios using computer modelling (simulating what happens or will happen in a situation) to understand how policies can bring about desired changes. A modelling project was recently completed where he developed an urban model using system dynamics modelling (understanding complicated problems using mathematical modelling techniques) to understand city futures, how cities would grow in future and factors limiting their growth.

Solutions for human beings to adapt better to the changes in weather and climate could be social, financial, environmental, economic etc, so his research is, in a sense, interdisciplinary. His research findings help improve the body of knowledge on climate change and are likely to contribute as inputs for development planning and policy planning.

Mathur has been part of one of the biggest climate change adaptation programmes in India, implemented by Watershed Organisation Trust in Maharashtra, MP and AP, covering more than 50 villages. For him it was an experience to learn how rural India understood climate change and the practical challenges it faced while moving towards adaptation and mitigation measures. He feels the whole project was a success as they were able to implement renewable energy solutions at scale, generate livelihood opportunities, do watershed development work, promote water budgeting and management, develop biodiversity registers, create disaster risk reduction plans, install automated weather stations for real time weather data at village level etc.

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Mihir Mathur: Happy to make the switch from the stock market to research on finding solutions to peak oil and climate change. (Handout)

More recently, Mathur has been practicing system dynamics modelling to better understand how social, economic and environmental systems function and interact with each other. The idea is to understand and present the complexity of real life systems to academia, policy makers, researchers and everyone else. “Through the modelling,” he explains “ I am able to show how seemingly different sectors interact with each other and intervening in one sector could create a cascading impact on other sectors. An increase in the water supply for a city would lead to increase in demand for electricity (through pumping etc) which in turn could lead to increase of power supply which again could lead to increased water consumption for electricity generation. And that’s not all, increase in water consumption could lead to increased waste water discharge and without any increase in sewage capacities it could lead to water borne diseases. This is a hypothetical scenario but it’s clear that it is impossible to understand the dynamics of the real world without going through the process of studying their interlinkages.”

When it comes to global negotiations on climate change, Mathur says India is not going wrong as the country’s per capita emissions are very low as compared to developed nations. It is not fair to expect India to go on an aggressive mitigation strategy at the cost of development which has yet to cover all of its people. However, a low carbon development vision would definitely mitigate emissions and achieve sustainable development. As India’s geography, cultures, ecosystems, agro ecological zones are very diverse it is almost impossible to have one strategy that fits all. To have bottom up development planning and integrating it with the top down climate change vision is a challenge. India has developed State level Action Plans on Climate Change and also has City Resilience Plans which are to get integrated with City Development Plans and Master Plans. Results, however, will only be visible in the future. India does have policies in place but to implement it and achieve the desired results at scale has been a problem. Mathur feels India’s greatest strength is its network of villages and if sustainable development is achieved in the country’s six lakh villages then the country could achieve its development and climate goals with much ease. Along with India’s focus on smart cities, it is important that the villages are not left out as they form the base of the country’s pyramid.

Models of a city that he has put together reveal that the quality of life in cities is going to deteriorate very soon (in some places it already has) mainly due to rising environmental pollution. While many of them may continue to choose to live in cities with a deteriorating quality of life, there would come a tipping point where cities become unattractive and people would start searching for other places to relocate. “I have heard of such discussions already taking place among people living in big metropolises,” Mathur says.

Mihir interacting with farmer on field
Mathur interacting with farmers as part of his field work. (Handout)

Thus, he hopes that through his modelling work someday he will be able to develop tools to enable effective decision making (at the government or global level) for climate change planning.

Climate change, in 20 words is

Non normal variations in rainfall and temperatures with shift in seasons and increase in frequency of extreme weather events

Institutes where you can study

TERI University (http://www.teriuniversity.ac.in/)

Indira Gandhi National Open University (http://www.ignou.ac.in/)

Indian Institute of Forest Management (http://iifm.ac.in/)

Centre for Environment Education (http://www.ceeindia.org/cee/index.html)

Skills needed for the job

Liking for quantitative and qualitative analysis, good communication skills, openness for learning new things, honesty, curiosity.

Presentations

These are a set of presentations on various topics which I have presented at different forums. It is being made freely available for non commercial use and source attribution would be highly appreciated. For any questions, clarifications or corrections please write to me.

Source: Presentations

Why Models are Wrong and still Useful!

Reflections from the Q&A session at INSEE conference presentation on system dynamics and on occasion of completion of 1 year of system dynamics work at TERI.

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We always use models. Sometime we know that we are using them while most of the time we are not aware about it. Here is an example. When you go to buy something for a friend or family member how do you make a decision on what to buy? Suppose I go to a shop to buy a shirt for my father, I create a mental image of him in my mind. It is a model. I use it to see if the shirt will suit him. I am now creating simulations. Based on the results of my mental simulations I take a decision of either to buy the product or not. Is my mental model right? No. It is a reflection of reality. My image of my father is a partial reflection about him. But it is still useful. I cannot do away with it. Does that effect my decision? Yes. At times when I am not sure about how the shirt will look on my father, I ask the shop keeper if he would exchange it. On other days, I would shortlist the shirt and say I will come back with my father. What is happening here? I don’t have enough confidence on my mental model. But I am still using it to make a decision. It all depends on what model we have the highest confidence upon. We use them all the time. Even better, I would prefer to have my sister, mother or wife with me to make the decision of buying the shirt. I would consult them. I would want them to use their Mental Model and share their simulation findings with me. I am testing and validating my model. Does this make my model right? No. But it helps improve my understanding of my model. It helps me to make an informed decision. I use my mental model and other’s models to arrive at a conclusion. At times it works, at times it does not. My father may not like the shirt, or he may like it or we may not like it as much as we thought we would. But does that mean that we don’t use our mental model and simulation for making a decision? No. We all use models all the time, Knowingly or unknowingly.

The real question to be asked is whether we are aware of the fact that we do so. Do we have easy access to the assumptions which go in creation of our mental models? Do we communicate them well to others while making a decision or a policy? What tools can help us elicit our assumptions and create a schema of our mental model so that we can share it with others and so do they?

I believe the answer to the above questions is the use of system dynamics. It is a tool which can help us improve our understanding of our mental models and open it up for others to review and improve. This in turn improves our understanding of the system we are dealing with for effective decision making and policy planning.

Does this mean that we shall find solution to all the problems? No. Does this mean that our model shall be right? No.

But it would allow us to test our assumptions and improve our decision making process. Simulations also give us the power to understand the unintended consequences of our actions. At the end it can improve our confidence levels on the model which we shall use to make decisions.

Further reading on Models and System Dynamics:

http://web.mit.edu/jsterman/www/All_Models_Are_Wrong_(SDR).pdf

http://www.systemdynamics.org/

http://mitsloan.mit.edu/group/system-dynamics/

http://xmile.systemdynamics.org/