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”