I was back in the classroom, this week, interacting with bright students at Indian School of Development Management, Noida. These students challenged me to my core. Their sharp questions would often test my own depths – related to my knowledge of systems thinking, my understanding of how real world systems operate, my experience of working with communities and policy makers. It is these students who help me go deeper and explore my previously unexplored depths of knowledge and some glimpses of wisdom which is hidden deep within (this is true for all of us). It is a matter of time before some one helps us unearth it.
After many examples on how systems thinking is used, by making causal loops, and also by going through the systems thinking process, I finally decided to put up two slides which say what Systems Thinking is and what it is Not. These are my own, so I encouraged the students to add/modify them depending on their understanding and reading of the literature.
I am pasting these below:
What Systems Thinking is
–Method of Thinking
–Method to perform systemic diagnoses
–Engagement tool useful for communication
–Learning tool useful for testing assumptions
–Identifying impact pathways and
–Reasons that give rise to non linearity of system’s behavior
–Potential tool to generate insights and foresights
What Systems Thinking is NOT
–to predict future reality
–to control reality
–to identify who is to be blamed
–to be used in isolation
–to solve all problems at once
–to prove superiority
–to win arguments for the sake of just winning
Before the closing of our 16 hours of engagement, I requested students to keep these points in mind when they go out to interact with the real world complexities and the multiple stakeholders who would present their perspectives which would give them some information about why things are happening the way it is happening, but it would never be enough for them to understand reality in totallity.
In the next post I would elaborate on these points more to explain why I put them there. Stay Tuned!
There is a famous saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”. This week I saw it in action. What I also saw was the relatively inefficient and purposefully expensive way of bringing up children in urban ecosystems back home. I then took help of systems thinking to synthesize my observations and feelings. Some of them I am writing down here below…
In the hills of Devprayag there is a small village called Kim Khola. Until last month it would take a 45 min trek to climb a mountain to reach this village. But I was lucky. There is a road under construction which goes right upto the village. The taxi guy was generous enough to drive the car into the kachcha road. He took us as far as he thought was safe, not for us but for the car. We got down on the top of the mountain. We then went downhill to reach the village and went to the house where I was to spend two nights and two days.
It was in a nice setting. East facing porch, toilets, a traditional kitchen (with a wood stove) and one new kitchen with LPG. Two nice big rooms and a breathtaking terrace. The owner of the house also maintained a garden with newly planted Rosemary. He was a nice progressive chap. The house cooked amazing food. I ate with great satisfaction. Pleasant weather made my stay even more comfortable. It was a relief to be away from Delhi heat.
I was there for a purpose. My job was to uncover the reasons for disappearance of water springs of Kim Khola and how it has affected life of villagers, what they are thinking to do now and what kind of future do they envisage. I should say I was able to uncover some key things that I would not have if I was in Delhi reading on internet about Kim Khola and its springs. What I understood would be out in the publications as part of the project and I would share those when ready.
Apart from all the intelligent stuff, for which I get paid, I also observed social and cultural dynamics which were not part of my questionnaire or so called research scope. The home I was staying in was of a family having two teenagers, one boy and one girl. I would see the girl in house more often than I would see the boy. She would assist her mother in household chores with great skills and purpose. My mind first went towards categorizing this in the gender imbalance research theme, which we researchers jut love to spot every now and then. Its kind of that we are programmed. With some difficulty I tried to unlearn the gender stuff and started observing the structure more closely.
First, I think what I saw was a gender system evolved over time. It was not that the village was trying to copy an alien culture. Second, I think the boy use to be out of house through out the day but I did not feel any sense of discomfort in the family. They were at great peace with his behavior, partially because they were focused on doing what they do and more importantly they knew that the whole village is one big family. In cities we call them care takers. They are now increasingly being found inside day care set ups. One has to pay hefty money to be partially sure that their kid is in safe hands. Forget about things like learning by doing, interacting with nature, socializing etc. just finding a safe place to park your kids is enough. And this does not guarantee that the parents and family would feel no sense of anxiety.
How does systems thinking help understand what I observe? At a meta level, I am essentially comparing two systems here, village and city. The former acts more like a coupled system of Nature and Humans. Both interact and shape each other. Eg. The forests change in response to humans (massive deforestation for wood) and humans change in response to forests (loss of livelihood forcing out-migration). In between these interactions evolves the culture of the human network of friends and family. Cities act like a coupled system of Economy and Humans. Both interact and shape each other. Eg. The jobs change in response to humans (higher spending creates more jobs) and humans change in response to jobs (high paying jobs lead to increased spending). In between these interactions evolves the culture of the human network of friends and family.
If you observe, both the examples I give are reinforcing in nature. If forests go up the livelihood opportunities go up and so people help the forest grow. While if forests go down the livelihood opportunities go down and people start consuming the forest for sustenance. Similarly more spending creates more jobs leading to even more spending while fewer jobs create poor business growth further weakening the job market. The place based culture evolves through a combination of multiple such reinforcing and balancing processes. It is the combination of such processes that leads to the behavior of the system. Raising children in cities is becoming more expensive, high paying jobs are few, simultaneously social fragmentation is increasing leading to more spending on buying social services. Depleting forests and loss of traditional springs is leading to spatial fragmentation of the households causing increase in labor. The gender dimensions in the village or cities are not isolated events of this system. They also get affected and evolve over time with its changing environment.
Using such multi loop reflection I told myself that what I see, observe or collect information is just tip of the iceberg. Drawing conclusions based on that would be silly. Even though I may be able to jot down a hell lot of facts (like the time spent by boys and girls on household chores etc.). But reaching conclusions based on data/information that we are able to measure or see at a point in time is not uncommon. We are always tempted to run campaigns based on facts and data, often leaving out the deep structures, the reinforcing and balancing processes, whose interactions lead to events that we see.
“It takes a village to raise a child”. Of course it would, where else would a child be able to learn through the dance of interactions between human, economic and natural systems in a safe environment.
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”