Systems Thinking: A Primer

Session 02

ES/SO352 Sustainability - Session 02

S2: Systems Thinking: A Primer

Required readings:

  • Capra, F., Luisi, P.L. (2014). The ecological dimension of life. In The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Ch. 16, p. 341-362). Login to see PDF File


  • identify the properties of a (sustainable) system
  • learn what systems analysis is, as well as ecoliteracy and resilience.
  • learn what "Feedback Loops" are (reinforcing or balancing, with positive and negative causal links)

1. How to approach systems analysis?

  1. Regular or reductionist analysis:
    Synthesis: split the system in parts and focus on isolated elements or sections
    • could rely on Symptomatic solutions (from what and how)
    • example: give food to a poor person
  2. System analysis:
    Synthesis: combination of components or elements to form a connected whole
    • could drive to fundamental solutions (from Why).
    • example: give a chance for a job to a poor person

2. Why do we need to do systems analysis?

As wonderful as the human mind is, the complexity of the world dwarfs our understanding

  • Our mental models are limited, internally inconsistent, and unreliable.
  • Our ability to understand the unfolding impacts of our decisions is poor.
  • We take actions that make sense from our short-term and parochial perspectives, but due to our imperfect appreciation of complexity, these decisions often return to hurt us in the long run.
  • To understand the sources of policy resistance, we must therefore understand both the complexity of systems and the mental models that we use to make decisions.

Sterman 2001. System Dynamics Modeling: Tools for Learning in a Complex World. California Management Review 43(4):8-25

3. Why do we need to do systems analysis? (ii)

Any intervention in one part lead consequences (unexpected) to other parts of the system. “Everything is connected”

  • A counterintuitive result:
    Low tar and nicotine cigarettes actually increase intake of carcinogens and carbon monoxide as smokers compensate for the low nicotine content by smoking more cigarettes per day, by taking longer, more frequent drags, and by holding the smoke in their lungs longer.
  • “Managing” a complex system:
    The U.S. policy of fire suppression has increased the number and severity of forest fires. Rather than frequent, small fires, fire suppression leads to the accumulation of dead wood and other fuels leading to larger, hotter, and more dangerous fires, often consuming the oldest and largest trees, which previously survived smaller fires unharmed.

Sterman (2001). Systems dynamics modelling.

4. Systems

  • System: A perceived whole whose elements “hang together” because they continually affect each other over time
    • Biological organisms, the atmosphere, organizations, families, ecological niches...
  • Parts of a system are generally systems themselves and are composed of other parts

Properties of (sustainable) systems

List them in the board in class:

5. Shifting our view

System self-regulation. The links can be:

  1. POSITIVE casual links:
    the two nodes move in the same direction
    • the node in which the link starts increases, the another node too.
    • the node in which the link starts decreases, the another node too.
  2. NEGATIVE casual links:
    the two nodes change in opposite directions
    • the node in which the link starts increases, the another node decreases.
    • the node in which the link starts decreases, the another node increases.

System self-regulation

Feedback Loops: (A) Balancing

(B) Reinforcing loops


Trick to identify loop types in system-analysis diagrams

Reinforcing Loop
  • No "negative causal links" ("opposite effect") OR and EVEN number of negative causal links (2, 4, 6...)
Balancing Loop
  • An ODD number of "negative causal links" ("opposite effect"): 1, 3, 5, ...

VIDEO: Sustainability depends on a balance of two key properties: Efficiency and Resilience...

"Why this crisis? And what to do about it?" Bernard Lietaer (3-12:30'/19') @ TEDx Berlin 2009

Key ideas:

List them in the board in class:

Practice - Traffic Congestion Analysis (i)

Exercise in class: Session_02_systems_analysis_of_traffic_congestion.pdf

Practice Traffic Congestion Analysis 01 Chart
Practice Traffic Congestion Analysis 02 Initial Diagram

  1. Feedback loops (balancing, reinforcing)
  2. Symptomatic solution vs fundamental solution
After a delay, more roads lead to more traffic which in turn feeds the traffic congestion (reinforcing loop 2)

Traffic Congestion Analysis (ii)

Added two more variables (nodes): Traffic & Public Transport

Practice Traffic Congestion Analysis 03 Public Transport Added

How do they fit in the story?

  • public transport has an opposite effect (O) on car dependency

    which, in turn, also has an opposite effect on public transport...

    ...creating another reinforcing loop (3).
  • At present, unfortunately, this is a positive reinforcing loop towards greater car dependency.

Traffic Congestion Analysis (iii)

Practice Traffic Congestion Analysis 04 Antiroad Legislation Promotion Public Transport

  • strengthen the fundamental solution

    and weaken the symptomatic solution
  • introduce transport policy legislation
    • restricting the use of cars and
    • promoting the use of public transport

Other videos

Page last modified on Monday 12 of September, 2016 19:12:40