Critical Systems Thinking And Practice

At that time, I was exploring many of the adjacent fields to my actual area of study — sustainable design.

This could otherwise be called procrastination, but I like to call it productive distraction.

Years earlier, I had started to work in the extrapolated version of life cycle assessment, life cycle thinking, so adding the systems element to the understanding of how things impact each other in the linear supply chain was really empowering.

Suddenly, the everyday impacts of how material flows were intersecting with the cultural layers of social interactions, the power plays, and the systems dynamics all become more accessible as the transition to focusing on relationships and non-obvious elements in a system become more prominent for me.

It might just be me, but it really did take some time for my brain to get what she was saying! Well I can’t get in a tub without thinking about stocks and flows!

So started my love affair with this practice and my desire to figure out how to bring it into the design world.

In order to overcome the global issues we are challenged with, we need to change the linear, reductionist, status quo abiding thinking that reinforces breaking the world down into manageable chunks that can be controlled, where issues are attempted to be dealt with in isolation.I found this beautiful introduction by Kauffman, and it was like a Disney movie in my mind where all the pieces of a puzzle magically came together in a Gestalt-esque moment of interconnectedness.I had been existentially grappling with how to rationalize the randomness of so many of the problems/issues that I was wanting to be apart of changing, and then it all just slotted into a place as I started to see that everything as part of interconnected, interdependent systems, and that we are all affected by, and in turn, influencing them. Hungry for more, I went on a knowledge scavenger hunt finding Russell Ackoff’s videos on You Tube (I consider him the best speaker on systems thinking.It also made me acutely aware of the diversity of explanations and approaches to systems thinking.Some are super obtuse and hard to penetrate, leaning more towards the engineering side of things, whereas other theorists are more lenient on their readers, prioritizing clarity rather than complexity (even though complexity is a critical part of systems thinking! Take Meadows, for example — a fantastic systems thinker, but the entire first chapter of her book focuses on bathtubs as an analogy for systems dynamics.I now had the big challenge of distilling all these years of research, into engaging, shareable, and practical tools that would support others in picking up the systems mindset.I started to develop all sorts of systems mapping activities for workshops and refined the ones we now share — cluster mapping and the adapted interconnected circles maps.I developed a class for the university I was teaching at called ‘Systems Thinking for Designers’, and my students and I looked at how systems thinking could positively impact the design process.Then, through my Ph D, I began exploring nodal transfers as a theory of change and overlaying this new holistic worldview with my training as a sociologist.What we need is to shift from a linear and reductionist dominant mindset to dynamic circular systems thinking.Right now, there is no shortage of big complex messy social, political, and environmental problems that need to be addressed, from climate change to the rise in racism, homelessness, child exploitation, global politics and climate change.

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