Understanding the environment: Flows and feedback
Understanding the environment: Flows and feedback

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Understanding the environment: Flows and feedback

1.2 Readings

In your studies of the learning courses so far, you have investigated a range of factors that may lead up to the ‘perfect storm’: a combination of interlinked environmental, social and economic crises. You have also explored your personal ecology, extending this to incorporate quality of life and environmental impact aspects. You have done this using a range of verbal, visual and mathematical models.

You have also become familiar with the fact that our mental models evolve through the process of learning. But this can only be made apparent to others through externalising those mental models through communicative actions. At its most basic, this may just involve having a conversation, drawing a diagram or writing a piece of text. Learning is at its most powerful when we engage with others through communication to reveal and then contrast our mental models.

The next steps will involve exploring and communicating the dynamic nature of feedback relationships within systems. This will involve developing increasingly relational models of the world, i.e. moving away from viewing reality as made up of static and distinct objects, to an awareness of the constant flows within which we are immersed. This is a distinct departure from the classical reductionist approach which compartmentalises reality into separate disciplines, each of which focuses on narrow bands of organisational, temporal and/or spatial scale.

Reading 4.1 introduces you to the first shift away from reductionist thinking and directs your attention towards the relationship between components, rather than a focus on the components themselves. Readings 4.2 and 4.3 establish the two fundamental mechanisms through which systems engage in flows of energy, matter and information: positive feedback and negative feedback. These occur when processes which control the flow and transformation of information, material and energy within systems ‘feed back’ to either speed up the flows/transformations (positive feedback) or dampen these down (negative feedback). Reading 4.4 describes how living systems use these feedback processes to maintain an apparent stability, while Reading 4.5 explains the special role of information in controlling system behaviour. The final essays, Readings 4.6 and 4.7, introduce two techniques for describing feedback relationships and flows/transformations within systems in a visual way.


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