Systems thinking

Reflective Activity 9

Make notes below on what you think are the main features of systems thinking.

This is not a test question. There are no right or wrong answers. I am simply inviting you to explore what you already understand about systems thinking.

If you have already studied systems thinking, you may find this task quite demanding because you will have to abstract these general ideas from what may be quite detailed understandings. If your only experience of systems thinking is through any background reading you may have done, you may want to base your answers directly on your recent reading. That is fine, but try to ensure that, in doing this activity, you are building your understanding and not just abstracting a list from someone else's ideas.

If systems thinking is totally new to you, try and capture what has already been said about systems and systems thinking in the course so far.

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You should not treat this as the ‘right’ answer. My notes arise from my experiences, yours arise from your own. I would like to think you and I were both engaged in an activity that gives rise to new experiences and thus builds our own understandings from our own experiences.

The important features of systems thinking, as I see them, are these:

  1. Systems thinking attends to the connections between things, events and ideas. It gives them equal status with the things, events and ideas themselves. So, systems thinking is fundamentally about relationship and process, a framework for understanding inter-relationships. It is often the relationships between things, events and ideas that give them their meaning. This attention to relationships between things, events and ideas means I can observe patterns of connection that give rise to larger wholes. This gives rise to emergence. Thinking systemically about these connections includes being open to recognising that the patterns of connection are more often web-like than linear chains of connection.

  2. Systems thinking respects complexity, it does not pretend it is not there. This means, among other things, I accept that sometimes my understanding is incomplete. It means when I experience a situation or an issue as complex, I do not always know what is included in the issue and what is not. It means I have to accept my view is partial and provisional and other people will have a different view. It means I resist the temptation to try and simplify the issue by breaking it down. It also means I have to accept there is more than one way of understanding the complexity. Systems thinking allows me to let go of this notion of one way of understanding and allows me to use a multiplicity of interpretations and models to form views and ideas about the complexity, how to comprehend it, and how to act purposefully within it. Essentially, it is about using practical frameworks for engaging with multiple perspectives.

  3. Systems thinking makes complexity manageable by taking a broader perspective. When I was studying science as an undergraduate, we were taught to break down situations into their component parts. This approach is so deeply entrenched in western culture it seems natural and obvious to anyone brought up or educated in this culture that this is the way to tackle complex situations. Systems thinking characteristically moves one's focus in the opposite direction, working towards understanding the big picture – the context – as a way of making complexity understandable.

    Most people recognise they have been in situations where they ‘can't see the wood for the trees’. Systems thinking is precisely about changing the focus of attention to the wood, so that you can see the trees in their context. Understanding the woodland gives new and powerful insights about the trees and indeed all the other elements in the wood that interact with the trees (topography, soil, water, sunlight, flora and fauna, to name just a few). Such insights are completely inaccessible if one concentrates on the individual trees.

    In other words, systems thinking provides a framework for reflecting on boundary judgements, of what to include and what not to include in my system of interest.

Other people will and do set out a different set of features as there are many varieties of systems thinking but these are the features that have been used within AgriLink’s Living Labs.

Systems and complexity in agriculture