Systems Thinking: An Essential Skill for Living in the 21st Century

I am attending the annual conference of the International Society of Systems Sciences (or ISSS) along with a number of Saybrook faculty members, students, alumni, and colleagues from around the world. What each person here has in common is an understanding of the complexity that makes up the world we live in today and the urgency to transform the organizational systems that were designed to meet the need of the industrial age. There is widespread recognition that many of our systems, whether they be government, education, economic, healthcare or business are failing and not serving us well. We are on a path where the breakdowns are very clear, but our ability to redesign these systems seems out of reach.

ISSS is a professional society devoted to interdisciplinary inquiry into the nature of complex systems. While extremely interesting and, for the most part, highly intellectual, the challenge of this work rests in how to make it scalable, enabling the majority of people to become systems thinkers and increasing the level of understanding of the world in which we live. Science and engineering are avenues to develop systems thinking abilities; however, we need to find ways to embed systems thinking in all subjects. Embedding systems thinking into all learning shifts the focus from the parts to the relationships and creates greater relevancy.

Systems thinking enables us to grasp the nature of being human and creates an opportunity for us as humans to co-evolve with the world. We come to understand that we live within a layered context—an incredible diversity of life forms that inform and shape us and the world around us. As humans, we are not in control and must be adaptive to the changing environment in which we live. As conscious beings with language ability, we have great power to shape the world we live in and great responsibility for the actions we take. Becoming aware of the damage we have done to the planet, our actions need to be in service of all life, not just human life.

The ISSS conference launched with an inspiring talk by Humberto Maturana and Ximena Davila. They shared their perspective on the nature of being human and how we can make better choices as to the future we want to live as well as our responsibility as stewards of the natural environment. Important to their perspective of being is the need to inquire and reflect on what we do and why, as they noted the nature of being arises through the doing. Language and our ability to share stories and make sense of them gives us the ability to create new narratives, new actions, and new ways of being together in the world.

As we work together to create transformative change, Maturana noted that a critical part of our conversation and decision-making must clarify what we want to conserve. Considering what we want to conserve can bring us to agreement on what is most important and needed to sustain us. Honoring the disagreement that exists among many perspectives is important in this conversation. The conversation about what we want to conserve will increase our awareness of the waste that is present within our lives and systems. Reducing waste is act of conservation and becoming more conscious of what we want to conserve should naturally reduce waste.

We live in a time of increasing complexity. Those who study the systems sciences would agree that systems thinking is a way to understand the nature of the complexity and take action individually and collectively to address the complex systemic problems that surround us. Forming and joining learning communities that engage systems thinking is an important first step. As we establish professional , academic, organizational learning communities, we must be certain that the barriers to entry to those communities are open to draw in diversity of thought and experience and to bring forth playful, creative, and innovative action. Learning communities need to be held in care, nurtured as living systems, and fed with information and other resources so that energy can flow freely. With these conditions they can be containers for ethical, socially-conscious work that can address the complex problems and great opportunities that face us in the 21st century.

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