The Power of Systems Thinking: Beyond the Reductionist Mindset

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It is unfortunate that it often takes a crisis for us to become acutely aware of how interconnected the world really is. We see how everything is immersed in a web of interlinked systems ranging from the economy, natural environment, health systems to our own personal wellbeing. Each input is a unique part of the puzzle, and is connected to the system at large through a series of information flows and interdependent feedback loops.  

Systems are everywhere. We see them in the complexities in our own bodies to the harmony that exists in natural ecosystems. Every unique organism has its role to play in the sustainability and continuation of our vast and diverse natural habitats. The success of a well-functioning system is dependent on how well its parts are organized to achieve a common goal.     

In nature we never see anything isolated , but everything in connection with something else, which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.

Johan Wolfgang von Goethe
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Despite this, as a culture we have a tendency to be fixated on reductionist and mechanistic systems of thought. Take for instance how we structure our education systems. Knowledge is sliced into specific disciplines which an individual gain expertise in through their specialization.

However, the world is often messy, dynamic and in constant flux. Information can not fit into neat discrete boxes like we would like to imagine. Rather than focusing on the linkages and dependencies between the disciplines, educational institutions create specialists who don’t have the incentives to look beyond their narrow subject matter expertise.

The boundaries that we implement are of course important to organize society. They help us ensure that our institutions can work effectively and efficiently. Nonetheless, nothing exists in a vacuum and the borders we impose on reality aren’t as clear cut as they may seem on the surface. 

As systems thinker Donella H. Meadows mentions in her book Thinking in Systems: A Primer

There is no determinable boundary between the sea and the land, between sociology and anthropology, between an automobile’s exhaust and your nose. There are only boundaries of word, thought, perception and social agreement – artificial, mental-model boundaries.  

While these artificial containers provide us with stability and flexibility, a fixation on these mental constructs can blind us, making us naïve to the broader context and interdependencies of the situation. As the world continues to increase in complexity, our social systems and institutions need to be both adaptable and flexible to rapid change.

Thinking in systems forces us to examine things more methodically, and encourages us to avoid polarized ‘us against them ‘or ‘winner take all’ types of reasoning. We can see that problems don’t exist in isolation, and that quick fixes only lead to system instability or collapse in the future.  Moreover, this incentivizes us to think more deeply about issues to address root causes instead of symptoms.

Systems thinking compels us to ask the questions, why is it that the same type of economic, social or political crises happen again and again throughout history? What underlying behaviors and thinking is responsible for this type of ignorance?

 Our wellbeing is intrinsically linked not only to others but to the sustainability of the natural environment. Under this logic, we can see that relationships are the fundamental aspect of all life on earth. Everything which exists in this world is deeply integrated into a set of systems.

As social beings, we humans derive our identity through our interactions with families, friends, social groups, society at large and the natural environment. If we really appreciate and understand this concept, the narcissism and rampant individualism that drives our culture starts to fade. Egotism begins to seem illogical and contradictory as the ‘self’ is influenced and shaped by the quality of our connections with others.

Addressing the ideology of ‘short-termism’, greed and instant gratification which pervade our society and institutions is no easy feat. It all begins however with a shift in our thinking, an evolution of our values to understand how our lifestyles and choices are shaping the welfare others, as well as our future ancestors.

In a way we are the bridge between the past and the future. Our success is not entirely ours to boast. Each generation ‘stands on the shoulders of giants.’ As David Mitchell beautifully writes in his book Cloud Atlas,

Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

To paraphrase Alan Watts, we are all just one wave in the midst of a boundless ocean.

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