Knowledge Session: Systems Thinking for Beginners

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We started the Demoday with a workshop Systems Thinking for Beginners, led by Nico Schouten from Metabolic. In this workshop, he explained why it is important to take a holistic approach to sustainability challenges. If we don’t see “solutions” in the context of the whole system, it might have bad unintended consequences. Airconditioning, for example, leads to a more comfortable temperature inside, but because of the high energy consumption, it also contributes to global warming.

What is a system?

To properly think in systems, you first need a clear definition of what a system is: A system is a collection of components that work together as a whole to achieve a common goal. For something to be a system it needs to have the following four attributes:

  1. A system needs to have a goal.
  2. All components of the system are functional.
  3. The order in which the components of the system are ordered matters.
  4. A system tries to stabilize via a feedback mechanism.

Using this definition you can conclude that a football team would be a system since it has the goal of winning, all players are functional, if you switch up the players it would matter for the effectiveness of the team, and as long as none of the players (components) fail they will continue to try to reach their goal of winning. On the other hand, a kitchen is not a system, since it has no goal (without a person in it), and the order of the components in a kitchen doesn’t matter that much.

How to map a system?

To map a system, we use four elements:

  • Nodes (O): These are the components of your system.

  • Polarity elements (+/-): These are arrows between the nodes that show how they influence each other. The positive polarity element shows that if one node increases, the other also increases, and if it decreases, the other also decreases. The negative polarity element shows that if one node increases, the other one decreases, and vice versa.
    For example, the nodes birth rate and population size have a positive polarity between them, because if the birth rate increases, the population size also increases. For the mortality rate node and population size node, you would use a negative polarity element, because population size decreases if the mortality rate increases.

  • Delay elements ( || ): These elements can be added to the arrow with the polarity if the effect is delayed. For instance, the node ‘number of fertilized eggs’ has a positive polarity with ‘birth rate’, but it has a delayed effect (of about 9 months) and therefore we add the delay element to the arrow.

  • Loops (R/B): If you map out your system completely you will find that there are probably one or multiple loops in your system. These loops can either be reinforcing (R) or Balancing (B).

    • An example of a Reinforcing (R) loop is how a disease spreads: More sick people, lead to more people being infected, leading to more people being infected, leading to more people being sick, etc. You have the nodes “people being sick” and “people being infected” which both have a positive polarity with each other. This leads to exponential growth if no interventions are made. Of course, the system is more complicated than that in real life.
    • An example of a Balancing (B) loop is how populations stay the same size: The larger the population, the higher the mortality rate (positive polarity). But the higher the mortality rate, the smaller the population (negative polarity). These positive and negative polarities keep each other in balance.

To fully understand how to map a system we looked at an example of a neighbourhood in Rotterdam. In this neighbourhood, a lot of maintenance was suddenly needed for public space. They are working on maintaining the neighbourhood, but problems keep propping up. Therefore, they mapped out the problem of this neighbourhood to get a better understanding of how to find a structural solution.

To properly make a system map, you need to look at three things:

  1. Context of the system: What are the social, economic and cultural components?
  2. Time: The time and duration of components need to be taken into account.
  3. Location: Where does this system take place?

After drawing out all the nodes of the system and connecting how they influence each other, you get a map (see attachment 1). Two feedback-reinforcing feedback loops can be discovered in this map (see attachment 2).

By unveiling these feedback loops it becomes easier to find the components for which an intervention would be most effective.

In the last 10 minutes of this workshop, we worked on making a system map ourselves by looking at the problem of airconditioners in warm places. Defining all the relevant nodes, and connecting them properly proved quite challenging, but also very enlightening.

Would you like to read more about Metabolic's approach, or work with them on driving systemic change? Visit their website via:

Kennissessie afbeelding 1.png (104.59 kB) Kennissessie afbeelding 2.png (49.62 kB)