Understanding connectedness and thinking in systems

Home / Our Wisdom / Understanding connectedness and thinking in systems

This post is part of a series of newsletters was originally written for Katerva, an NGO dedicated to the identification, evaluation and acceleration of disruptive sustainable innovation; it was first published 9th December 2019.

We are serious about moving the sustainability needle. Our last newsletter presented 6 mindset shifts that are essential to bring about change. This first on is in our view the most important: connectedness and systems thinking.


What is the shift required?
We must address global problems by thinking in systems, moving beyond an outdated linear approach to problems. Newtonian Physics, and the resulting way of interacting with our environment, is no longer sufficient. This line of thought assumes linear causalities, the existence of one right answer, and the assumption that we can manipulate parts of a system without affecting the whole; unfortunately, this mindset not only hinders us from addressing today’s challenges, it is dangerous.

Instead we need to embrace the world of quantum physics, which acknowledges connectedness, unpredictable interactions, non-linear relationships, and multiple possible outcomes. It is the insights and concepts from chaos and complexity theory that will help us address the challenges we face. A lack of appreciation of the degree of connectedness allowed the financial crisis of 2008, which started in the US, to spread so far and quickly around the globe (this video explains how it all started). To quote from a OECD document, “the financial crisis, which originated in the United States. Surprisingly, it affected most world financial markets almost simultaneously, then turned into an economic crisis in many countries. ”

This 10 minute excerpt from the acclaimed movie, Mindwalk, based on Fritjof Capra’s book The Turning Point, beautifully captures and explains the two world views, and their consequences

Excerpt from Mindwalk, a movie based on Fritjof Capra’s book the Turning Point
Thinking in systems is nothing new, in the context of business, systems thinking as a concept was introduced by Professor Jay W. Forrester at the Sloan School of Management at MIT in 1956 when he created the System Dynamics Group. System Dynamics is an approach to understanding the nonlinear behaviour of complex systems over time using stocks, flows, internal feedback loops, table functions and time delays. There have been renowned members of the group, including Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline.  Dating back even further, philosopher Aristotle declared that, “The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts”. He recognised the importance of connectedness and interrelations. An introduction to systems thinking can be found here. The increase in wide-spread attention now, is in part due to the realisation that we need to find approaches that match the complexity of today’s context. As Ross Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety, also known as the First Law of Cybernetics, denotes, the level of complexity in the task (complex context) needs to be matched by a corresponding level of complexity in our response (systems thinking).

Why isn’t it happening?
This bias for linear thinking what does linear thinking mean exactly in this context? is deeply anchored in the current world view – certainly in the western world – so deeply that most of us are not even aware of it. Content and construction of Western education have a major part to play: while we are not explicitly told to think in a linear way, it is just the way things are done.

When using linear approaches to solve complex problems, we are setting ourselves up for failure – or creating a false sense of security.  This can be seen by both the examples of recycling – as documented in this FT article – and carbon trading, where we push a problem out of sight rather than address it.

Another significant aspect is that linear contexts can be measured easily, but such predictability and measurability generally evade non-linear contexts.

Whilst we are accustomed to working on progressing projects or implementing plans in an orderly, sequential fashion – one step at the time – complex systems requires us to work on all aspects simultaneously. This requires different approaches and mindsets – and a lot of collaboration. Not only any kind of collaboration, but generally collaboration with people who are different from us, which comes with its own set of challenges. As Einstein said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

This also brings us to another challenge: leadership. Whilst a top-down leadership approach works well in linear, hierarchical systems, it becomes dysfunctional in complex ones. Operating successfully in a complex system requires didstributed leadership, which in turn means that players must have a clear understanding of the vision in order to make effective decisions.

The challenge is that those holding leadership positions currently need to let go of control, and empower others. They might even benefit from becoming “servant leaders”, as identified by Robert Greenleaf in the 1970s. Greenleaf lists the 10 most important characteristics of servant leadership, which work well in complex contexts:

  • Listening.
  • Empathy.
  • Healing.
  • Awareness.
  • Persuasion.
  • Conceptualisation.
  • Foresight.
  • Stewardship.
  • Commitment to the growth of people.
  • Building community.

A conversation between Daniel Goleman and Bill George explores the benefits of systems thinking for leaders, here.
Is it the same for everyone?

The degree to which people from different national cultures focus on their immediate families, or feel responsibility for the larger communities brings us to the framework alluded to in the last newsletter: Hofstede’s six cultural dimensions (a brief introduction to each can be found here).
One of the dimensions is individualism versus collectivism. As Hofstede defines it,” The high side of Individualism, can be defined as a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families. Its opposite, Collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular ingroup to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of ‘I’ or ‘we’.” Where countries are on that spectrum is shown on the map below.

You can compare different countries here, and below a video clip in which you can listen to Hofstede himself explaining this dimension.

Geert Hofstede introduces the Collectivism / Indivisualim  Dimension

What can be done about it?

Creating better awareness and understanding for the need for and benefits of systems thinking is key. To get started by looking at a very useful presentation that introduces relevant concepts.

As mentioned before, rather than doing one thing differently, we beed to address a whole host of things. This shift from looking at discrete entities to considering entire systems has various guises, including:

  • In the world of products and production: a shift from cradle to grave to cradle to cradle; you can find out more on the website of the Cradle to Cradle Institute. This video introduces the concept in detail.
  • Closely related to the cradle-to-cradle concept, and going a step further, is the notion of the Circular Economy which adds new business models, reverse cycles and creating conditions that nurture, amongst other things, collaboration, to cradle-to-cradle product design
  • Taking a systems perspective also implies that we should focus on ‘reduce’ over ‘reuse’, and ‘reuse’ over recycle’ – not least because it seems that recycling has lured us into a false sense of security mentioned earlier.
  • When addressing a problem we really need to understand the wider context in which it is set if we truly want to solve the problem rather than cover the most visible cracks. we will not solve the world hunger problem by giving people food, we need to understand why they are not able to produce food for themselves and address these underlying issues. In this video Duncan Green of Oxfam explains how they use systems thinking to avoid such shortcomings. and an example of how Oxfam are using this approach here. To really get to the root of a problem the 5Why methodology can be very useful.
  • An approach to education that moves from multiple choices and the search for the one right answer to a more holistic, qualitative approach – where we run into the challenge of measuring again.

If you are interested in understanding the systems view of life better, the thought leader in this field, Fritjof Capra, offers an online course based on his latest book of exactly that title, The Systems View of Life (2014). The essence of his book is captured in his 2014 lecture at the Schumacher College, Dartington, UK (next registration opens 6th January 2020).

Who is already doing it?
Here a few examples from Katerva’s nominee pool and beyond:

  • Winnow – using AI to record and analyse food waste, thereby eliminating up to 50% of food waste, and reducing food costs by 3-8%.
  • Waste 4 think  – Smart technologies to move from the current urban waste management systems to a circular economy model, changing behaviours and reducing the generation of waste.
  • Excess Materials Exchange – Digitally facilitated marketplace for exchange of excess materials and products, transforming the waste product for one into a raw material for another.
  • Snow Leopard Trust – Working with local communities to find ways to both ensure survival of snow leopards and improving locals livelihoods.
  • Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) – using a local waste product, banana leafs, SHE produces sanitary products that not only allow girls and women to be part of public life every day of the month, they also create micro business and improve the economic situation of local women.
  • Ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) – a nature-based solution that harnesses biodiversity and ecosystem services to reduce vulnerability and build resilience to climate change.
We'd love to hear from you

Do you have any questions or thoughts in the context of innovation then please get in touch!

Start typing and press Enter to search