As a promoter of systems thinking, I’ve discovered a big missing piece.
Systems thinkers present their body of work as essential to building strong relationships, creating resilient systems, coordinating efforts across diverse stakeholders, and generally making the world a better place. But when it comes down to it, I haven’t seen examples of systems thinkers working together at the scale that I believe is warranted, and crucial. I haven’t seen a higher rate of co-promotion among systems thinking schools and luminaries than among other interest groups.
This is a cry for help from a little, local systems thinker (me) to the world of big, luminary systems thinkers. I would expect to see a high level of coordination among a global community of systems thinkers, which would help me in my work, but this is not happening, yet. (An alternative title to this blog entry might be, “Can we create an ecosystem of systems thinkers?”)
What Is Missing?
What is missing is a widespread, thoughtful organization of systems thinkers and proponents that successfully builds and develops relationships among people working from diverse models and frameworks, all for the purpose of bring systems thinking to a much wider audience. I believe it would include at least two elements:
1) Cross-promotion. For example, imagine if students who exit the Capra Course are offered an opportunity to enter a Theory U course; Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects alumni may send someone along to the Omidyar Network; you might leave a Peter Senge training with a list of local permaculturists and restorative justice groups (i.e., organizations that are inherently systems-type approaches to making the world a better place).
2) Co-promotion of systems thinking with the purpose of making the world a better place. As you can see in the image below, Google trends registered a spike in searches for the word “systemic” in June of 2020. I believe that this is related to the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, and the subsequent popular use of the term “systemic racism.” An organization such as the one I am proposing would be ideally situated to seize these moments in history and help make a positive difference by providing for the public in-depth, robust definitions of relevant terms and concepts. (Related: see this illuminating article in The Atlantic about complexity and COVID-19, “It Wasn’t Just Trump Who Got It Wrong.”)
There are currently some efforts to build and sustain networks and co-promotion of systems thinking. There are Facebook groups, a big LinkedIn group, consultant (or NGO-based) networks of practitioners, and many, many attempts at alumni and practitioner forums among those who have completed a given course or entire training. The International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS) has numerous resources, if you’re already a deep insider and happy and comfortable in an academic context. The Systems Thinker catalogs dozens and dozens of useful articles.
But this is the gap:
There is no systems thinking equivalent of a chamber of commerce or trade group that brings us all together into a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum consortium of intelligent co-creation. (Ironic, I believe.) Systems thinking schools of thought on the whole act more like isolated islands rather than an archipelago.
Aren’t systems thinkers supposed to have the inside scoop on the power of working together? Is it possible for us to build strong, solid relationships among ourselves, and get along well over time? Can we go from “ego to eco-system awareness” (to quote Theory U), at least among ourselves? If the California Avocado Society (CAS) has existed since 1915, surely in 2020 systems thinkers can get together.
Granted, the avocado people have a mission, “assuring long term profitability for the business of avocado growing” (Ref). A global system of systems thinkers would need to have a higher purpose than profit (though financial sustainability is certainly a necessary leg of the proverbial stool).
What do we as individuals and organizations really, actually need to succeed? For example, current off-the-shelf technology is largely not very systems thinking-friendly. What might be possible if we built something that is systems-friendly, together?
Lots of Attempts At Networks, Not Much Success
This need to know “who is doing what” and “coordinate efforts” is a theme across many disciplines, sectors, and interest areas. A separate blog entry will deal in-depth with the ongoing challenge of harnessing technology to (borrowing from Theory U again) “help the system to sense and see itself.” Suffice it to say that it does not appear to me that systems thinking communities have had any more luck than any other interest group in successfully building a database to track who is doing what. Nor have they successfully coordinated efforts.
Systems Thinking Marin
In the fall of 2017, I created an organization that would promote systems thinking in my community. Fortunately for me, a local philanthropist friend agreed to fund this experiment at a basic startup level, and Systems Thinking Marin was born. (My current fiscal sponsor is Inquiring Systems Inc., in Sonoma County.)
Over the past three years my attempts to promote systems thinking have merged with promoting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of 2030. Prior to COVID, this promotion work largely entailed driving around to lots (and lots) of meetings, developing relationships, and talking (and talking) about the really great, indispensable toolbox that is systems thinking.
But most people have never heard of systems thinking, and most people in the United States (including here in Marin County) have never heard of the UN Global Goals. My hope has been to get a small handful of passionate people hooked into both of these, and support them in further spreading the word and practices.
However, systems thinking often takes years to pick up. It took me years to pick up. I first heard about it in approximately 2006, and it wasn’t until starting on my dissertation in 2015 that I took the time to really get into it. Therefore, given that most people have never heard of systems thinking until I show up, mostly what I am doing is planting seeds and hoping they grow.
That is where this much larger, co-supportive and promotional platform should come in. I imagine that an organization such as a global consortium of systems thinkers would be the people who water the seeds and foster growth over time. Their work would pop up in a person’s Facebook news feed, in a newsletter of an organization they support, at a conference, referenced in a report, etc.
Perhaps most of all, it would be very helpful to my local promotion work to point toward a guiding light organization and say, “Systems thinkers don’t just espouse how important it is to work together, they are really good at working together to make the world a better place. Just look at this global cooperative organization…”
A Dramatic Need for Systems Thinking NOW
I am publishing this blog entry in December of 2020, more than three years after initiating Systems Thinking Marin. A global COVID pandemic shut down a good portion of the economy. If millions of workers were enjoying being at home and spending time outdoors, here in California that enjoyment was spoiled by wildfires burning up 4 million acres (so far this year). If you live in the United States, a nightmarish circus at the federal level of government has distracted most people from critically important local issues, though a centrist democrat was just elected to replace the Trump administration.
As a systems thinker, I don’t need to tell you that now is the time when millions of people are dying for an alternative worldview. Not only do we need systems thinking, but we need to learn to think. In the U.S. at least, most people aren’t explicitly taught how to think. Most people absorb the default worldview without much thought, and don’t even realize they have a worldview. Critical thinking as much as systems thinking is not well known, though people like to talk about thinking critically and talk about getting out of silos.
So I am asking systems thinkers, can we get out of our silos? Can we arrange our islands into a chain of islands rather than our largely isolated websites and missions and programs? Do we have the imagination to see the possibilities of becoming a robust, living system community? Can we be a community?
This is the part where the blogger says, “If so, act now! Contact me.” But the first question I have for you is, do you know of any efforts to actually really do just this? Efforts with funding? Efforts with vision? With systems thinking luminaries already behind the project? I’ll provide a link below to a list I’ve been building, but maybe you have a better one? And yes, please contact me.
Note: Many thanks to Gerald Midgley, Centre for Systems Studies, University of Hull for his thoughtful comments during my investigation into this topic.