Systems thinking: a scientist’s opinion
Interview with Dr Leyla Acaroglu, founder of Disrupt Design and the UNEP Champion of the Earth.
What is Systems Thinking and how does it help us understand issues like COVID-19 and climate change?
Systems Thinking is the ability to see the parts as well as the whole. When looking at phenomena like COVID-19 and climate change, we start to see the clear cause and effect relationships between human activities and nature around us. For example, when expanding our cities and agricultural lands, we are replacing our natural environment, increasing the risks of human exposure to the animals carrying diseases such as coronavirus.
Our systems, whether it’s the human body or natural ecosystems, require balance in order to function fluidly. When the system is imbalanced, it starts to malfunction because of negative externalities. COVID-19 is the true example of how our actions are exposing us to more environmentally motivated dangers to our health and well-being. The same thing can be said about climate change, which is a bigger crisis that we face. Climate change which is also caused by human and industrial activities will be exacerbated just like COVID-19 without making significant changes to the way we operate as a global society.
How can one uncover systems structure?
Systems Thinking helps us see the relationships that exist naturally within a system and dive into the murky waters of what is holding up the problem. The key is to have the right approach and tools for inquisition, without imposing bias, presumption or preconception about how the system operates.
We are often not knowledgeable enough about systems that we don’t spend a lot of time within. In order to uncover systems structure, one needs to explore with curiosity, and suspend the need to solve the problem quickly. Being able to collaborate and cross-reference the information from different fields of studies and disciplines helps one find ways of synthesising and emerging new ideas.
Tools like observation, exploration, research, participation and collaboration help us succeed in understanding the systems structure and tackling complex problems. One also needs to accept that systems are often chaotic and dynamic, and don’t always behave in the way humans are used to, as the COVID-19 has demonstrated. What we have seen in COVID-19 may also relate to some of the outcomes we might see in climate change and other environmental issues.
From the systems thinker’s point of view, what is the most urgent issue we need to tackle?
From the earth systems scientist’s point of view, you would look at the whole planet as one dynamic ecosystem. What we would need to change from that perspective is the way we perceive nature and our role within it. Because we are all part of nature and rely on the health of the planet for our survival and prosperity, we would not have stupid arguments about the causes of climate change and destroying systems would then become obsolete.
But if you come down to a more pragmatic level, I think one of the most urgent issues is the waste crisis. When I say waste, I don’t mean just physical waste like plastic ending up in waterways, but rather the cycle of waste. We created a system that is entirely built on waste which reinforces our need to extract more natural resources and produce pollution as well as carbon emissions. Our current growth-based economy is essentially designed to keep producing waste, and this cycle of devaluing materials, all of which come from nature and at some point must return, is one of the biggest and most critical problems we need to solve today.
What changes do we need to tackle the issue?
At the big picture level, we need a systems worldview and mindset, making the transition from an egocentric to ecocentric way of thinking to see ourselves as part of nature, not above nature. It’s about respecting the great responsibility that our role has on the planet.
At the pragmatic level, we need to fundamentally re-design the disposability from every element of the system. One aspect of that is the circular economy. It’s not only about changing the way we do business but also implementing multiple other forms of interventions to revalue materials. If we start valuing nature, we would also value goods and services that move through our economy differently. The change in perception would further encourage us to add more appropriate fiscal as well as social tools to change the way we exploit the natural systems around us, for instance by putting prices on pollution. These kinds of initiatives to set a price on carbon would really work because the mechanisms would motivate actors in the system to change behaviour. So designing out disposability is really about designing out the externalities that the current economy has, and tackling GDP in the way that is structured is one of the major leverage points to get that change to happen.
What role do journalists and science communicators play in making a systems change?
Knowledge area experts such as science communicators play an important role because they are able to synthesise complex ideas and make them relevant to the general public. Journalists also play a critical role as the curators of information that becomes part of the social conscience. I think that journalists who are able to create narratives and illustrative stories that show the reality of systems around us and the complexity of the past, present and the future, are going to help change the way people perceive pressing issues like climate change.
However, using fear as the motivator is possibly not the most effective tool. Journalists and communicators who are able to tell the facts and reality of the situations based on science, rather than playing it down into the politics would help bring people to positive possibilities. Those who are able to do that will help design systems and solutions to overcome the challenges and build a better future.