Tom Atlee: Crucial Adventures in Systems Thinking

Culture, Design
Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee

Crucial Adventures in Systems Thinking

Systems are everywhere. They shape us and we can, do, and should shape them. Our destiny is tied up with them but they are pretty invisible. In this essay I explore some useful systems dynamics and perspectives and share two essays by others exploring the same vast territory in search of insights we can use to make the world better.

Dear friends,

We live amidst all kinds of systems. We ourselves are living systems. We are also active participants in political systems, economic systems, information systems, ecosystems. These social and natural systems shape our lives, shape our beliefs about what is real and possible, and shape our destinies. Remarkably, they are almost invisible to us. We can see their parts and their impacts quite vividly all around us and even inside us. But we can’t see THEM.

We can only get a handle on them with systems thinking.

Now, I like to think of myself as a systems thinker. But there are ways in which I am and ways in which I’m not. Systems thinking comes in many forms. I’m fairly good at some of them and fairly clueless and incompetent at others.

But one thing I know, which is not necessarily common among many systems thinkers, is exactly what I just said above: Systems thinking comes in many forms. I have a broad definition of systems thinking:

Systems thinking is any style of thinking
that delves into the interconnectedness
and wholeness of reality.

That covers a lot of ground.

I think this idea of systems thinking – in any and all of its forms – is one of the most important factors in our collective fate. Our main source of folly – our lack of wisdom – is our tendency to take too narrow a view of an issue or problem. Our solutions then run into the factors that we overlooked because we weren’t thinking in terms of interconnectedness and wholeness. This failure to notice important factors undermines our solutions, making them less effective or even causing them to create problems elsewhere. We end up on a down escalator that feels like a hamster’s wheel to hell.

That’s why I define “public wisdom” as taking into account what needs to be taken into account for long-term broad benefit. What we don’t take into account will come back to haunt us, big time. Reality bats last. Over and over.

So we really need to include information and people who can help us stretch into “the big picture” and its important interconnections.

Here are just a few examples of systems thinkers we’d be wise to include in our deliberations:

  • systems scientists – ecologists, cyberneticists, chaos and complexity scientists, evolutionary researchers, and various multi-disciplinary scholars;
  • holistic and evolutionary philosophers, historians and ethicists – perhaps especially those who come from marginalized groups;
  • sociologists, cultural anthropologists, neuroscientists, and other specialists in the dynamics and relativity of what we think we know, individually and collectively;
  • indigenous spokespeople and shamans who know how to enlighten modernist minds.

To give a sense of the eclectic nature of my view of systems thinking, here are some of the interconnected system-related understandings and resources that I believe we can and should be attending to and using more consciously:

  • feedback dynamics: incentives and disincentives, reinforcers and magnifiers, resistance dynamics, resilience…
  • self-organizing dynamics: the intrinsic nature of things and motivations of people, actual and potential connections, diversity, shared purpose…
  • positivity: the attractive powers of possibility, appreciation, fun…
  • collectivity: networks, relationships, community and tribal dynamics, mutuality, empathy, interdependence…
  • co-evolutionary dynamics: learning systems, developmental patterns, interactive processes…
  • paradigms: narratives, stories, scenarios, worldviews, assumptions and beliefs that shape a whole activity…
  • power dynamics: freedom, privilege, oppression, vulnerability, limitations, leverage, different forms of power…
  • life energy: the spirit, essence, aliveness, needs, passions, aspirations of the whole system and of its parts…
  • contexts: physical, temporal, social, psychological contexts – including history, expectations, culture, circumstances…
  • discernment without judgment: the gifts and limitations of each person, thing, or dynamic, and where it fits in the bigger picture…
  • holonics: nested systems – the reality that everything is both a whole and a part of larger wholes, and what that means…
  • perspective: scale, deep time (long-term), multiple viewpoints, multiple intelligences…
  • emergence: novelty, breakthrough, co-creativity, surprise…
  • ultimate oneness: the non-local, non-dual, intuitive, resonant, synchronous, transcendent unity of life, its manifestations and dynamics…
  • inquiry: humility, curiosity, and exploration in the face of complexity, novelty, contradiction, paradox, and uncertainty….

While the above are my own reflections on what the systemic approach involves, I also believe it is important to ground ourselves in some of the more advanced mainstream disciplines and thought leaders of systems thinking. The excerpts below represent two perspectives that I particularly respect among systems thinkers seeking to make the world a better place.

Coheartedly,
Tom

Read multiple extracts on the above themes.