IDSE202 – Systems Thinking, Then and Now

Traditional systems thinking developed as an effect of World War II sense making, and was rationalized soon after by early computer programmers.  Systems thinking has come far, from the stuffy halls of academia and military planning into many contemporary spheres, including design.  Current systems thinking has evolved these tenets to apply to current trends in software, service, and sustainability design, as well as artificial intelligence.  In the next few paragraphs, I offer up my understanding how early systems thinking applies in current thinking.

The two traditional systems thinking reads, both from Thinking In Systems, offer up broad definitions of systems that are still useful today.  Systems are interconnected sets of elements and interconnections that have function or purpose.  The author cites the difficulty in identify the interconnections, which tend to be information flows, as well as identifying system purpose.

In today’s world, the interconnectedness of information flow is less obstructed from view than in times previous.  We are all connected virtually through the internet, and with better tracking of digital information, we can often see cause and effect much quicker than in times’ past.  The idea of feedback loops in systems is true and holds; the difference between then and now is their instantaneous nature.

We can now have discussions in real time across the world.  In Design in the Age of Biology, Dubberly cites this trend as a reason for the changing nature of design.  While not stated directly, I believe Dubberly is speaking to the democratization of design that this dialogue has created.  Users are no longer meant to be “designed for”; the real time connection and ubiquitous flow of information will have regular people demand more from the products and services that are created.  People, particularly empathetic designers, are also painfully aware of their effect on  culture and the environment.  Dubberly speaks to the idea of sustainable design’s inspiration in biological systems; I think it is more a side effect of this empathy.

Thinking in Systems also speaks to difficulty humans have in judging systems.  We tend to think in elements instead of connections, as they are more visceral or tangible.  The problem with understanding these connections (or flows), is their temporal nature and effects on a larger system.  This on the whole has not changed – ie  human tendencies towards understanding cause and effect has not changed.  This has led to the proliferation of problems in our society.  As the article states “if you have a sense of the rate of change of stocks, you don’t expect things to happen faster than they can happen.  You don’t give up too soon.”  Poverty, disease, lack of education – I believe these all have developed fundamentally due to a lack of awareness of these flows.  Sure, racism and ignorance have played their part; but many efforts to help resolve or remedy these issues have failed because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the systems, elements, stocks, and flows related to them.

As someone brought up in the digital age, as well as having traveled much in my early twenties, I feel the connections I have to the world in perhaps a clearer sense than from someone in previous generations would have.  The systems thinking articles to me seemed quite relatable to my existing knowledge, both tacit and learned from the last quarter.  Practically, I know that what I end up designing must fit sustainably and fairly into any system, whether it is in Austin or much larger.  I also know that the old way of creating – hand-craft – is not something that I can beat out other companies or skilled designers with.  Nor is that something I need.  Where I can, I hope to accelerate as an interaction “designer-facilitator” and as a systems thinker.