Did you ever read a book and when you finished ask yourself why you hadn't read it sooner? Did you ever finish a book and wish you had written it? Those are some of my reactions to this wonderful book. Anyone who has followed my diaries here will understand why I say those things. This is my kind of book! Meadows died in 2001 and was born five years after I was in 1941. She is author and co-author of many other books and anyone into systems, sustainability, the limits of growth and related topics probably knows about most or all o0f them. This one is to be "A Primer". She tells us in a preliminary note:
This book has been distilled out of the wisdom of thirty years of systems modeling abd teaching carried out by dozens of creative people, most of them originally based or influenced by the MIT Systems Dynamics group.Having been involved in research, computer modeling of systems, and teaching about them for at least that long it is fun to see another slant on things that compliments and lends credence to my own. Not that I will ever claim to have contributed even a fraction of what the people she refers to have. Read on below and I'll give you a snapshot of this rich and helpful book. If you are wondering why you should read on I'll promise you that your political insight to today's problems will take a giant step forward if you are willing to spend the time.
The book is very readable. She develops a language for talking about systems that anyone should easily understand. The book is replete with examples you will be familiar with and that overlap topics we see here every day.Her use of the systems zoo completes the first part after an introduction to the basic ideas of system structure and behavior. If you are wondering she talks about what a system is this way:
So what is a system? A systemis a set of things-people, cells, molecules or whatever- interconnected in such a way that they produce a pattern of behavior over time. The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system's response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world.She will later speak mainly of the "complex systems" that make up the real world. She will end with a good picture of how the "systemhood" property really distinguishes real world stuff from our simplified, mechanistic models of them. It is this difference, one she stresses, that I have also drummed on. The map is not the territory and our models are at best momentary handles on the real world's complexity. Managing these differences is what system's thinking is all about. More on this later.
Here as we dabble in political systems and their behavior there is much to be learned from the systems way of thinking. She says:
The system, to a large extent causes its own behavior!That's the key to the difference between real world systems and our machine- like models of them. Machines are things that require causes from outside to make them work. They often have set ways of responding to the turning of a switch or the injection of money into an economic model. Complex systems are full of surprises because they have internal causes that cancan be a very large part of how they respond to external things. Here's her first example in a list that illustrates this point:
Political leaders do not cause recessions or economic booms. Ups and downs are inherent in thye structure of the market economy.Later she emphasizes the frequency with which we fail to realize this and try to fix a structural problem by changing leadership or management.
Part Two deals with "Systems and Us" and has three sections:
Why systems work so wellPart Three, "Creating Change-In Systems and Our Philosophy" has these sections:
Why systems surprise us
System Traps...and Opportunities
Leverage points - Places to Intervene in SystemsI'll jump to the end and give you a list of topics that she leaves us with. Plenty to chew on here if you are willing to try this effective way of thinking about the complex real world:
Living in a World of Systems
Get the Beat of the System: In other words try to watch and understand its behavior before you mess with it.
Expose Your Mental Models to the Light of Day: Draw pictures, make models, write equations, draw diagrams to try to expose what may be hidden in your thinking.
Honor, Respect, and Distribute Information: Information is power. So is misinformation. Know how to deal with both.
Use Language with Care and Enrich It With Systems Concepts:This is where framing and other ideas play a big role. What we talk about and allow others to force the discussion to be about is what we get in the end. This is fundamental in politics!
Pay attention to what is Important, Not Just What Is Quantifiable: This is where we stumble so often. Boring audiences with facts and figures nand never getting the values we believe in established.
Make Feedback Policies for Feedback Systems. Lots of ideas about timing, time delays in responses, etc. It ain't over 'til it's over!
Go for the Good of the Whole: Aim to enhance total system's properites, such as growth,stability, diversity,resilience and sustainability - whether they are easily measured or not.
Listen to the Wisdom of the System: Aid and encourage the forces that help the system run and correct itself. Living systems repair themselves and heal. non living systems often have some form of the same kind of capacity.
Locate Responsibility in the System: This is a rich one! Look for hidden costs, passing the buck, etc and make responsibility and authority tied to each other.
Stay Humble - Stay a Learner: The first thing systems thinking teaches is how very ignorant we really are!
Celebrate Complexity: For hundreds of years we have been in denial. Rather than accept the complexity of the real world we try to replace it with very misleading machine like models. The drunk looking under the lamp post for the keys he dropped in the dark because it is lighter there.
Expand Horizons: Those who refuse to look at history will be forced to repeat many of the mistakes.
Defy the Disciplines: Knowledge does not come in boxes. A red blood cell is part of the respiratory and circulatory and immune systems among other things. What has medicine done with this overlap?
Expand the Boundary of Caring. Get rid of the "that's not my department" attitude and see that everything is connected.
Last but not least: Don't Erode the Goal of Goodness: Morality has a very important place in systems thinking. Real morality that is. Giving in to bad ideas is not "compromise" it is being hurtful and irresponsible.
Well even a snapshot has to be this long to give you a flavor for the treats in this book. In future Diaries I'll weave these ideas into my ongoing series on the systems view of politics. Stay tuned.