Systems Thinking: our guard against unintended consequences

We live in a world of complex, inter-dependent systems, and any thinking that fails to include that runs the risk of summoning the law of unintended consequences.

The talk that has haunted me since NEXT18, an unbelievable five months ago, was by Indy Johar. He ruthlessly stripped away our comforting illusions that there might be simple solutions to the big problems of our age. Not so. We live in a world of complex, inter-dependent systems, and any thinking that fails to include that runs the risk of summoning the law of unintended consequences.

Even ideas that seem simple at the first glance, yield complexity when you dig deeper. Is digital music or physical music more damaging to the environment? The CD carries with it material and manufacturing costs, and all the emissions associated with distribution. But digital music comes at a high energy cost for every single play.

We long to reduce the world to simple good/bad answers when the world rarely allows that for us. The value of everything is derived from the systems around it. As Johar pointed out, your house is essentially valueless. Take that house, plonk it down somewhere inhospitable, and its value evaporates. It derives its value from its relationship with the things around it.

Any problem, any solution, any product falls into the same dynamic. Your solution derives value from two systems: the systems that created the problem you're addressing, and the systems impacted by your solution.

A problem is a point between two complex systems

Any problem that you face can be defined simply — but there’s a danger in doing so. The set of circumstances that led to the problem are complex. Unless you take some account of those, you risk your solution being incomplete, transitory — or actively damaging. Equally, the impact of your solution is likely to spread beyond the immediate impact of your solution on the problem. What other things connected to your problem could be impacted by the solution?

Take, for example, the self-driving car, which we’ve been talking about for years here.

One one side, you have a huge range of technologies leading to that idea: from the various sensor-based systems that are needed to make it work, to the processing power and real-time operating system needed to manage life-and-death situations on the road. You have the technology behind electric cars and the consequences of that. As we’re leaning at the moment, many parts of that system - especially those that are digitised – are exposed to external threats or internal mistakes that could compromise the solution.

Equally, the consequences spread far beyond swapping a human driver for the computerised one. How does the car decide to handle an accident — and make decisions about who lives and dies? That’s the most commonly asked one - but we also need to be asking what happens when drivers no longer have to concentrate. How do we design cars for that? What happens when cars can drive without people in them? Do we need proximate parking, if the car can take itself away and return when summoned? Could it be doing deliveries or collections unaided. What does that mean for urban design? Planning ratios? How do we manage our road networks, and service areas, if all vehicles are electric? Our entire infrastructure is built around the internal combustion engine.

A problem. A technology solution. A world of consequences.

Systems thinking is our guard against unintended consequences

I would make the case that the last year’s worth of posts here on the NEXT blog have actually been about a failure to apply systems thinking. We’ve digitised and connected everything with very little thought to the systemic impacts of, say, connecting everyone socially via a single service that’s prone to influence in a number of ways. A little more systems thinking from Facebook might have saved us from the drama now being played out on a global scale.

Indeed, the simple act of interconnecting everything via the internet might demand more systems thinking from us. The digital worlds we live in, however walled off they may feel, are in fact deeply connected, and the impact of decisions made in one may well cause ripples that spread throughout the system to greater and greater impact.

There’s an old English saying that “no man is an island”.  And however fiercely individualistic and independent we might be, we still share a natural, social and digital ecosystem with others. A change anywhere has the potential to impact everywhere, and in unexpected ways. It’s impossible to model, test and predict every impact. But we could most certainly model, test and think about them.

“Move fast and break things” sounds great when you’re a small team building something new. But it’s also a statement of profound immaturity and ignorance; an unwillingness to accept your own role in something greater than yourself. And, perhaps, systems thinking is the best way for us to protect ourselves from the narrowness of our own view of the world: it forces us to look at worlds beyond our personal ones.

And that’s a boon for everyone.


Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash