The systems thinking secret in “think global, act local”

The challenges facing us in business and in life feel overwhelming. How can we change anything? The answer lies in remembering that we are, ourselves, part of systems — and we can influence them.

Sometimes, the problems we face seem overwhelming. What can I do about climate change? Can I usefully add to the online debate in an era where nearly 25% of tweets about the climate crisis are from bots — almost all tweeting denialism messages? What can I do about the pollution of our information ecosystem by bad actors? The answer lies in systems thinking.

On the surface, it seems unlikely that any individual, unless they are the CEO of a multinational or a political leader on the global stage, can really have much impact. We can very easily feel powerless.

But don’t despair, because none of us are an island. (I won’t make the obvious Brexit joke.) We all exist as parts of systems, and we all have the ability to influence the systems we are part of — if we can conceptualise the problems in the right way. And that’s why we all need to get a whole lot better at systems thinking.

From the earliest days of our education, we’re taught to break a problem down to its component parts to solve it. Against many of the challenges we face today, that’s the wrong approach. We need to look at the system as a whole — and understand how it relies on other systems.

Synthesis versus analysis

The problem is the tension between analysis and synthesis. Analysis is the process of diving in deep and examining processes in a great amount of detail, attempting to optimise them. Synthesis is the process of stepping back and understanding how different systems interact in often unpredictable ways.

The industrial age often valued analysis over synthesis. Optimise, improve, enhance and streamline were its watchwords. How do we make out processes more efficient? We have been incredibly, well, efficient at that. We have connected the world with new systems of industry and communication — and are attempting to deal with the consequences of that. And analysis is a great tool for understanding a tree, but a bit rubbish when it comes to forests.

The necessity of systems thinking

And this is where synthesis, where systems thinking, must come into play. There are systems at work within the internet that are intersecting with our politics, our social structures, our information architectures. Understanding how they work, and the influences between them, is critical before we intervene, or we risk making things worse, not better.

So, too, with the planet. By using analysis thinking, we found problems and solved them. But without synthesis, we didn’t think through the implications of what we’d done. The classic example, outlined nearly 60 years ago in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was the the use of pesticides. They boosted agricultural productivity, allowing us to feed a growing population – but devastated the natural ecosystem, as the pesticides worked their way up the food chain. The impacts were often tragic but unpredictable – they led to the thinning of osprey egg shells, for example, meaning that the brooding mother would crush the eggs which were no longer able to support her weight.

Even after the problem was solved, it took decades before the birds returned to anything like their earlier numbers in the US.

To remedy, apply beavers

These complex dances of systems are often not obvious. For example, Britain is once again suffering from flooding issues. What’s the solution? Greater dredging? No. Better flood defences? Perhaps, in part?

How about reintroducing the beaver to the UK? Turns out that works:

The beavers’ positive impact includes one family constructing six dams upstream of the flood-prone village of East Budleigh. The dams have slowed the flow of floodwater through the village, reducing “peak flows” during flood events.

This success isn’t without cost — farmland further upstream is now exposed to more flooding. But the benefit is net positive. And we can adapt around the problems caused more easily than we can cope with the existing flooding situation.

A natural solution to a man-made problem? It’s an encouraging spark of hope in some worrying times.

For all our discussion of pollution in digital ecosystems, the environmental issues leading to the climate crisis is clearly the biggest one ahead of us as a species. However, understanding the scale of the problem is the challenge. Now, clearly, the whole planet is a system. But elements within that planet are systems in themselves, even if they depend, in turn, on other systems.

And we can influence them.

Systems influence

Again, we come back to the idea of understanding what you can influence and thus have an impact on systems. There is relatively little point in spending a lot of time worrying about parts of the system that you can’t directly influence. If you can apply systems thinking to start mapping the largest systems it’s within your own power to influence, then you have the beginnings of a workable solution.

Even if those changes seem small, in the face of a crisis, be that of your business, your society or your planet, the very nature of interconnectedness means that you will probably have more impact by making a positive contribution to a system you can influence directly, than by investing your time in trying to influence something on a much bigger scale that you don’t have the ability to do so.

In other words, ranting at politicians on Facebook or Twitter, however important it can feel to give them a piece of your mind in that way, is much less likely to change the world the reshaping your business to support the circular economy.

Sure, once in a while, it is given to individuals to have an impact on a global scale. One could argue that someone like Greta Thunberg is doing so, by giving a voice to a frustrated and scared generation – even if other voices are not being given the same amplification. Equally, Susan Fowler was able to trigger a reevaluation of behaviour in the tech world – even if the personal price was terrible. But they are often catalysts, rather than actors, in of themselves. They catalyse others to makes changes that impact their own systems, which spread through other systems that rely on them. We start creating self-regulating systems, not reinforcing ones.

Think global, act local seems like a very trite phrase. But it contains a basic truth that it would behove us all to remember.


Photo by Ben Amaral on Unsplash