Philippe's Reviews > Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows
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it was ok
bookshelves: systems-thinking, management, ecology

As a collection of guidelines for understanding and intervening in problematic situations this book is quite useful. But I have never liked it because of two reasons, one internal to the book and one related to its effects in the outside world.

As a primer, it’s perfectly fine that a book skids over some of the finer points of the theory. But my feeling is that this informality hides a quite damaging conceptual incoherence. Epistemologically the book oscillates between a naive realism (there is complexity out there and we can model it more or less faithfully) and a muddled constructivism (we can’t really know what is out there but models are a useful construct to structure our interaction with the world with the aim to progressively learn about how to deal with the friction and problems in that world). Then the book is anchored in the normative perspective of an engineer who is interested in the dynamics of depletion of natural resources. It is inevitable that this professional perspective engenders a very distinctive (but always disputable) way of evaluating systems behavior. It is equally inevitable that it reflects a rather obvious position on the political spectrum. Finally the lack of conceptual clarity extends to some of the pivotal notions in the book. It remains, for instance, unclear how desirable systems behavior, resilience and self-organization are conceptually linked. Also, readers may be surprised by the progressively narrowing focus to how social systems may suffer from actors’ bounded rationality.

My other misgivings have to do with the way this book is at the root of some of the ‘systems traps’ that it wants to help defeat. Many people will read the book in the conviction that this is more or less what there is to say about systems thinking. In fact its scope is quite narrow. There is much more to be said about ‘systems thinking and doing’ than the MIT-centered school of system dynamics leads us to believe. By omitting references to other, ‘competing’ (or complementary) approaches the book puts the bar for aspiring learners rather low, leading to a premature sense of gratification of readers’ curiosity for systemic insights (the ‘eroding goals’ trap). Furthermore and related to the previous point, if readers’ attention is the stock that authors and publishers are competing for, then the net effect of this book’s ever-increasing popularity is that it crowds out other, contrasting accounts of systems thinking (the ’success to the successful’ trap). In other words, the success of the MIT brand of system dynamics is obscuring other valuable contributions in the systems domain to such an extent that it is becoming a liability rather than an asset (considered against the background of potential gains in intellectual capital that could be realized by other systems approaches).

So I'm giving two stars to underline my reservations. But I won't dispute that 'Thinking in Systems" contains quite a few useful ideas and from that point of view I could have granted it 3,5 stars too.
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message 1: by Bertrand (new)

Bertrand What accessible introduction to system thinking would you recommend to an ignoramus like me?


Philippe It depends what kind of questions you are interested in. Despite the rigour suggested by the moniker 'systems thinking', the field is anything but 'systematic'. But perhaps start with Edgar Morin's On Complexity (see also my review).


message 3: by Marc (new)

Marc Philippe wrote: "It depends what kind of questions you are interested in. Despite the rigour suggested by the moniker 'systems thinking', the field is anything but 'systematic'. But perhaps start with Edgar Morin's..."
Bertrand, after New Year I'm going to start a reading/studying-session on Systems Thinking, also starting with Morin (there's also the French orginal of this work Introduction à la pensée complexe.
But Philippe is too modest: he has written an excellent introduction himself. You can find the paper on his website or this link http://www.shiftn.com/media/shiftN_WP...


message 4: by Bertrand (new)

Bertrand Thank you both, I've just read Philippe's paper and I now have an idea of the diversity involved - the scalable and interdisciplinary aspect is tantalizing, but also a little intimidating. It seems to tackle (and predate) some of the problems covered in 'posthumanism', but without much of the continental fluff - which sounds great to me!
I will procure Morin's Introduction, and Marc, if you like, I'd be keen to read your insights (and maybe pester you with my own).


message 5: by Marc (new)

Marc Bertrand wrote: "Thank you both, I've just read Philippe's paper and I now have an idea of the diversity involved - the scalable and interdisciplinary aspect is tantalizing, but also a little intimidating. It seems..."
"Tantalizing", "intimidating": perfect phrasing! Can't wait to be pestered by you (and Philippe of course, who initiated this process).


Philippe Nice to see both of you are stoked to learn more about this field of knowledge. I'm constantly learning too so look forward to our exchange of ideas. I have a few reviews of really interesting books in the wings. Stay tuned!


Surjyatapa Ray I am approaching this book with your review in mind. I am entirely new to this field, and this book seems to be helping in wrapping my mind around basic concepts. But like you said, i would imagine it oversimplifies the complexity of real world problems. But still, as a true reader, i have to maintain an open mind. That said, i would love to know if you have any suggestions for further readings. To be more specific, i am looking at systems thinking to approach the systems of affordable housing. Do recommend what I should approach next!


Philippe Hello Surjyatapa, I'm patiently building a Systems Library online. You can access it via this link: https://medium.com/@pvshiftn/edgar-sc...
For my own practice, Peter Checkland's Soft Systems Methodology has been important: Learning for Action: A Short Definitive Account of Soft Systems Methodology, and Its Use for Practitioners, Teachers and Students.


Surjyatapa Ray This is great, thank you so much!


message 10: by Philippe (last edited Apr 13, 2020 12:41AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Philippe Surjyatapa, in fact there is a book that I might recommend. Janis Birkeland's Positive Development: From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles Through Built Environment Design offers a systemic approach to built environment design. I've written a somewhat longer paper on it, if you are interested.


Surjyatapa Ray Thanks for this recommendation. Could you share the link to your paper as well? I would love to read that as well


Surjyatapa Ray Philippe wrote: "@Surjyatapa: https://shiftn.com/publications/janis..."

Thank you!


Philippe You're welcome. Hope you find it useful and interesting.


message 15: by Gabriel (new)

Gabriel Gheorghiu Hey Philipe, I'd be interested to know if you are familiar with Fritjof Capra's work and what you think of it.


message 16: by Matt (new) - rated it 3 stars

Matt Grimes Glad to see the first review I found encapsulated my own experience of the book pretty perfectly. Phillipe if you have found any works that provide the appropriate coherence and nuance this one failed to, i’d love a recommendation!


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