Sudnya's Reviews > Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows
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it was amazing
bookshelves: self-improvement, non-fiction

** spoiler alert ** Excellent book. Too many useful nuggets to not save. Saving my notes here for future reference

Dominance is an important concept in systems thinking. When one loop dominates another, it has a stronger impact on behavior. Because systems often have several competing feedback loops operating simultaneously, those loops that dominate the system will determine the behavior.

Complex behaviors of systems often arise as the relative strengths of feedback loops shift, causing first one loop and then another to dominate behavior.

One of the central insights of systems theory, as central as the observation that systems largely cause their own behavior, is that systems with similar feedback structures produce similar dynamic behaviors, even if the outward appearance of these systems is completely dissimilar.

System structure is the source of system behavior. System behavior reveals itself as a series of events over time.

behavior-based models are more useful than event-based ones, but they still have fundamental problems. First, they typically overemphasize system flows and underemphasize stocks.

behavior-based econometric models are pretty good at predicting the near-term performance of the economy, quite bad at predicting the longer-term performance, and terrible at telling one how to improve the performance of the economy.

The world is full of nonlinearities.

Nonlinearities are important not only because they confound our expectations about the relationship between action and response. They are even more important because they change the relative strengths of feedback loops.

There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion—the questions we want to ask.

boundaries are of our own making, and that they can and should be reconsidered for each new discussion, problem, or purpose.

Any physical entity with multiple inputs and outputs—a population, a production process, an economy—is surrounded by layers of limits. As the system develops, it interacts with and affects its own lim...

There always will be limits to growth. They can be self-imposed. If they aren’t, they will be system-imposed.

Changing the length of a delay may utterly change behavior. Delays are often sensitive leverage points for policy, if they can be made shorter or longer.

Overshoots, oscillations, and collapses are always caused by delays.

When there are long delays in feedback loops, some sort of foresight is essential. To act only when a problem becomes obvious is to miss an important opportunity to solve the problem.

Bounded rationality means that people make quite reasonable decisions based on the information they have. But they don’t have perfect information, especially about more distant parts of the system.

serenity to exercise our bounded rationality freely in the systems that are structured appropriately, the courage to restructure the systems that aren’t, and the wisdom to know the difference! The bounded rationality

The bounded rationality of each actor in a system may not lead to decisions that further the welfare of the system as a whole.

The most effective way of dealing with policy resistance is to find a way of aligning the various goals of the subsystems, usually by providing an overarching goal that allows all actors to break out of their bounded rationality.

Harmonization of goals in a system is not always possible, but it’s an worth looking for. It can be found only by letting go of more narrow goals and considering the long term welfare of the entire system.

a resource that is commonly shared (the pasture). For the system to be subject to tragedy, the resource must be not only limited, but erodable when overused.

Educate and exhort.

Privatize the commons.

Regulate the commons.

THE TRAP: ESCALATION When the state of one stock is determined by trying to surpass the state of another stock—and vice versa—then there is a reinforcing feedback loop carrying the system into an arms race, a wealth race, a smear campaign, escalating loudness, escalating violence. The escalation is exponential and can lead to extremes surprisingly quickly. If nothing is done, the spiral will be stopped by someone’s collapse—because exponential growth cannot go on forever. THE WAY OUT The best way out of this trap is to avoid getting in it. If caught in an escalating system, one can refuse to compete (unilaterally disarm), thereby interrupting the reinforcing loop. Or one can negotiate a new system with balancing loops to control the escalation.

THE TRAP: SUCCESS TO THE SUCCESSFUL If the winners of a competition are systematically rewarded with the means to win again, a reinforcing feedback loop is created by which, if it is allowed to proceed uninhibited, the winners eventually take all, while the losers are eliminated. THE WAY OUT Diversification, which allows those who are losing the competition to get out of that game and start another one; strict limitation on the fraction of the pie any one winner may win (antitrust laws); policies that level the playing field, removing some of the advantage of the strongest players or increasing the advantage of the weakest; policies that devise rewards for success that do not bias the next round of competition.

THE TRAP: SHIFTING THE BURDEN TO THE INTERVENOR Shifting the burden, dependence, and addiction arise when a solution to a systemic problem reduces (or disguises) the symptoms, but does nothing to solve the
underlying problem. Whether it is a substance that dulls one’s perception or a policy that hides the underlying trouble, the drug of choice interferes with the actions that could solve the real problem. If the intervention designed to correct the problem causes the self-maintaining capacity of the original system to atrophy or erode, then a destructive reinforcing feedback loop is set in motion. The system deteriorates; more and more of the solution is then required. The system will become more and more dependent on the intervention and less and less able to maintain its own desired state. THE WAY OUT Again, the best way out of this trap is to avoid getting in. Beware of symptom-relieving or signal-denying policies or practices that don’t really address the problem. Take the focus off short-term relief and put it on long term restructuring. If you are the intervenor, work in such a way as to restore or enhance the system’s own ability to solve its problems, then remove yourself. If you are the one with an unsupportable dependency, build your system’s own capabilities back up before removing the intervention. Do it right away. The longer you wait, the harder the withdrawal process will rule beating produces the appearance of rules being followed.

THE TRAP: RULE BEATING Rules to govern a system can lead to rule beating—perverse behavior that gives the appearance of obeying the rules or achieving the goals, but that actually distorts the system. THE WAY OUT Design, or redesign, rules to release creativity not in the direction of beating the rules, but in the direction of achieving the purpose of the rules.

define the goal of a society as GNP, that society will do its best to produce GNP. It will not produce welfare, equity, justice, or efficiency unless you define a goal and regularly measure and report the state of welfare, equity, justice, or efficiency. The world would be a different place if instead of competing to have the highest per capita GNP, nations competed to have the highest per capita stocks of wealth with the lowest throughput, or the lowest infant mortality, or the greatest political freedom, or the cleanest environment, or the smallest gap between the rich and the poor.

THE TRAP: SEEKING THE WRONG GOAL System behavior is particularly sensitive to the goals of feedback loops. If the goals—the indicators of satisfaction of the rules—are defined inaccurately or incompletely, the system may obediently work to produce a result that is not really intended or wanted. THE WAY OUT Specify indicators and goals that reflect the real welfare of the system. Be especially careful not to confuse effort with result or you will end up with a system that is producing effort, not result.

subsidized low-income housing is a leverage point.3 World Bank, The less of it there is, the better off the city is—even the low-income folks in the city.

the system is chronically stagnant, parameter changes rarely kick-start it. If it’s wildly variable, they usually don’t stabilize it. If it’s growing out of control, they don’t slow it down.

You can often stabilize a system by increasing the capacity of a buffer.5

But if a buffer is too big, the system gets inflexible.

It reacts too slowly. And big buffers of some sorts, such as water reservoirs or inventories, cost a lot to build or maintain.

A delay in a feedback process is critical relative to rates of change in the stocks that the feedback loop is trying to control.

Delays that are too short cause overreaction, “chasing your tail,” oscillations amplified by the jumpiness of the response. Delays that are too long cause damped, sustained, or exploding oscillations, depending on how much too long.

slow down the change rate, so that inevitable feedback delays won’t cause so much trouble.

balancing feedback loop is self-correcting; a reinforcing feedback loop is self-reinforcing. The more it works, the more it gains power to work some more, driving system behavior in one direction.

Reducing the gain around a reinforcing loop—slowing the growth—is usually a more powerful leverage point in systems than strengthening balancing loops, and far more preferable than letting the reinforcing loop run.

If you want to understand the deepest malfunctions of systems, pay attention to the rules and to who has power over them.

Insistence on a single culture shuts down learning and cuts back resilience. Any system, biological, economic, or social, that gets so encrusted that it cannot self-evolve, a system that systematically scorns experimentation and wipes out the raw material of innovation, is doomed over the long term on this highly variable planet.

is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm. That is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that no paradigm is “true,” that every one, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension. It is to “get” at a gut level the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny. It is to let go into not-knowing, into what the Buddhists call enlightenment.

Get the Beat of the System

Starting with the behavior of the system forces you to focus on facts, not theories.

Expose Your Mental Models to the Light of Day
You don’t have to put forth your mental model with diagrams and equations, although doing so is a good practice. You can do it with words or lists or pictures or arrows showing what you think is connected to what. The more you do that, in any form, the clearer your thinking will become, the faster you will admit your uncertainties and correct your mistakes, and the more flexible you will learn to be. Mental flexibility—the willingness to redraw boundaries, to notice that a system has shifted into a new mode, to see how to redesign structure—is a necessity when you live in a world of flexible systems.

Honor, Respect, and Distribute Information
You can drive a system crazy by muddying its information streams.
Use Language with Care and Enrich It with Systems Concepts
The first step in respecting language is keeping it as concrete, meaningful, and truthful as possible—part of the job of keeping information streams clear. The second step is to enlarge language to make it consistent with our enlarged understanding of systems.

Pay Attention to What Is Important, Not Just What Is Quantifiable
Make Feedback Policies for Feedback Systems
Go for the Good of the Whole Remember that hierarchies exist to serve the bottom layers, not the top.
Locate Responsibility in the System That’s a guideline both for analysis and design. In analysis, it means looking for the ways the system creates its own behavior.
Do pay attention to the triggering events, the outside influences that bring forth one kind of behavior from the system rather than another.

Stay Humble—Stay a Learner Systems thinking has taught me to trust my intuition more and my figuring-out rationality less, to lean on both as much as I can, but still to be prepared for surprises.

Both error embracing and living with high levels of uncertainty emphasize our personal as well as societal vulnerability.

We know what to do about drift to low performance. Don’t weigh the bad news more heavily than the good. And keep standards absolute.
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Reading Progress

August 23, 2013 – Shelved
August 23, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
May 10, 2019 – Started Reading
June 19, 2019 – Finished Reading
July 10, 2019 – Shelved as: self-improvement
July 10, 2019 – Shelved as: non-fiction

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