Thinking in Systems: A Primer Paperback – 26 Feb 2009
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'The publication of Thinking in Systems is a landmark ... This book is destined to shape our understanding of socio-ecological systems in the years to come in much the same way that Silent Spring taught us to understand the nature of ecosystems in the 1960s and 1970s.' Oran R. Young, Professor, Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at University of California, Santa Barbara 'Thinking in Systems is required reading for anyone hoping to run a successful company, community, or country. Learning how to think in systems is now part of change-agent literacy. And this is the best book of its kind.' Hunter Lovins, founder and President of Natural Capital Solutions and coauthor of Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution 'When I read Thinking in Systems I am reminded of the enormity of the gap between systemic thinkers and policy makers. If this book helps narrow the gap, it will be Dana's greatest contribution.' Lester Brown, Founder and President, Earth Policy Institute 'Dana Meadows was one of the smartest people I ever knew, able to figure out the sensible answer to almost any problem. This book explains how she thought, and hence is of immense value to those of us who often wonder what she'd make of some new problem. A classic.' Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy 'An invaluable companion piece to Limits to Growth, this is also a useful standalone overview of systems-based problem solving, a simple book about a complex world graced by the wisdom of a profound thinker committed to shap[ing] a better future.' Publishers Weekly 'In Dana Meadows's brilliantly integrative worldview, everything causes everything else; cause and effect loop back on themselves. She was the clearest thinker and writer co-creating the art and science of systems dynamics, and Thinking in Systems distills her lifetime of wisdom. This clear, fun-to-read synthesis will help diverse readers everywhere to grasp and harness how our complex world really works.' Amory B. Lovins, Chairman and Chief Scientist, Rocky Mountain Institute and co-author of Natural Capitalism 'Dana Meadows' exposition in this book exhibits a degree of clarity and simplicity that can only be attained by one who profoundly and honestly understands the subject at hand--in this case systems modeling. Many thanks to Diana Wright for bringing this extra legacy from Dana to us.' Herman Daly, Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland at College Park 'The publication of Thinking in Systems is a landmark ... Dana Meadows' final contribution is the best and most accessible introduction to this way of thinking we have. This book is destined to shape our understanding of socio-ecological systems in the years to come in much the same way that Silent Spring taught us to understand the nature of ecosystems in the 1960s and 1970s.' Oran R. Young, Professor, Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at University of California, Santa Barbara 'An extremely interesting read, and in particular relevant for people dealing with changes in complex structures, such as organisations, architectures, or business processes ... Absolutely recommended.' Enterprise Agility 'An inspiring sequel to Dana Meadows' lifetime of seminal contributions to systems thinking, this highly accessible book should be read by everyone concerned with the world's future and how we can make it as good as it possibly can be.' Peter H. Raven, President, Missouri Botanical Garden 'Dana Meadows taught a generation of students, friends, and colleagues the art and science of thinking beyond conventional boundaries. For her systems thinking included the expected things like recognizing patterns, connections, leverage points, feedback loops and also the human qualities of judgment, foresight, and kindness. She was a teacher with insight and heart. This long anticipated book, the distillation of her life's work, is a gem.' David Orr, Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics, Oberlin College 'Reading Thinking in Systems evokes the wisdom and even the voice of Dana Meadows. We are reminded of how she was not only one of the great systems thinkers, but also one of our greatest teachers. This is modestly called a primer, and indeed it is, but unlike most books with that title, this one quickly takes one from the elementary into deep systems thinking about issues as critical today as they were when Dana wrote these words ... following the insights of this book and applying them will provide for far more effective solutions to the challenges of a 7 billion person planet than current incremental, linear responses by governments, corporations and individuals.' Bill Moomaw, Professor of International Environmental Policy at the Fletcher School, Tufts University 'offers an excellent introduction...it is a mark of the primer's success that it will not take much effort for readers to apply systems theory to the latter for themsleves.' Alistair Brown, Green World.
In the years following her role as the lead author of the international bestseller, "Limits to Growth", Donella Meadows remained a pioneer of environmental and social analysis until her untimely death in 2001. Meadows' newly released manuscript, edited by the Sustainability Institute's Diana Wright, brings systems thinking out of the realm of computers and equations and into the tangible world, showing readers how to develop the systems-thinking skills that thought leaders across the globe consider critical for 21st-century life. Some of the biggest problems facing the world - war, hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation - are essentially system failures. They cannot be solved by fixing one piece in isolation from the others, because even seemingly minor details have enormous power to undermine the best efforts of too-narrow thinking. Although both tools and methods are included, the heart of the book reminds readers to pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable, to stay humble and to continue to learn. "Thinking in Systems" helps readers avoid confusion and helplessness, the first step toward finding proactive and effective solutions.See all Product description
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But until now there was no book that I had read that formed a basis of how systems, in general, tied together. This book provides that glue. It covers a lot of ground and provides solid examples of how system thinking can, quite literally, change the world. It covers areas such as oil production, politics, user of language and drug addiction in ways that are cohesive and informative. It never provides 'just so stories' that are unsupported and provide examples of simple systems (from the systems zoo) that explain why often those who influence systems end up pushing the wrong way and making things worse, even though they may have the best of intentions.
I have so far recommended this book to five people all from different backgrounds and will be folding in what I have learnt here into my User Experience work.
In Part 1, System Structure and Behaviour, Meadows uses two graphical tools to analyse systems: stock and flow diagrams to show system structure; and charts mapping stock or flow levels over time to explore system behaviour for specific scenarios. The diagrams can be used to display "balancing" (aka "negative") and "reinforcing" (aka "positive") feedback loops, and the charts to explore how these might play out.
While some of the systems might seem simplistic, they build up understanding of a key Systems Thinking insight, that systems generate their own behaviour. And if you're ever wondered why the "heroes and villains" style of explanation only works in retrospect, this is a damn good explanation.
Chapter two, The Zoo, is a library of common system structures and their behaviour. Those of us from the software world will be reminded of a patterns library. Again, these patterns illustrate a deeper insight, that "systems with similar feedback structures produce similar dynamic behaviors, even if the outward appearance of these systems is completely dissimilar." (p 51)
In Part 2, Systems and Us, Meadows applies Systems Thinking to our world. Many of the examples are dated, but I found myself thinking how applicable these patterns and insights were to topics I was currently encountering - for example, I can't help thinking she would have loved the way that Kanban reflects a systems learning, that the ability of people and organisations to execute tasks degrades rapidly as the number of tasks rises beyond a critical limit.
Of course one natural and urgent interest in systems behaviour is how to change it. If worshipping heroes and lynching villains isn't going to reform systems that may exhibit non-linear, perverse or self-preserving behaviour, what is?
In Part 3, Creating Change in System and in our Philosophy, Meadows gives us a dozen leverage points for changing systems, starting with the simplest and ending with the most powerful. She finishes with a list of "systems wisdoms" - attitudes and values that she and others she respects have adopted to make them more effective at understanding and changing the systems we live in.
Like many of the other reviewers, I wish I'd read this book a long time ago. It has its limitations - I'd love to see more recent examples, and can't help wondering if there are any open-source Systems modelling resources. But for me this is a book of timeless value for anyone interested in a better understanding of their world and their options in it.