Are you curious by default? Are you comfortable with uncertainty and do you, deep down, think the world is simply too complex to understand fully? If this strikes a chord you might be a systems thinker at heart.
But what does this mean, this mysterious term that most likely conjures up an abundance of connotations coloured by our backgrounds, worldviews and beliefs.
On a grey Saturday in April, a group of intrigued people gathered at Impact Hub Westminster to find out more about “Systems, Sustainability and Me” in a workshop taught by Martin Sandbrook from the Schumacher Institute.
Central to systems thinking is resisting the urge to judge or to label things as good or bad. It challenges us to notice our assumptions and beliefs and how these inform our thinking. Churchman, a pioneering writer in the field said: ‘Systems thinking begins when we first see the world through the eyes of another’.
It is firmly rooted in the interdependence between things and the belief that boundaries are as artificial as answers are divergent. There is no one truth in this untidy cosmos. Context is everything and in the endless chain of cause and effect, human relationships are as important as any other element.
We are asked to let go of our definitions and their inherent limitations and embark on a journey of description, an uncertain narrative of exploration. It is an emergent view of the world rather than reductionist and it does not provide assurance and safety through carefully coined concepts.
The real key to transformation can be found by using this narrative to look at the rules of a system rather than focusing on the people within it. Change the rules and new constellations of possibility appear as the system begins to act differently, both within, and in relation to other systems. Through this dynamic entirely new symbiotic relationships and systems can emerge.
Nothing is certain, except that the boundaries are ever-changing along with our perception of them. In some ways, systems thinking could, as Martin said, be considered a spiritual practice of non-attachment through the questioning of beliefs.
Martin is a champion for changing our position from advocacy to inquiry. He dares us to go through the door of uncertainty to examine where our “should’s and ought’s” come from, giving ourselves permission to experiment in a bid for unexpected insights.
A key tool Martin shared is the Action Experiment. Through a series of steps of inquiry this technique can help us unlock barriers, creating a dance between us and systems, unveiling elusive interconnections.
Martin covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time and this is an unashamedly abridged version. If this has sparked your interest, you can find out more on systemslearning.org. Here you can find many more resources to quench your curiosity.
By Katrine Carstens, freelance Consultant and Writer focusing on sustainability and social change.