Systems/ Living Systems Thinking Series

The vital lens for transforming design and our complex future.

Placing Systems Thinking Front and Center:

Shifting Mental Models in Design, Business, Institutions and Society

C3 Living Design/ Pierce | July 2024 | 10-25 Minute Read w/ Video
Go to the 3+ Minute Summary of this Post ◥

By all accounts Rome appears to be burning. Both metaphorically and literally the world is experiencing an ecological and social upheaval. The issues have been building for decades. From climate change-driven wildfires and human-induced biodiversity loss to the rise of authoritarian populism, the challenges we face are numerous and severe. These crises stem from the use of mental models about the world that do not reflect reality or result in realities that are counterproductive. To successfully navigate the present and future, we must shift from the Reductive/Mechanistic paradigm of thought that has ruled western thinking for over 400 years to one that is more wholistic in it’s perspective. Placing Systems/Living Systems Thinking at the center of thought, practice, and society will help us foster a resilient and regenerative world that benefits the whole of life.

Mental Models – The Cognitive Fabric of Reality

Mental models are cognitive frameworks that shape our understanding of the world and guide our actions. They influence how we perceive, think, and decide, impacting our individual behaviors, institutions, businesses, and society as a whole. Mental Models are built from our accumulated knowledge and experiences. When we encounter a situation, our mental models provide a ready-made framework that we can apply to make predictions, solve problems, and navigate challenges. This process is largely subconscious and occurs instantaneously, enabling us to function in complex environments by simplifying the vast amount of information we encounter every day.

Introduced by Kenneth Craik in his 1943 book “The Nature of Explanation” mental models suggest that the mind builds representations of reality to predict events. In the 1970s and 1980s, Philip Johnson-Laird expanded this concept, highlighting the role of mental models in reasoning and problem-solving. Peter Senge’s 1990 book “The Fifth Discipline” further emphasized their importance in organizational learning and transformation. Today, mental models are used in artificial intelligence to enable reasoning, facilitate interaction, and improve simulation capabilities.

Mental models can reshape how individuals and groups perceive and interpret reality influencing decisions, behaviors, policies, and actions. New mental models can expand creativity, foster innovation, improve efficiency, increase business performance, and enhance collaboration. As investment strategist and billionaire Charlie Munger said, “Developing the habit of mastering the multiple models which underlie reality is the best thing you can do.”

“Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have been living in a dual reality: the physical reality and the imagined reality … On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations”
Yuval Noah Harari – Historian and Theorist
“Mental models help us structure our creative process, allowing us to think outside the box by understanding the box first.”
John Cleese – Creative Innovator
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Albert Einstein – Genius (attributed)

Rome may be burning, but new mental models inspire hope and optimism by providing a fresh lens on how to solve ongoing, stagnant problems. This drives individual and societal transformations. By reshaping our perspectives, mental models enable us to see challenges in a new light and develop innovative solutions. This collective hope fosters community initiatives and sustains morale, promoting a resilient and optimistic world.

Reductive/Mechanistic Thinking

“We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story.”
Thomas Berry – Eco Theologian

Reductive/Mechanistic Thinking has been the dominant mental model in Western society for over almost four centuries. This approach breaks down complex systems into individual components, allowing for precise measurement and prediction but often missing the holistic view of how systems function as a whole. While effective for certain applications, its has distinct limitations when dealing with complex systems or when trying to organize innovative approaches to complex projects. Philosophers like Newton, Descartes, Galileo, Locke and others created the Reductive/Mechanistic worldview in response to the ailing scholastic/theological thinking of the late Middle Ages, which dated back to the fall of Rome during the 5th century A.D. Reductive/Mechanistic mental models shape our societal structures, institutions, businesses, individual behaviors, and day-to-day problem-solving. They often leads to solutions that prioritize short-term gains over long-term sustainability and resilience.

While Reductive/Mechanistic Thinking has been central to creating the the modern world, its overuse has generated many of our most pressing problems by focusing on isolated outcomes rather than long-term, interconnected consequences. For example, in climate change, it drives short-term industrial gains without considering environmental impacts. In biodiversity loss, it prioritizes agricultural yield over ecosystem health. For social inequity, it promotes economic growth at the expense of wealth distribution. In authoritarian populism, it offers simplistic solutions to complex problems, undermining systemic understanding. This approach often neglects broader, interconnected impacts, highlighting the need for systems thinking to address these challenges effectively.

Reductive/Mechanistic Thinking can also limit our capacity for innovation and complex problem solving on a day-to-day level. The step-by-step, linear approach to problem solving often locks us into repeating the same outcomes over and over. New and novel solutions are locked out because the commonly require connecting different dots, seeing alternative relationships, or managing complex relationships in ways that are not visible, or simply not possible though the use linear, reductive thinking. Effectively balancing performance, budget and program for a complex building design can be very difficult and teams often find they sacrifice one or more of those three goals on the way to completing a design. Systems Thinking can greatly improve the chance of success when dealing with complex problems that are part of the normal business and professional practice.

This is not to say that the Reductive/Mechanistic model is no longer useful. Reductive/Mechanistic Thinking will continue to play the vital role of analyzing the parts and pieces of Systems/Living Systems. It can help make the systems thinking more concrete by providing specific knowledge on various system elements. Systems/living systems thinking’s strength lies in synthesis of elements and seeing how the intersect as a whole and function over time.

The Shift to Systems/Living Systems Thinking

As we confront increasingly complex challenges, problems and projects, the need to shift from Reductive/Mechanistic Thinking as our universal story to a more wholistic, integrative model has become obvious. More of the same Reductive/Mechanistic Thinking will not solve our problems. This transition, from viewing problems as isolated parts to understanding them as components of an interconnected system, is crucial in developing solutions that are not only innovative but also sustainable and equitable. The shift will help us understand our role in the world.

Systems Thinking is a wholistic approach that views problems as parts of a broader, interconnected system. It emphasizes relationships, contexts, and the synthesis of different components to foster an environment where the whole is other than the sum of its parts. Systems thinking encourages looking beyond immediate and obvious factors to understand deeper systemic issues and long-term consequences. Along with improving design, engineering, and creative outcomes, this holistic approach can reduce the need for excessive “rework” in the creative process by allowing for early identification and integration of multiple factors.

Systems Thinking and Living Systems thinking are both frameworks used to understand and analyze complex systems, but they differ in their emphasis and application. Systems Thinking is a holistic approach that focuses on the interconnections and interactions within and between systems, emphasizing feedback loops, causality, and dynamic behavior over time. It is widely applied in fields such as management, ecology, and social sciences to address complex problems by understanding how components of a system influence one another within the whole. On the other hand, Living Systems Thinking extends these principles by specifically focusing on systems that exhibit life-like properties, such as self-organization, adaptation, and evolution. This approach emphasizes the dynamic, emergent properties of living systems and their ability to adapt and co-evolve within their environments. It is particularly relevant in ecological design, regenerative development, and sustainability science, where the goal is to create systems that are resilient, regenerative, and in harmony with natural processes.

Core Principles of Systems Thinking

Interconnectivity: Systems Thinking emphasizes the interconnected nature of all components within a system. It posits that elements are part of a larger whole and their interactions define the system’s behavior and outcomes.

Holism: This principle asserts that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Understanding the system as a whole can reveal insights that are not apparent when examining individual components separately.

Feedback Loops: Systems Thinking involves identifying and understanding positive and negative feedback loops within a system that can amplify or stabilize its behavior over time.

Causality: Systems thinkers focus on causality within complex systems. They strive to understand the cause-and-effect relationships that drive the dynamics within the system, which often are non-linear and can lead to unexpected outcomes.

Emergence: Emergence refers to the phenomena where larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties.

Cabrera Labs at Cornell University
shares their perspective on Mental Models and Systems Thinking in this award winning 10 minute video.

Systems/Living Systems Thinking is an arena of thought with notable breadth and depth. This is one, informed and well researched perspective on Systems Thinking. It primarily a mechanistic view, not a living view on systems.

A Dual Perspective: Systems Thinking and Reductive Thinking

By consciously using both of the universal scale mental models of Systems Thinking and Reductive Thinking, individuals, teams, organizations, institutions and societies can increase their capacity for creativity, innovation, effectiveness and complex problem solving.

Our future lies in maintaining a dual perspective comprised of Systems Thinking and Reductive Thinking. With Systems/Living Systems Thinking being front and center. Directly comparing the difference between Systems/Living Systems Thinking and Reductive/Mechanistic Thinking offers clarity in how these very different, yet very powerful mental models function. Each has the capacity to generate robust societal scale paradigms. Each has the potential to generate individual, professional, business and institutional scale paradigms of thought and action. Each mental model facilitates scale jumping. But only one of theses mental models has the potential to manage and organize complex, extended time, engaged solutioning. That Mental Model is Systems/Living Systems Thinking.

Comparison Matrix – Systems Thinking and Reductive Thinking

CharacteristicSystems/Living Systems ThinkingReductive/ Mechanistic Thinking
FocusWholistic, emphasizing relationships and the whole system.Component-focused, emphasizing individual parts.
Approach to ComplexityEmbraces and leverages complexity through integrative perspectives.Reduces complexity by isolating and simplifying components.
Problem SolvingSeeks comprehensive solutions affecting the system as a whole.Tackles problems by addressing individual components separately.
Change PerspectiveAdaptive, considering dynamic interactions and emergent outcomes.Static, focusing on specific, predictable outcomes.
Outcome OrientationAims for sustainable, resilient outcomes benefiting the entire system.Focuses on optimizing specific elements without considering broader impacts.
Feedback IntegrationUtilizes continuous feedback to adapt and refine solutions iteratively.Limited use of feedback, often finalized post-solution implementation.
Design StrategyEmergent, allowing designs to evolve based on system needs and feedback.Prescriptive, often imposing predefined designs on specific issues.

Conclusion: A Call to Inspirational Change

In conclusion, the shift from Reductive/Mechanistic thinking to Systems/Living Systems thinking represents a transformative journey. By adopting the wholistic approach of systems, we can make our day-to-day actions, projects and efforts more effective. Collectively we can better address complex global challenges, foster sustainability, and promote community empowerment. It’s time for individuals, professionals, designers, engineers, politicians, bureaucrats, laborers, teachers, professors, revolutionaries and the whole of humanity to embrace the idea that we humans, the whole of life and whole of planet Earth are interconnected. That change must start at the individual and organizational level. From there it will spread to our communities and society as a whole.

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