Note — Jul 18, 2021

Dancing with Systems

Systems thinker and whisperer Donella Meadows summarizes fourteen points of general “systems wisdom” she absorbed while modeling complex systems and hanging out with modelers. I’d probably read a long essay about each of these, but for now it’s a quick take on each. One thing I noticed is how quite a few overlap with other lessons I’ve picked up myself or read about elsewhere, independently of systems discussions, and which have been covered here with some regularity: using but challenging mental models; looking at what’s already there; constant learning; noticing what’s actually valuable, not just what can be measured; holistic thinking; being interdisciplinary. Logical that interpreting large systems results in some of the same conclusions ‘located’ in smaller settings, but still, nice parallel. “Nature designs in fractals,” after all.

One that I haven’t seen before, “make feedback policies for feedback systems,” seems especially appropriate for these times and one I’ll be paying more attention to.

It’s as I was reading that essay that I tweeted “Interdisciplinary, Interdependent, Interconnected, Intertwingled, Interpreted, Internet.” I’ve been trying to reduce my use of ‘interesting,’ as some find it bland and non-descriptive, but perhaps I’ll change my mind again ;).

[S]elf-organizing, nonlinear, feedback systems are inherently unpredictable. They are not controllable. They are understandable only in the most general way. The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and preparing for it perfectly is unrealizable. […]

We can’t find a proper, sustainable relationship to nature, each other, or the institutions we create, if we try to do it from the role of omniscient conqueror. […]

And finally, starting with history discourages the common and distracting tendency we all have to define a problem not by the system’s actual behavior, but by the lack of our favorite solution. […]

It’s easier, more effective, and usually much cheaper to design policies that change depending on the state of the system. […]

No one can precisely define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can precisely define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist. […]

Aim to enhance total systems properties, such as creativity, stability, diversity, resilience, and sustainability–whether they are easily measured or not.