Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Whole Systems Thinking

The candy bar was delicious, but now I've got this wrapper to deal with. Easiest thing would be to chuck it here on the street. I'm optimizing for my own convenience.

But what about the whole system? What impact does my action have? Well, just this one candy wrapper doesn't make much difference. But what if everyone dumped their trash wherever they happened to be standing? We'd be wading through it, right? Doesn't sound good. On the other hand, maybe we could hire a small army of folks to collect our trash for us, and solve our unemployment problem! Of course, if we could afford to hire all those people, is there something better we could be doing with their time? And anyway, who's going to pay for those jobs? Maybe a sales tax increase? Is it worth a few extra pennies per candy bar for us all to be able to drop our wrappers wherever we want and still not end up drowning in seas of trash?

Maybe so, maybe not, but at least you're thinking the whole thing through.

Of course, if we thought through every decision that thoroughly, we'd never get anything done! It's a useful skill to have, though, especially when thinking about shaping the institutions that surround us. Every one of us has an impact on those institutions (your neighborhood, your job, the government, etc.) on a regular basis, whether you think of it or not. The more we all learn how to think at the system level, the better off we'll all be.

So how does one get better at thinking in systems? Practice, of course! Learn about systems, build systems, experiment with them.

Believe it or not, playing games helps… games are often little systems (small enough to wrap your head around), and figuring out the dynamics of the system increases your skill at the game. Next up is modifying games (say, change some of the rules to Uno, which itself is just a modified form of Crazy Eights), and then creating new games.

Systems are all around us; you just need to keep your eyes open. How do things fit together? What actions lead to what reactions? What happens when single actions become many? Ask yourself questions like, “What if everyone on the planet did this?” or, “What if we continue doing this for the next thousand years?” or, “What changes in behavior would this incite?”

I don't know, what other ways can we help strengthen our systems thinking muscles?


For a fun look at changing the rules of games, see Challenges for Game Designers (paper and pencil exercises that involve modifying game rules to understand how changing the rules affects play) http://www.amazon.com/Challenges-Game-Designers-Brenda-Brathwaite/dp/158450580X and New Rules for Classic Games http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_18?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=new+rules+for+classic+games&sprefix=new+rules+for+clas%2Cstripbooks%2C207
Awesome. These look like great resources for playing around with game design with Caitlyn.
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