Systems thinking and integrated global models

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Jack Harich
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Systems thinking and integrated global models

Post by Jack Harich » Sun Nov 10, 2013 8:42 am

There's something I've been thinking hard about for the last twelve years. The World2 and World3 models definitively identified the environmental sustainability problem in the early 1970s and framed subsequent debate. There was great initial success. Many nations created an environmental protection agency. The UNEP was formed. A string of mega environmental summits were held. We even solved the stratospheric ozone hold problem.

But now, forty years later, progress has stalled. And it has stalled badly on the most important environmental problem of them all, climate change. The 2012 Rio+20 summit achieved no binding agreements and has been widely derided as a failure. Climate Interactive's http://climateinteractive.org/scoreboard shows that existing national proposals to reduce GHG emissions will change the business as usual scenario from an 8.8 degrees Fahrenheit rise to an 8.1 degree rise by 2100, when the goal is a 2.7 degree rise. This is catastrophic and quite depressing.

So where has our approach to solving the problem gone astray?

Let me toss out a hypothesis to the SD community. This may help us move forward. The hypothesis is embodied in the diagram below. This is a system thinker's view of solving a public interest problem.
PublicInterestProblem.png
PublicInterestProblem.png (21.25 KiB) Viewed 11773 times
Here's how the diagram works. Work on solving a public interest problem begins when problem solvers notice problem symptoms. This leads to analysis. From this emerges mental and physical models, since all decisions are based on our models of a problem. The models tell us which solutions are more likely to work. The best become promoted solutions. These are promoted via articles, conversations, lobbying, and so forth to the political system. This evaluates the promoted solutions and competing solutions, including the do nothing solution, and accepts or rejects the “best” solutions. Accepted solutions may be modified. They are then added to the political system’s pool of implemented solutions, where a solution (often in concert with others) either fails, partially succeeds, or fully succeeds to solve the problem.

The world knows what technical solutions will solve the climate change problem, like renewable energy, conservation, and carbon taxes. But such solutions are not being widely and aggressively implemented. The human system is strongly resisting change.

Current integrated global models like World3, IMAGE-2, GUMBO, C-ROADS, and Threshold21 model only the implemented solutions portion of how the system works. That's not enough. These models need to also model the political system layer, due to high change resistance.

Integrated global models therefore need to add a change resistance subsystem. Then model scenarios would be realistic. They would show that proposed technical solutions, like those at Rio+20, would currently fail. They would be weakly implemented at best. This realization would cause researchers to shift their attention to how to solve the change resistance problem, since that problem must be solved first.

Once the change resistance problem is solved and change resistance falls from high to low, proposed solutions will routinely make it through the political system layer to the pool of implemented solutions.

System dynamics models use appropriate stocks to model the flow of things like inventory, employee development, population aging, and drug user types. In the sustainability problem, technical solution flow through the human system could be modeled as solutions moving through a series of stocks, including competing solutions. Various pressures would affect the flows. These pressures would come from a variety of social agents, like NGOs, industry, governments, the media, and so on. Or change resistance could be modeled in other ways. This is fertile territory for research.

Would this way of looking at how to model the problem help us to move forward?

Warm regards to all,

Jack

Martin Schaffernicht
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Re: Systems thinking and integrated global models

Post by Martin Schaffernicht » Fri Dec 13, 2013 5:26 am

Hi Jack,
while reading your message, I thought that for many people in the industrialized countries, climate change is not really a "problem" yet. Not in comparison to other problems they feel every day. For instance, if the outside air temperature is like 40 °C, switching on the air conditioner solves a very immediate problem which is strongly felt; one may "know" there is another problem being made worse, but one cannot feel it in the same immediate way. I also thought that we are all living "in" habits we do not notice (like we do not notice the air around us). For instance: why do stores and public buildings heat their rooms up to 25 °C during wintertime, if the Germans are so concerned about the environment? It is very weird, it is not even practical because in the street you need a warm jacket, and every time you get inside a store you start boiling (or your hands are full of clothes you take off). Those who always live in Germany may not notice it, but the option to heat only to 18°C would be more comfortable, save heating costs and help to reduce the climate problem.

If people do not notice this as a "problem", their attention will be focused on other aspects of life they do perceive as a problem. A problem will be detected by its symptoms, and if these are far away in time/space, little can be expected. I believe that those of us who do see climate change as a problem (and act) have a second problem: that the rest does not perceive this problem!

So what can help people to "feel" the problem, so that they are willing to make a sacrifice, let go of habits, put pressure on governments and so on. Education (like C-Learn and others), I guess, and perception aid. There are signals that having meters displaying how much money is spent on electricity in homes has helped to reduce energy consumption. A German city where households have to pay for trash recollection according to the quantity of trash has noticed a sharp decline in trash quantity. But how to make the climate problem perceptible in everyday life? And now I was only talking about people in the "rich" countries. How about those living in the new economies, feeling the opportunity to overcome material scarcity (having more money and being able to accede a higher material standard of living)? As a German living in Chile I have the opportunity to make observation in both worlds; and what I see here is that the "environment" theme is gaining momentum, but not due to government programmes, rather because it is becoming fashionable - and Chileans are very concerned with being "in", so they may purchase an energy-efficient fridge not because it is AAA, but because it is chic to have one.

Therefore I'd expect there to be a pipeline which starts with some "problem" recognition stages before entering the "solution" development and implementation stages. That's like admitting that people may be slower to change than the climate, not a very optimistic statement indeed.

Best greetings,
Martin Schaffernicht

Jack Harich
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Re: Systems thinking and integrated global models

Post by Jack Harich » Fri Dec 20, 2013 6:41 pm

Hi Martin,

Your reply addresses a different question from the one I raised. I asked "Would this way of looking at how to model the problem help us to move forward?"

Your post asks "So what can help people to 'feel' the problem, so that they are willing to make a sacrifice, let go of habits, put pressure on governments and so on." You then offer solutions like "Education (like C-Learn and others), I guess, and perception aid." This is positioned as part of "a pipeline which starts with some 'problem' recognition stages before entering the 'solution' development and implementation stages."

May I suggest that "problem recognition" occurred long ago. The modern environmental movement was precipitated by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962. The environmental sustainability problem was definitively identified in 1972 by The Limits to Growth and its now widely famous World3 model. Since then millions of environmentalists, scholars, politician, and citizens have tried all they can think of to solve the problem. But nothing has worked more that a small amount, because the system is strongly resisting change. That's why my post concluded that "Integrated global models therefore need to add a change resistance subsystem."

Education is a commonly suggested solution. It fails because it commits the Fundamental Attribution Error. This occurs when one assumes that people's individual behavior is the cause of a problem and that if you can just fix that, the problem is solved. The flaw in this reasoning is that in all large-scale problems, people are taking their critical behavioral cues from the system. Therefore one must change the system to solve the problem. Education doesn't do that because it changes only one mind at a time. This can work only slowly. If change resistance is high and systemic, as it is in the sustainability problem, it will never work well enough to overcome system change resistance.

John Sterman explained this much better than I can, in Business Dynamics, p28:
A fundamental principle of system dynamics states that the structure of the system gives rise to its behavior. However, people have a strong tendency to attribute the behavior of others to dispositional rather than situational factors, that is, to character and especially character flaws rather than the system in which these people are acting. The tendency to blame the person rather than the system is so strong psychologists call it the “fundamental attribution error.”

In complex systems different people placed in the same structure tend to behave in similar ways. When we attribute behavior to personality we lose sight of how the structure of the system shaped our choices. The attribution of behavior to individuals and special circumstances rather than system structure diverts our attention from the high leverage points where redesigning the system or governing policy can have significant, sustained, beneficial effects on performance. When we attribute behavior to people rather than system structure, the focus of management becomes scapegoating and blame rather than design of organizations in which ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results.
Does this help?

Related to this, a lot of people are taking their behavior cues from the way industrialized nations are, on the average, highly oriented toward the short term maximization of profit. That's the goal of large for-profit corporations. They dominant the human system, by controlling production, products, technology, the evolution of culture, and enough of the news media and elections to slowly but surely get their way. The result is their goal has become "the implicit goal of the system," to use Peter Senge's phrasing.

To achieve this goal, it's necessary to get citizens to dumb down, so they don't realize what's happened and try to change the system's goal back to the goal of Homo sapiens, which would be the long term optimization of quality of life for those living and their descendents. One way to get citizens to dumb down is to attack science and reduce scientific thinking.

So believe it or not, here in the state of Georgia, US, the scientific method will no longer be taught in high school science classes. It is being removed from textbooks. Teachers will not be permitted to teach it. I just heard about this yesterday from a just retired physics and chemistry high school teacher, George Turner. When he and another teacher heard about this at a meeting of teachers, they went ballistic. But there's nothing they can do. The school system in Georgia is controlled by conservatives, who are in turn controlled by large for-profit corporations, who are in turn controlled by their own goal. It's the system's goal. Everyone is ultimately controlled (or affected) by it.

The scientific method is the very foundation of all of science. If you're not teaching the scientific method, you're not teaching science. You're teaching something else.

By the way, it's good to hear the environmental theme is gaining popularity in Brazil!

Jack

Robert Eberlein
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Re: Systems thinking and integrated global models

Post by Robert Eberlein » Sat Dec 21, 2013 6:52 am

Hi Jack,

I think Martin was exactly on point. His claim is that the individual emotive context needs to be changed so that there is an emotional imperative to do something about climate change. This is very much akin to telling a child not to touch something hot. Much of the time, such advice goes in one ear and out the other. When a child gets burned, however, a lesson is learned. On the climate topic the only thing visceral to date has been localized air and water. The longstanding knowledge you refer to is simply the unwanted advice of a stranger to most people.

That is not to say making things visceral is the only solution. You have still posed a great question. How can we expand the boundary of our solution space so that it actually changes behavior? I don't know the answer to that, and like Martin tend toward trying to get closer to trying to convey emotional understanding. But there may be some very different approaches that could work, and that would be fantastic.

Bob Eberlein

Martin Schaffernicht
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Re: Systems thinking and integrated global models

Post by Martin Schaffernicht » Mon Dec 23, 2013 7:20 am

Hi Jack,

I believe I tried to express why I think the problem has not really been recognized (in the sense of yielding a change of behavior) by a sufficient share of people. This was not to say that the solution-related delays should not become part of the "modeling", rather to say that the chain is longer because it also comprises recognition-related delays.

I'd have said education can be a good vehicle: childhood experiences have a profound and lasting influence. However, "education" is obviously provided by adults (who themselves have learned to be part of "the system"). I agree that telling kids not to waste water while they can watch you wasting water will not have a huge impact. I guess that what you write about education in Georgia goes in the same direction.

I try to come to a clear idea concerning the attribution error. In my mind, "the system" is an epiphenomenon emerging from individual decisions and actions. Behind what you write about Georgia, there are concrete individuals. Of course, they have learned to value certain things and follow tacit rules because they were plunged into a milliard of experiences provided by "the system". But can we directly address "the system"?

Down here in Chile, we are trying to start a public debate on what we should expect from our educational system before we struggle to reform it. But wherever we turn to there are barriers, from many practicing teachers' life experience (which they do not like to question) up to the country's political constitution. But still I believe that behind each of these barriers there are concrete individuals. The Chilean education "system" consists of 200,000 teachers, bureaucrats and government representatives, and some millions of mothers and fathers. Most of them have never experienced something different, therefore "the way it is" constitutes "the reality". And most of the few who do know that there are alternatives prefer not to acknowledge it, because they have something to lose.

If I accepted the argument that "the system" provides these reality-shaping experiences, then I would have to admit there is no personal responsibility. And I have trouble with this. Staying in the educational realm: those government representatives and businessmen who resist changes because they prefer to protect their own advantage are the individuals who make up the "system", and I do not want to take this (ethical) responsibility from their shoulders. However, how could we make them change their behavior?

Businessmen will yield to law. So we look at the lawmakers: who do they yield to? The voters. But the voters are those individuals who are also the parents of schoolkids, those who experience an obvious (to them) "reality". As long as this "reality" remains unbroken, they have other things to worry about and will not press on lawmakers. So lawmakers and businessmen who want to protect their interest have strong incentives not to change anything, or if at all, they will tend to make it ever more difficult to discover that "the reality" is only one of the possible ways into the future.

Individuals make the system which then configures the life experience of individuals ... this is circular (I believe there was a sociologist, Giddens, who deals with this, but I do not recall the details). I want to believe that each person can discover that what seemed "normal" or "obvious", and once the options are before our (mental) eyes, each individual has a choice. And the choice is the individual's own responsibility, it shall not be admitted to delegate it to an external phenomenon called the "system".

So, of course I do agree that our (mental) models should include the political chain, but I believe the whole chain should include the "birth" and the diffusion of the problem (for instance, in my opinion the "problem" on unsustainability may have been recognized by a share of the population, but not sufficiently diffused) and also the self-reproductive process of "the system" over the generations.

So thanks for making me think hard - it already has lead to an effect for me: I just recalled when Jay Forrester said that system dynamicists should write less academic papers and more books aimed at the general public (and have the courage to stand the ensuing fights ;) ). Yesterday I proposed to somebody that we should help to inform the Chilean voters about some crucial aspects of the local schooling system, and this discussion has strengthened my intention to invest the necessary time and effort.

Best greetings,
Martin

Jack Harich
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Re: Systems thinking and integrated global models

Post by Jack Harich » Mon Dec 30, 2013 9:24 am

Hi Martin,

I hope you have had some warm and wonderful holidays.

I majored in systems engineering. Before that I tried industrial psychology. So I’m able to take an individual or a systems centric approach, depending on the problem. The more social agents in the problem, the more likely it is that a systems approach will be more productive. I think that’s the case in Chile’s educational system reform, as well as the sustainability problem.

The heart of social system engineering is that social agents, such as people, groups, corporations, and governments, take most of their behavior cues from the system rather than internal values or prior decisions. Yes, people do change and build the human system. But it’s a very small percent that actually change the system. The rest are swept along in a vast tide, of which they have little control or conscious awareness. They think they decide how to vote, for example. But actually they don’t rationally weigh the pros and cons based on analysis. Instead, they use heuristic shortcuts based largely on cues from the system.

The effect of formal education is dwarfed by exposure to societal cues, like the media, technology, and peer conversation. Who sets all those cues? The dominant social agents in the human system. They are not everyday citizens. These days, in industrialized nations they are mostly upper corporate managers. Politicians and thought leaders have some effect, but the corporate influence is the largest by far. Why? Because that’s who has the most influence. Corporations control jobs, products, technology, most new culture, and enough of the media and elections to get they way. “Developed” nation is really a pseudonym for “corporatized” nation. The European Union nations have done the best in minimizing this influence, but they are still under the influence of Corporatis profitis, rather than Homo sapiens.

Over time, the goal of the dominant life form in a social system becomes the goal of the system. This is true for families, clubs, corporations, political parts, nations, and the human system as a whole. The goal of Corporatis profitis is the short term maximization of profits. The goal of Homo sapiens is the long term optimization of quality of life, for those living and their descendents. Since the corporate life form is dominant, the goal of the global system, as well as most nations, is short term maximization of profits.

This conclusion is easily tested.

Concerning China, what life form is very quickly coming to dominate that country? How has that changed China’s policies? What priority is environmental sustainability given over economic growth?

Which top international organization has the most power the World Trade Organization (established by corporations to regulate corporate trade) or the United Nations (established by nations to regulate people related problems)? The WTO, of course. Their decisions are binding and are determined by a small court in secret. By contrast, UN decisions are non-binding and are determined by consensus, with some exceptions in the Security Council. (This is a quick review, not a scholarly analysis.)

What index is plastered all over newspaper and the news? The stock market index. This continuously measures the expected value of short term profits. Nations weep and wail if it goes down, and rejoice when it goes up. Ditto with GDP, which measures corporate sales, which is where profits originate. By contrast, what measure of the goal of Homo sapiens is continuously tracked? None. And how easy is it to find? Hard. You have to go out your way to find quality of life indexes, which are updated only annually. This example alone proves the goal of the human system is the same as the goal of Corporatis profitis.

Since that’s the goal, why shouldn’t corporations take over educational systems? That’s exactly what’s happening in the US. This trend will eventually come to Chile. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, except to change the goal of the system back to what it should be, the goal of Homo sapiens. How can that be done? This is controversial, but it would require changing the goal of corporations to be the same as the goal of humans. Corporations will remain dominant in all industrialized societies, since they have a role that guarantees dominance. But if their goal is changed to be the same has that of humans, and they are changed from for-profit to non-profit, so as to eliminate conflicts of interest, then there is every reason to expect that Chile’s educational system problems will rapidly solve them selves, because that’s now in the best interests of the system.

Consider this quote:
Whenever there is ‘resistance to change,’ you can count on there being one or more ‘hidden’ balancing processes. ...the resistance is a response by the system, trying to maintain an implicit goal. Until this goal is recognized, the change effort is doomed to failure. (Peter Senge, 1990, The Fifth Discipline, p88)
All I’m doing here is putting Peter’s insight into practice, as well as the Fundamental Attribution Error principle.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Now given the above analysis, let’s consider some of your concerns:

“I believe I tried to express why I think the problem has not really been recognized (in the sense of yielding a change of behavior) by a sufficient share of people. This was not to say that the solution-related delays should not become part of the ‘modeling’, rather to say that the chain is longer because it also comprises recognition-related delays.” – That last phrase, “recognition-related delays,” is still thinking in terms of changing one mind at a time. It still the Fund. Att. Error. This take a long time to accept. I know that was true for me. Glad to see you are grappling with this.

“But can we directly address ‘the system’? “ – Yes. Use of system dynamics is an especially powerful way to do that.

“Down here in Chile, we are trying to start a public debate on what we should expect from our educational system before we struggle to reform it. But wherever we turn to there are barriers, from many practicing teachers' life experience (which they do not like to question) up to the country's political constitution.” – What formal method of analysis are you using? Probably none. Probably you are just getting started and are using intuitive methods. If so, study up on Morgan Jones’ “The Thinker’s Toolkit.” And read this article about What is an Analytical Approach? This summarizes Jones’ most potent points.

“But still I believe that behind each of these barriers there are concrete individuals." – There are. But they take their most important behavioral cues from the system, rather than making independent rational decisions.

“If I accepted the argument that ‘the system’ provides these reality-shaping experiences, then I would have to admit there is no personal responsibility.” There is. Anytime we stop and take the time to make an independent decision based on collection and checking of the relevant data, we can take personal responsibility. But we seldom do, myself included. It’s simply too expensive.

“...those government representatives and businessmen who resist changes because they prefer to protect their own advantage are the individuals who make up the ‘system’...” – They resist change because they are following the implicit goal of the system. This includes the many subsystems. This is very complex to analyze. That why a formal method of analysis is required.

“Businessmen will yield to law. So we look at the lawmakers: who do they yield to? The voters.” – The voters are in turn silently deceived by the corporate life form into voting for politicians whose elections are financed by corporate donations and other influence. See this article on The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace. Or see Sharon Beder's "Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism."

“So lawmakers and businessmen who want to protect their interest have strong incentives not to change anything, or if at all, they will tend to make it ever more difficult to discover that ‘the reality’ is only one of the possible ways into the future.” – Exactly!

“Individuals make the system which then configures the life experience of individuals ... this is circular.” – Only a very small percentage of individuals “make” the system. The rest are just along for the ride. An outstanding example of this is the Powell Memo. One document by one person gave the corporate life form a blueprint, a master plan, for taking over democratic systems – without the other side ever knowing what happened, unless they have read the memo. It was a first a secret memo, commissioned by the US Chamber of Commerce and sent out to its branches.

“So thanks for making me think hard - it already has lead to an effect for me: I just recalled when Jay Forrester said that system dynamicists should write less academic papers and more books aimed at the general public (and have the courage to stand the ensuing fights ;) ).” – And thank you for you penetrating comments on this thread.

About “more books aimed at the general public.” – That’s a change-one-mind-at-a-time education strategy. It has failed. Why? As I’ve tried to explain, if you want to change how a system behaves, then change the system. Don’t try to run around changing each little part in the system. Remember the Fund. Att. Error. And consider this article about the obesity epidemic in the US:
Five myths about obesity

[Myth] 5. We can conquer obesity through better education about diet and nutrition.

According to a physicians’ health study, 44 percent of male doctors are overweight. A study by the University of Maryland School of Nursing found that 55 percent of nurses surveyed were overweight or obese. If people who provide health care cannot control their weight, why would nutrition education alone make a difference for others?

Even with more information about food, extra-large portions and sophisticated marketing messages undermine our ability to limit how much we consume. Consider Americans’ alcohol consumption: Only licensed establishments can sell spirits to people older than 21, and no alcohol can be sold in vending machines. Yet there are very few standards or regulations to protect Americans from overeating.

In the 19th century, when there were no controls on the quality of drinking water, infectious disease was a major cause of death. Once standards were established, the number of these fatalities plummeted. Similarly, if Americans did not live in a world filled with buffets, cheap fast food, soft drinks with corn syrup, and too many foods with excess fat, salt and sugar, the incidence of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes probably would plummet. Education can help, but what’s really needed is regulation — for example, limits on marketing that caters to our addiction to sugar and fat.
Martin, have a wonderful and fulfilling Happy New Year!

Jack

Martin Schaffernicht
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Re: Systems thinking and integrated global models

Post by Martin Schaffernicht » Tue Dec 31, 2013 2:37 pm

Hi Jack,

I've tried to make a "Quick Reply", and when it became too long I clicked on "Full editor", and then my long reply was gone! Well, the short version: thanks for the detailed argumentation and links.

Certainly in the case of education and schooling in Chile, it is advisable to get to the key individuals who have the power to amend some aspects of the system. I think you sound more optimistic than I feel about this - after four decades of "school choice" in a country where the government has retired from many domains of society (because of the supposed strengths of "the market") the challenges of transforming the school system into one which will not cut down children's creativity, identity and self-determination is a hell of a problem. There are many negative feedback loops giving the current "system" an enormous stability.

I feel that our discussion is helping me make up my mind between investing time into producing things directed at "the masses" (the individuals) - I'm probably a helplessly idealistic guy dreaming of a world full of individuals who are able to direct themselves, which is probably why I'm upset many times (because my inner self does not want to accept what my eyes see all around me).

It's not so much time anyway - as a faculty member of my university's college of business administration I'm inside a system pressing me to produce research papers on management subjects.

I accept the recommendation to focus on key players. Currently I'm trying to bring order into my ideas by developing a little model with several resource chains (pupils, teachers, directors, teaching methods). I'll try to share this (when I have it in an understandable shape) in order to get more of this dialogue.

Best greetings and a happy 2014,
Martin

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