DGC2003: Systems Thinking for Global Problems

Summer 2013
Part of the Dynamics of Global Change Collaborative Program

NOTE: This page is for the version of the course that was taught in May-June 2013.
Newer versions of the course can be found here


About the Course

The dynamics of global change are complex, and demand new ways of conceptualizing and analyzing the inter-relationships between multiple global systems. In this course, we will explore the role of systems thinking as a conceptual toolkit for studying the relationships between problems such as globalization, climate change, energy, health & wellbeing, and food security. Throughout the course, we will use global climate change as a central case study, and use systems thinking to study how climate change interacts with many other pressing global challenges.

The course will cover:

Course Requirements:

Some similar courses at other Universities exist, and may have useful material relevant to this course:

Note: This is the second time I've taught this course. The previous course web page, from 2012, is still available. Note that the course was shorter in 2012.

Course Outline

This is a draft outline for the course. We can adapt this as we proceed, depending on interest.
DGC2003 Course Outline
  Seminar Topic & Notes Notes and Background Readings

Seminar 1
May 7, 2013

Introduction & Basics
  • Course objectives
  • Parts vs. Wholes
  • Open and Closed Systems
  • Holism and reductionism
  • Seeing systems
  • Frames of reference


  1. Here are the slides I used
  2. I mentioned three good introductory books:
    • Meadows (which we'll be using as an initial text);
    • Weinberg (which provides a good entry into systems thinking for people in the natural sciences);
    • Walker and Salt (who provide a set of case studies showing how hard it is to understand and manage complex ecosystems)
  3. Activities included: Avalanche and Frames

For next seminar:

  1. Read Chapter 1 of Meadows "Thinking in Systems"

Seminar 2
May 9, 2013

Feedback Loops
  • How feedback loops work
  • Balancing and Reinforcing Loops
  • Systems Dynamics Models


  1. We briefly discussed the question of ascribing goals to systems (i.e. can you ever really say a system "has" a goal?). Here's Ackoff's definitions:
    • A State-maintaining System has a structure that tends to return it to the same state in response to any internal or external events (e.g. a thermostat, a compass)
    • A Goal-seeking System can select among different strategies to pursue a single goal, and may even learn to improve its performance (e.g. an autopilot)
    • A Purposive System can pursue different goals at different times, but has no choice over them (e.g. a computer)
    • A Purposeful System can select which goals to pursue, and how to pursue them (e.g. a human)
  2. We spent most of the class building and analyzing causal loop diagrams. For more tips on constructing these diagrams, see Guidelines for Drawing Causal Loop Diagrams. But note there are many weaknesses to this type of diagram, see Richardson 1986 for an overview.
  3. Activities included: Living Loops and Postcard Stories

For next seminar:

  1. Read Chapter 2 of Meadows "Thinking in Systems"

Seminar 3
May 14, 2013

Growth and Limits
  • Exponential Curves
  • Limits to Growth
  • Population Dynamics
  • Metabolism of the Anthropocene
  • Limits to Growth
  • Planetary Boundaries


  1. It's hard to talk about limits to growth without joining the Impossible Hamster Club
  2. We spent a lot of the discussion talking about the original Limits to Growth study, published in 1972. There have been several updates:
  3. And a couple of recent papers comparing the original study with what happened, by Graham Turner: A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality and On the Cusp of Global Collapse?.
  4. We also talked about a different take on limits, the Planetary Boundaries work by Johan Rockstrom et al.
  5. And we ended up with a discussion about whether economic growth is necessary. A good introduction to this issue is Tim Jackson's book Prosperity Without Growth
  6. The activity today was Paper Fold

For next seminar:

  1. Read the paper by Richardson on Problems with causal loop diagrams

Seminar 4
May 16, 2013

  • Problems with causal loop diagrams
  • Stock and flow models
  • Understanding accumulation
  • Climate change as an accumulation problem


  1. We spent some time exploring how hard it is to wrap your head around flow and accumulation problems. The cognitive barriers have been studied in detail by John Sterman and colleagues. See for example, the papers Cronin et al "Why don’t well-educated adults understand accumulation?" and Sterman & Sweeney "Understanding public complacency about climate change: adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter"
  2. We looked at the relationship between carbon emissions, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and temperature change, described in the above papers. For a climate modeling study of this relationship, see Allen et al, "Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne", and for a good summary of the implications of this, see "The Copenhagen Prognosis"
  3. We also talked a little about the work of Damon Matthews on the difference between zero emissions and constant atmospheric composition.
  4. I showed some diagrams of the climate system as a set of feedback loops
  5. Activity: The Accumulation Exercise is from Sterman (2010), Does formal system dynamics training improve people's understanding of accumulation?

For next seminar:

  1. Read the paper by Warren on Why has feedback systems thinking struggled to influence strategy and policy formulation?
(week 3)No Seminars for the week of May 24 / Victoria Day (Call it our "reading week"!)

Seminar 5
May 28, 2013

Information Lags
  • The Whiplash Effect
  • Dynamics of Complex Systems
  • Information Lags and Inertia


  1. We spent the seminar playing the Beer Game, as an example of the effects of delay in a dynamical system. If you want to dive into how engineers deal with this problem in Control Theory, take a look a Brown & Coombs, "Notes on Control with Delay"
  2. This is also a good time to take a look at the Systems Archetypes, which are described more fully in Meadow's book.
  3. Activity: Beer Game

Seminar 6
May 30, 2013

Chaos and Complexity
  • Chaos Theory
  • Difference between Chaos and Randomness
  • Complex Systems Theory


  1. A very brief introduction to chaos theory
  2. Brief introduction to complex adaptive systems theory
  3. The classic long read on chaos theory is James Gleick's book Chaos
  4. Activity: We explored some of the Shodor models:
  5. To see practical examples of how chaos theory impacts weather and climate prediction, see this talk by Julia Slingo

For next seminar:

  1. Read the paper by Manson Simplifying Complexity: A review of complexity theory

Seminar 7
June 4, 2013

Stability and Regime Shifts
  • System Structure and Change
  • Resilience
  • Panarchy
  • Changing Global Systems


  1. For more on resilience, I highly recommend Walker & Salt's book, "Resilience Thinking".
  2. The original book on panarchy is Gunderson & Hollings "Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems
  3. For a fascinating read on the early development of Complexity Science at the Santa Fe Institute, read Waldrup's book "Complexity
  4. See also Stirling's paper "Keep it Complex", where he points out that there's a tendency to over-simplify policy prescriptions when we look for science-based policymaking, and that a more pluralistic approach that is needed, one that takes the complexity seriously
  5. We also talked a little about how these ideas relate to how firms must continually seek renewal to maintain their competitive advantage. Two papers that introduce the general ideas from strategic management are Leonard-Barton, 1992 "Core capabilities and core rigidities: A paradox in managing new product development", and
  6. Activity: Space For Living

For next seminar:

  1. Read the chapter on Leverage Points from Meadows' book (also available here), and you might also enjoy a piece I wrote applying it to both the Occupy Movement and Climate Change.

Seminar 8
June 6, 2013

Leverage Points
  • Identifying High and Low Leverage


  1. Lesley presented a talk on Peter Senge
  2. Activity: Triangles

For next seminar:

  1. Read Checkland's Soft Systems Methodology: A Thirty Year Retrospective

June 11, 2013

No Seminar

Seminar 9
June 13, 2013

Interpretivist Systems Thinking
  • Principle of Complementarity
  • Soft Systems Analysis
  • Mental Models


  1. Bret presented a talk on Stafford Beer
  2. Lameck presented a talk on Mary Catherine Bateson
  3. We spent some time exploring Checkland's Soft Systems Methodology
  4. I also talked about the Principle of Complementarity
  5. Applying these ideas to climate change, we noted that climate change should not be thought of as a "problem" to be "solved", but as a dilemma, or wicked problem. There are many different ways of construing the nature of the problem, and each attempt to define the problem is open to challenge by people with different perspectives. The idea of a Wicked Problem was identifed in a classic paper by Rittel and Webber, Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning
  6. We also talked about the danger of solutionism.
  7. Activity: Arms Crossed and Seeing Stars

For next seminar:

  1. Read Midgely et al, The Theory and Practice of Boundary Critique

Seminar 10
June 18, 2013

Critical Systems Thinking
  • Collaborative Systems Thinking
  • Boundary Critique


  1. Mahsa presented a talk on Jay Forrester.
  2. Jennifer presented a talk on Howard Thomas Odum.
  3. We spent some time exploring Ulrich's Critical Systems Heuristics, particularly the 12 questions he uses to conduct boundary critique.
  4. We did a boundary critique on this map of climate solutions, asking what's missing, and whose interests are served by excluding those things.
  5. I mentioned a blog post I wrote on applying boundary critique to disputes over Genetically Modified Food

For next seminar:

  1. Take a look at the interactive history of complexity science (note - nearly all the entries on the map are clickable). You might also want to look at the ASC timeline for cybernetics, and Robert Horn's mural (although I can only find a sketch of it online)

Seminar 11
June 20, 2013

Course Wrap up
  • Mindfulness
  • Course Summary


  1. Soroosh presented on Kenneth Boulding
  2. Chris presented on C.S. (Buzz) Holling (and we mentioned the work of the Resilience Alliance
  3. Ange presented on James Lovelock
  4. We got a little sidetracked looking at sea ice decline. Useful resources on this include daily data at NSIDC, the blog by Neven showing sea ice volume data, and an overview at Skeptical Science.
  5. Activity: Harvest. We didn't get to discuss this much, but it's an example of Tragedy of the Commons. To me, the two key questions are: (1) why did the attempt to negotiate a limit to prevent a collapse not work, and (2) what would it take to make such an agreement work?

Useful Material


Meadows DH. Thinking in systems: A primer. Chelsea Green Publishing; 2008.
Meadows is the main text we'll use for the first half of the course. Its a book I thorooughly recommend buying (as you'll want to re-read it every few years). It's a very readable introduction to the basics of systems dynamics.
Weinberg GM. An Introduction to General Systems Theory. Dorset House; 2001.
Weinberg is an interesting alternative to Meadows, especially appropriate for those with a background in the physical sciences, because he spends a lot of time contrasting systems thinking with the traditional reductionism used in science. For a review of Weinberg's book, see here
Jackson MC. Systems Approaches to Management. Springer; 2000.
A very detailed account of the history and philosophical roots of different strands of systems thinking. It's comprehensive, but that makes it a little heavy going to read.
Ramage M, Shipp K. Systems Thinkers. Springer; 2009.
This book is about 30 of the most prominent people in the development of the field. For each person, it provides a brief biography, and an excerpt from their writings (so they speak in their own words). This will be very useful as a source book for your presentations.
Walker BH, Salt D. Resilience thinking: sustaining ecosystems and people in a changing world. Island Press; 2006.
Applies systems thinking to explore how to make socio-ecological systems more resilient to future shocks. Resilience is an important systems concept - it refers to the ability of a system to withstand sudden changes. The book includes five major case studies, interleaved with the conceptual chapters. Excellent reading!
Garvey J. The ethics of climate change: right and wrong in a warming world. Continuum International Publishing; 2008.
Excellent book on the overall idea of what an ethical response to the challenge of climate change even means. It's not specifically about systems thinking, but Garvey is certainly a systems thinker. He demonstrates that climate change is unusual as an ethical problem,because the causes and consequences are smeared out across time and space. He then frames the central question as how we divide up a shared limited resource: the atmosphere as a carbon sink. I reviewed the book here.
Booth Sweeney L. The systems thinking playbook: Exercises to Stretch and Build Learning and Systems Thinking Capabilities. Chelsea Green Publishing; 2010.
This is the book from which most of the activities on the course are taken. I suggest *not* reading this until after the end of the course - the exercises will work better if you experience them before reading about them.
Downey AB. Think Complexity. Green Tea Press; 2011.
For anyone who likes programming (in Python), this book covers many of the key ideas on complexity science, chaos, and self-organising systems, with a whole series of programming examples so you can build your own simulations models. And the book is free online - just click the link!
Gundersson L, Holling CS. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations In Human And Natural Systems. Island Press; 2002.
This book extends some of the ideas of systems dynamics to talk about why systems change and why collapse occurs.



Introductory Papers



The Global Problematique

Climate Change

Peak Oil


Advanced Topics

On Teaching Systems Thinking

Other Sources