DGC2003: Systems Thinking for Global Problems

NOTE: This is the old course webpage from Summer 2012
(the current course offering is here)
Part of the Dynamics of Global Change Collaborative Program


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:

Course Outline

Currently a draft; likely to evolve as we get started with the course.

DGC2003 Course Outline
  Seminar Topic & Notes Background Readings

Seminar 1
May 28, 2012

Introduction & Orientation
  • Course objectives
  • Parts vs. Wholes
  • Stocks and Flows
  • Feedbacks
  • Stabilizing and Reinforcing Loops


  1. Here are the slides I used from the class
  2. Read Chapter 1 of Meadows "Thinking in Systems"
  3. I mentioned the Impossible Hamster in class
  4. The two activities we used were Avalanche and Living Loops from Linda Booth Sweeney's book (but I'm only saying that for my own benefit)

Seminar 2
May 31, 2012

Intro to Non-Linear Dynamics
  • Exponential Curves
  • Limits to Growth
  • Population Dynamics
  • Information Lags


  1. Here are the slides I used from the class
  2. Read Chapter 2 of Meadows "Thinking in Systems"
  3. I mentioned Moore's Law, Kurzweil's Singularity and Hubbert's Peak
  4. More information on the Beer Game; and also, here's our data

Seminar 3
June 4, 2012

Exploring Non-linear Systems
  • The Whiplash Effect
  • Open and Closed Systems
  • Systems Thinking and Climate Change
  • Practice Drawing Causal Loop Diagrams


  1. Here are the slides I used from the class
  2. I mentioned the work of Sterman & colleagues. See:
  3. The main activity this seminar was Postcard Stories from Linda Booth Sweeney's book.

Seminar 4
June 7, 2012

Resilience and Self-Organisation
  • System Structure and Change
  • Sustainability and Collapse
  • Definitions of reslience
  • Intro to chaos theory


  1. Here are the slides I used in class
  2. Take a look at the library of causal loop diagrams and stock and flow models at the Systems Wiki
  3. Guidelines for drawing causal loop diagrams
  4. Papers we mentioned in class: Lenton et al on Tipping Points; and Rockstrom et al on Planetary Boundaries
  5. We also mentioned two new papers just published this week: Dai et al on Generic Indicators for Loss of Resilience.... and Barnosky et al. Approaching a state shift in Earth's biosphere
  6. The main activity this seminar was the game Harvest, from Linda Booth Sweeney's book.

Seminar 5
June 11, 2012

Leverage Points
  • Hierarchies and networks
  • Identifying High and Low Leverage
  • Purposive and Purposeful Systems

Please read the following before class:

  1. Donella Meadow's Essay on Leverage Points (also appears as chapter 6 in her book)
  2. My essay on Planet 3.0 on The Power to Change Systems


  1. Here are the slides I used in class.
  2. Here's Tim's presentation on Urban Metabolism
  3. Here's Keita's presentation on Ralph Stacey
  4. The main activity this seminar was the game Group Juggle, from Linda Booth Sweeney's book.

Seminar 6
June 18, 2012

More on Leverage points
  • Changing Global Systems
  • The Global Problematique
  • Spatial and Temporal Frames


  1. Here's the Prezi I used in class today
  2. Here's Debora's presentation on Donella Meadows
  3. The main activity this seminar was the game Triangles from Linda Booth Sweeney's book.

Seminar 7
June 21, 2012

Interpretivist Systems Thinking
  • Principle of Complementarity
  • Soft Systems Analysis
  • Boundary Critique

Some short blog posts to read before class:

  1. Me, on the Principle of Complementarity
  2. Me, on applying Boundary Critique to understand the debate on GM food
  3. The paper by Midgely et al The theory and practice of boundary critique: developing housing services for older people


  1. Here's Jennie's presentation on Peter Senge
  2. Today's activity was "Frames" from Linda Booth Sweeney's book

Seminar 8
June 25 (10am)

Second Order Cybernetics
  • Mental Models
  • Collaborative Systems Thinking
  • Panarchy
  • Applications & Case Studies
  • Wrap Up


  1. For a longer read on the contrast between postivist and interpretivist systems thinking, see Tsoukas & Hatch, Complex Thinking, Complex Practice: The Case for a Narrative Approach to Organizational Complexity
  2. The overview of recent approaches to systems thinking is from Roger Parker's Prezi
  3. We mentioned the Gaia Hypothesis, and Richard Alley's talk on the role of CO2 in climate change throughout the Earth's history.
  4. The categorization of systems thinking traditions as Unitary vs. Pluralist vs. Coercive is from Michael C. Jackson's book; for a great overview, see the entry on System of Systems Methodologies in the SystemsWiki
  5. The paper on Mindfulness that I mentioned was Garland EL. The Meaning of Mindfulness: A Second-Order Cybernetics of Stress, Metacognition, and Coping
  6. We talked briefly about the Gunderson & Holling book, Panarchy, and Joel pointed out a shorter paper by Holling, Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems
  7. I also mentioned the role of people's values in translating scientific evidence on climate change into policy action. James Garvey's book The Ethics of Climate Change is a great introduction.
  8. Today's activity was "Space for Living" from Linda Booth Sweeney's book (now that the course is over, I thoroughly recommend reading the book!)

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