CSC2720H Systems Thinking for Global Problems

Winter Term, 2020


About the Course

This course is unlike any other graduate course you have taken. You will play games, solve puzzles, and tell stories. Each activity will create a system around you, with its own dynamics. Sometimes you will try to beat the system and discover you cannot. Other times you will discover you can change a system by changing your perspective of it. In the process, you will discover how complex patterns of behaviour can arise from simple structures and simple rules. You will draw on such insights to develop a deeper understanding of how the world works. You will start to see the systems around you in a whole new light, and you will develop a new mental toolkit for analyzing complex global issues, modeling their structure and behaviour, and understanding how and why change happens.

Along the way, you will read about the theory and practice of systems thinking, trace the history of the key ideas, and discover how they have been applied. You will explore how systems thinking provides new ways of studying the relationships between the most important global challenges of the twenty-first century, including globalization, climate change, conflict, democracy, energy, health & wellbeing, and food security.

Key topics will include:

Course Requirements:

Note: This is the sixth incarnation of this course. It was originally developed in the summer of 2012 as part of the Dynamics of Global Change Collaborative Program, and taught again in the summer of 2013. It then migrated to the Computer Science department in the winter terms 2014 and 2016. The previous course pages are archived at:

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

If you're looking for more opportunities to meet systems thinkers and discuss how we can apply systems thinking to solve important societal problems, you might be interested in the Systems Thinking Ontario group, which meets in Toronto every month.

Course Outline (Draft - may change!)

Note: Some of this page still refers to the version of the course taught in the winter of 2018. I'll update the outline and readings list as we go through the course.
  Seminar Topic & Notes Notes and Background Readings

Jan 7, 2020

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 this week
  2. Here are a couple of relevant blog posts about the ideas we talked about: Systems Thinking for Climate Systems, and The Principle of Complementarity.
  3. We talked a little bit about how this course started, and where it might fit within the university. Here's a couple of relevant blog posts: Why Systems Thinking? and Why universities are bad at inter-disciplinary work, although the latter ends up being a bit of a rant...
  4. Activities this week included: Avalanche and Frames
  5. 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)

For next seminar:

  1. Read: Chapters 1 & 2 of Meadows "Thinking in Systems". (Note: Readings for this course are only available from the U of T campus network. If you need access from off campus, please email me!)

Jan 14, 2020

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


  1. Here are the slides I used this week.
  2. We talked a little about the relative merits of stock and flow diagrams versus causal loop diagrams. For a detailed analysis of the weaknesses of causal loop diagrams, see Richardson 1986.
  3. We ended with a case study of the Earth's climate as a stock and flow diagram, and identified three places to intervene to combat global warming:
    • Solar Radiation Management - reduce the flow of heat from the Sun to the Earth. See Alan Robock's essay for why this is probably a very bad idea.
    • Carbon Dioxide Removal - increase the flow of carbon out of the atmosphere. See this article from Columbia for an overview of proposed technologies and their feasibility. TL;DR: We cannot yet do this cheaply enough at scale, but might eventually.
    • Stop Burning Fossil Fuels - stop the flow of carbon into the atmosphere. As long as this flow is non-zero, the problem gets worse. But we've been avoiding doing this for 30 years.
    Note that we'll probably need to use all three approaches eventually, because we've been too slow to reduce emissions.
  4. Activities this week included Living Loops and Postcard Stories

For next seminar:

  1. Read: Randers, J. (2008). Global collapse—Fact or fiction? Futures, 40(10), 853–864. (access via UofT library)

Jan 21, 2020

Flows and Limits
  • Stock and flow models
  • Exponential Curves
  • Limits to Growth
  • Population Dynamics
  • Understanding accumulation
  • Climate change as an accumulation problem


  1. Here are the slides I used this week.
  2. We talked 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. You can play with the World3 model used in Limits to Growth online here.
  5. I didn't have time to show this, but for an amusing take on exponential growth, you might want to join the Impossible Hamster Club
  6. I used Moore's Law as an example of exponential growth. For more details on whether (and how long) Moore's Law might continue, here's a wonderfully thoughtful essay by Rodney Brooks.
  7. I showed lots of graphs of exponential growth, taken from Steffen et al's paper on the Anthropocene.
  8. I briefly talked about economic growth in the context of the anthropocene, and mentioned that it's principal measure, GDP is a flow measure, rather than a stock. Here's quick overview of what GDP means, and here's a short discussion of why GDP (a flow) cannot really assess wealth (a stock). For a critical look at whether economic growth is even necessary, see Tim Jackson's book Prosperity Without Growth.
  9. Understanding 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"
  10. Activity: Paper Fold and the Accumulation exercises from Cronin et al. (2009).

For next seminar:

  1. Read: Bai et al, 2016 Plausible and desirable futures in the Anthropocene: A new research agenda.

Jan 28, 2020

Delay and Inertia
  • Effect of delated information
  • Pilot Induced Oscillations
  • Supply Chain Management!


  1. We played the beer game!
  2. Here's a short article discussing the beer game and some of the lessons it demonstrates.
  3. For a longer analysis of what the Beer Game reveals about mental models and decision-making in complex dynamical systems, read Sterman, J. D. (1989). Modeling Managerial Behavior: Misperceptions of Feedback in a Dynamic Decision Making Experiment. Management Science, 35(3), 321–339. doi:10.1287/mnsc.35.3.321
  4. For a more theoretical account of the effects of delay in a dynamical system, dive into how engineers deal with this problem in Control Theory, with this classic paper from Brown & Coombs: Notes on Control with Delay

For next seminar:

  1. Read: No reading this week

Feb 4, 2020

Resilience and Collapse
  • The Whiplash Effect
  • Feedbacks in the Climate System
  • The effect of delay on climate policy
  • Tragedy of the Commons


  1. Here are the slides I used this week.
  2. We talked about the results from the beer game, and other systems where delay causes a problem, and looked at the "fixes that fail" pattern. The example for how road building nearly always fails to solve traffic congestion is discussed in this blog post on the Cobra Effect.
  3. And we talked about delays in responding to the challenge of climate change. Here's an explanation of the diagram I showed that explores the delays.
  4. I presented a case study of the climate system as a set of feedback loops.
  5. We talked a little about the idea of geo-engineering the artificially cool the planet. The modeling study I mentioned is Berdahl et al. 2014, and the paper on reasons why its a really bad idea is Robock, 2008. For more on geoengineering see here and here.
  6. Games this week were: Warped Juggle and Harvest.

For next seminar:

  1. Read: Kim, D. H. (1992). System Archetypes I: Diagnosing Systemic Issues and Designing High-Leverage Interventions. Toolbox Reprint Series. Pegasus Communications Inc.
  2. And read: Kim, D. H. (2000). Systems Archetypes III: Understanding Patterns of Behaviour and Delay. Pegasus Communications Inc.

Feb 11, 2020

Systems Analysis
  • Mid-course review
  • Practice analysing systems
  • A trip to the systems zoo


  1. Here are the slides I used this week.
  2. We explored a number of System Archetypes.
  3. We spent some time practicing drawing Causal Loop Diagrams. So it's a good time to revisit tips on constructing these diagrams in Guidelines for Drawing Causal Loop Diagrams
  4. Today's game was Group Juggle. Here's one version of a causal loop diagram (drawn by Linda Booth Sweeney) to explain the behaviour seen during the game.

For next seminar:

  1. Read: Stauffer, M. (2018). An Introduction to Complexity Science for Social Sciences.

Feb 18, 2020

No Seminar - Reading Week

Feb 25, 2020

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


  1. Here are the slides I used this week.
  2. We started by playing with the Shodor fire models Fire and the slightly more sophisticated A Better Fire. If you want to explore more of these models, take a look at:
  3. We spent some time analyzing the Logistic Equation. Here's the spreadsheet we used to explore it: The Logistic Equation Spreadsheet
  4. We talked about how sensitivity to initial conditions affects weather forecasting. For a great overview of this, and where the current state-of-the-art is in weather forecasting, read Bauer et al, The Quiet Revolution of Numerical Weather Prediction.
  5. We talked about Rossby Waves and the Gulf stream as an example of a chaotic system with a recognisable attractor. You can see the current state of the gulf stream on this visualization, and compare it with a comparable simulation in a rotating tank of water.
  6. A very brief introduction to chaos theory
  7. Brief introduction to complex adaptive systems theory
  8. The classic long read on chaos theory is James Gleick's book Chaos
  9. For a fascinating read on the early development of Complexity Science at the Santa Fe Institute, read Waldrup's book "Complexity"

For next seminar:

  1. Read: Manson's paper Simplifying Complexity: A review of complexity theory, and for a second perspective on Manson's use of terminology, read Reitsma's response

March 3, 2020

Complex Adaptive Systems
  • System Structure and Change
  • Self-Organised Criticality
  • Power Laws


  1. I didn't use many slides this week, but here they are anyway.
  2. We talked some more about chaos theory and how it relates to climate and weather. If you want to read more on this, I highly recommend Ed Lorenz's book, The Essence of Chaos, which also includes an an appendix the text of his original "Butterfly" talk.
  3. We explored how stock market data also exhibit some self similarity (aka self-affinity). The diagrams were from an article by Mandelbrot in Scientific American. Note that Mandelbrot is not claiming that stock market data forms a fractal pattern, just that it shares some of the statistical properties of fractals, notably that volatility in the stock market follows a power law, so that you see the same kinds of oscillation at all timescales.
  4. The idea is picked up by economist Frank Ackerman, who explores its relevance to extreme risk and climate change in his new book, Worst Case Economics: Extreme Events in Climate and Finance.
  5. We explored a number of videos/demos of the kinds of stability and cascades of change that you get in self-organised criticality:
  6. The Wikipedia entry on self-organised criticality is also a pretty good introduction.
  7. The game we played this week is called "Triangles".

For next seminar:

  1. Read the chapter on Leverage Points from Meadows' book (also available here)

Mar 10, 2020

Pandemics and Systems Change
  • Global Pandemics
  • Multi-layered systems
  • Leverage Points


  1. Here are the slides I used this week.
  2. We talked a lot about the COVID-19 virus and global pandemics. During class I noted the World Health Organisations (WHO) had not yet declared it a pandemic. The next day (March 11), they did. Here's the chart I showed on flattening the curve, and the animated version that shows how the "carrying capacity" of the healthcare system is affected.
  3. There's a lot more information about COVID-19 at the Our world in data site.
  4. Robert Rohde at Berkeley has been charting the daily data. His latest chart is here. See his twitter feed for more.
  5. And here's the video I showed on epidemics and exponential growth.
  6. We talked about Leverage Points and the Parisian Shower. Here's the original article that example is from.
  7. The game we played this week is called "Space for Living".

For next seminar:

  1. Read: Holling Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems

Mar 17, 2020

No Seminar - A pause while we figure out how to take the course online due to COVID-19 pandemic

Mar 24, 2020

  • How pandemics work
  • Links between the pandemic and climate change


  1. Class will be online. Check your email for the zoom link
  2. I only showed four slides today and they were all about the pandemic.
  3. First, updates on the pandemic:
  4. And some links between the pandemic and climate change:

For next seminar:

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

Mar 31, 2020

Interpretive Systems Thinking
  • The Adaptive Cycle
  • Panarchy Theory
  • Principle of Complementarity
  • Soft Systems Analysis


  1. Class will be online again. Same link as last week.
  2. Here are the slides I showed this week
  3. We spent some time discussing the Adaptive Cycle. The original book on panarchy is Gunderson & Hollings "Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems
  4. For more on resilience, I highly recommend Walker & Salt's book, "Resilience Thinking", which also, I think, offers a clearer introduction to the panarchy model too.
  5. See also, Fath et al, 2015, Navigating the adaptive cycle: an approach to managing the resilience of social systems
  6. 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
  7. And I used an example of panarchy applied to the energy transition in the face of climate change, from this paper by Dangerman and Schellnhuber.

For next seminar:

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

April 7, 2020

Critical Systems Thinking
  • Critical Systems Heuristics
  • Boundary Critique
  • Intellectual history of Systems Thinking
  • Course Summary


  1. Here are the slides I used this week.
  2. The idea of a Wicked Problem was identifed in a classic paper by Rittel and Webber, Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning
  3. By way of introduction to Critical Systems Thinking, I talked about Stephen Toulmin's work on the structure of arguments. Here's a blog post from Ulrich tracing the philosophical roots of his thinking to Toulmin and Habermas.
  4. The most readable introduction to critical systems heuristics is Ulrich's A Brief Introduction to Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH).
  5. We used a mindmap of "Solving Global Warming" (from this site) as a warm-up exercise for boundary critique. The mindmap on its own is a good summary of the messages we typically hear about what we ought to do to address climate change. But an examination of what has been left out and why is interesting: this kind of message completely lets governments and corporations off the hook, and suggests it's up to us as individuals to change what we do. Which means inevitably, action on climate change is seen as a voluntary lifestyle choice, rather than a deeper systemic dilemma.
  6. I used two examples of to illustrate boundary critique, where people draw boundaries in different places. The first was on protests about genetically modified food; and the second, a very recent post on expert responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  7. We also met Ulrich's observation that researchers ought to trangress a boundary at least once a week. Here's a blog post in which he expands on this idea.
  8. I mentioned Michael Jackson's book, Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers. Don't let the "for managers" in the title put you off. It's a surprisingly good overview of the main strands of systems thinking over the past half century or so. The book is expensive to buy from major online retailers, but Abe Books has plenty of used copies.
  9. I skimmed over the intellectual history of Systems Thinking, but you might want to explore further using this map of the history of systems thinking and complexity science. There's also the ASC timeline for cybernetics, and Robert Horn's mural (although I can only find a sketch of it online).
  10. Finally, we talked about the systemic nature of pandemic responses, and in particular, the dynamics of lifting the lockdown restrictions. We explored this brand new (unpublished) study by Tuite et al on Ontario's pandemic response, and a new report on a modeling study in the Netherlands (auto-translated from Dutch).

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

Limits to Growth

Climate Change

Peak Oil


Advanced Topics

On Teaching Systems Thinking

Other Sources