CSC2720H Systems Thinking for Global Problems

Winter Term, 2020

Note:

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: The rest of this page still refers to the version of the course taught in the winter of 2018. I'll update the outline and reading list closer to the start of term.
  Seminar Topic & Notes Notes and Background Readings

(1)
Tues
Jan 7, 2020

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

Notes:

  1. 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!)

(2)
Tues
Jan 14, 2020

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

Notes:

  1. Notes TBD

For next seminar:

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

(3)
Tues
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

Notes:

  1. Notes TBD

For next seminar:

  1. Read: TBD

(4)
Tues
Jan 28, 2020

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

Notes:

  1. Notes TBD

For next seminar:

  1. Read: TBD

(5)
Tues
Feb 4, 2020

Resilience and Collapse
  • The Whiplash Effect
  • Setting a Goal for Climate Policy
  • Geo-engineering
  • Tragedy of the Commons

Notes:

  1. Notes TBD

For next seminar:

  1. Read: TBD

(6)
Tues
Feb 11, 2020

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

Notes:

  1. Notes: TBD

For next seminar:

  1. Read: TBD

Tues
Feb 18, 2020

No Seminar - Reading Week

(7)
Tues
Feb 25, 2020

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

Notes:

  1. Notes TBD

For next seminar:

  1. Read TBD

(8)
Tues
March 3, 2020

Leverage Points
  • System Structure and Change
  • Self-Organised Criticality
  • Identifying Leverage Points

Notes:

  1. Notes TBD

For next seminar:

  1. Read: TBD

(9)
Tues
Mar 10, 2020

Multi-Level Systems & Change
  • Fractals
  • Power Laws
  • The Adaptive Cycle
  • Panarchy Theory

Notes:

  1. Notes TBD

For next seminar:

  1. Read: TBD

(10)
Tues
Mar 17, 2020

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

Notes:

  1. TBD

For next seminar:

  1. Read: TBD

Tues
Mar 24, 2020

No Seminar - Steve Away

(11)
Tues
Mar 31, 2020

Critical Systems Thinking
  • Critical Systems Heuristics
  • Boundary Critique

Notes:

  1. TBD

For next seminar:

  1. Read: TBD

(12)
Tues
April 7, 2020

Course Wrap up
  • Course Summary
  • Intellectual history of Systems Thinking
  • The Global Problematique

Notes:

  1. TBD

Useful Material

Books

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.

Media

Papers

Introductory Papers

Modeling

Applications

The Global Problematique

Limits to Growth

Climate Change

Peak Oil

Agriculture

Advanced Topics

On Teaching Systems Thinking

Other Sources