CSC2720H Systems Thinking for Global Problems

NOTE: This page refers to a version of the course taught in the winter of 2016.
Click here for the current version of the course


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 fourth 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 term 2014. The previous course pages are archived at:

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

Course Outline (Draft - may change!)

This is a draft outline, based on last year's course. We can adapt this as we proceed, depending on interest.
  Seminar Topic & Notes Notes and Background Readings

Jan 11, 2016

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. 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. 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 Oops, we didn't do that one. Next week maybe.

For next seminar:

  1. Read: Chapters 1 & 2 of Meadows "Thinking in Systems"

Jan 18, 2016

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


  1. Here are the slides I used this week.
  2. We ended with a case study on the climate system as a set of feedback loops.
  3. 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 25, 2016

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


  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 cauls loop diagrams, see Richardson 1986.
  3. I showed lots of graphs of exponential growth, taken from Steffen et al's paper on the Anthropocene.
  4. It's hard to talk about limits to growth without joining the Impossible Hamster Club
  5. We talked about the original Limits to Growth study, published in 1972. There have been several updates:
  6. 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?.
  7. You can play with the World3 model used in Limits to Growth online here.
  8. Is economic growth is necessary? A good introduction to this issue is 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: Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockstrom, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., … Sorlin, S. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347(6223). (access via UofT library)

Feb 1, 2016

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


  1. We played the beer game!

For next seminar:

  1. 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

Feb 8, 2016

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


  1. Here are the slides I used this week.
  2. We discussed the results of the beer game. If you want the data from the game: spreadsheet for front supply line, and spreadsheet for the back supply line
  3. 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"
  4. Relationship between carbon emissions, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and temperature change. 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"
  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.
  6. Activities included: Harvest.

For next seminar:

  1. Read: Gardiner, S. M. (2006). A Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change, Intergenerational Ethics and the Problem of Moral Corruption. Environmental Values, 15(3), 397–413.

Feb 15, 2016

No Seminar - Reading Week

Feb 22, 2016

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 practiced drawing causal loop diagrams. For more tips on constructing these diagrams, see Guidelines for Drawing Causal Loop Diagrams.
  3. Activities this week included Warped Juggle and Frames.

For next seminar:

  1. Read: Manson's paper Simplifying Complexity: A review of complexity theory, and if you want a little more, check out Reitsma's response

Feb 29, 2016

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


  1. Here are the slides I used this week
  2. Here's a great set of videos introducing Complexity and Self-Organisation
  3. A very brief introduction to chaos theory
  4. Brief introduction to complex adaptive systems theory
  5. The classic long read on chaos theory is James Gleick's book Chaos
  6. For a fascinating read on the early development of Complexity Science at the Santa Fe Institute, read Waldrup's book "Complexity"
  7. Activity: Some of the Shodor models:
  8. 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 chapter on Leverage Points from Meadows' book (also available here)

March 7, 2016

Leverage Points
  • System Structure and Change
  • Changing Global Systems
  • Identifying Leverage Points


  1. Here's the prezi presentation I used this week.
  2. We explored a number of System Archetypes.
  3. The examples of leverage points for the climate system were taken from a piece I wrote on leverage points in both the Occupy Movement and Climate Change.
  4. Activity: Triangles

For next seminar:

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

Mar 14, 2016

Theories of Change
  • Path Dependence
  • Lock in
  • Panarchy
  • Regime Change


  1. Here are the slides I used this week. I also used some of these slides on panarchy (but I don't know where they came from).
  2. The original book on panarchy is Gunderson & Hollings "Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems
  3. 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.
  4. See also, Fath et al, 2015, Navigating the adaptive cycle: an approach to managing the resilience of social systems
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. Activity: Space For Living

For next seminar:

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

Mar 21, 2016

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


  1. Here are the slides I used this week.
  2. Here's a little more on the principle of complementarity
  3. Elizabeth wrote a primer on using soft systems methodology for wicked problems

For next seminar:

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

Mar 28, 2016

Critical Systems Thinking
  • Collaborative Systems Thinking
  • Boundary Critique


  1. Here are the slides I used this week.
  2. We did a boundary critique on this map of climate solutions, asking what's missing, and whose interests are served by excluding those things.
  3. A blog post I wrote on applying boundary critique to disputes over Genetically Modified Food.
  4. We explored Ulrich's Critical Systems Heuristics, particularly the 12 questions he uses to conduct boundary critique.

For next seminar:

  1. Read: Slaughter and Reidy, 2009, Understanding and resolving the global problematique: Assessing the balance between progressive & socially conservative foresight.

April 4, 2016

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


  1. I only used a few slides this week. For what it's worth, here they are.
  2. We spent some time exploring this map of the intellectual history of systems thinking and complexity science. 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).
  3. Games this week: Squaring the Circle and Web of Life.

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