CSC2720H Systems Thinking for Global Problems

Note: This page refers to a version of the course taught in the winter of 2018.
For the current version of the course, click here


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 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!)

  Seminar Topic & Notes Notes and Background Readings

Jan 8, 2018

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


  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)
  2. Here are the slides I used this week.
  3. The systems games we played this week are called "Avalanche" and "Frames".

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 15, 2018

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


  1. Here are the slides I used this week.
  2. We spent some time constructing causal loop diagrams. For more tips on constructing these diagrams, see Guidelines for Drawing Causal Loop Diagrams Note this paper uses "s" (same) and "o" (opposite) to denote what we've been labelling + and - links. Our notation is more common in the literature.
  3. We ended the class with a case study on the climate system as a set of feedback loops.
  4. Activities 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 22, 2018

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. We talked a little about the relative merits of stock and flow diagrams, but didn't get into this enough. For a more detailed analysis of the weaknesses of causal loop diagrams, see Richardson 1986.
  9. We talked a little bit about economic growth and GDP, and why 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).
  10. Is economic growth is necessary? A good introduction to this issue is Tim Jackson's book Prosperity Without Growth
  11. 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"
  12. 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)

Jan 29, 2018

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"
  5. I mentioned this paper, briefly, which explores the limited uptake of systems thinking ideas: Why has feedback systems thinking struggled to influence strategy and policy formulation? Suggestive evidence, explanations and solutions
  6. Finally, we talked a little about getting going on your presentations. Take a look at the contents of the book by Ramage and Shipp (username: systems password: thinker)

For next seminar:

  1. Read: Robock, A. (2008). 20 Reasons Why Geoengineering May Be a Bad Idea. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 64(2), 14–18.

Feb 5, 2018

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. Note that I've added missing factory data for line A (thanks Su!), so you can see all the data from the beer game now.
  2. We discussed the results of the beer game. If you want the data from the game: spreadsheet for A supply line, and spreadsheet for the B supply line
  3. We talked about 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.
  4. 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.
  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. Activities included: Warped Juggle and Harvest.

For next seminar:

  1. I've created a google sheet for you to declare which "thinker" you want to do a presentation on. Please add your choice before next week's class. Names already listed are taken! BTW you should work in pairs or groups of three for this.
  2. Read: Kim, D. H. (1992). System Archetypes I: Diagnosing Systemic Issues and Designing High-Leverage Interventions. Toolbox Reprint Series. Pegasus Communications Inc.
  3. And read: Kim, D. H. (2000). Systems Archetypes III: Understanding Patterns of Behaviour and Delay. Pegasus Communications Inc.

Feb 12, 2018

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


  1. I didn't have many slides today, but for what its worth, here they are
  2. We discussed the system thinker presentations. Sign up here if you haven't already.
  3. I've also created a google doc for your term paper abstracts. Please add a draft title and abstract (1 paragraph) to this doc before our next seminar in two weeks.
  4. I mentioned my blog post on how to write an abstract in six easy steps. It might be handy.
  5. 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
  6. 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: 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

Feb 19, 2018

No Seminar - Reading Week

Feb 26, 2018

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


  1. Here are the slides I used this week.
  2. Here are Abhishek and Tahmid's slides on Donella Meadows.
  3. ...and here are Kevin and Garret's slides on Horst Rittel.
  4. We spent some time playing with the Shodor models Fire and the slightly more sophisticated A Better Fire. If you want to explore more of these models, take a look at:
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. We talked about the logistic equation (I described it as a fish population model). You can play with the spreadsheet I used to demonstrate the attractors.
  8. A very brief introduction to chaos theory
  9. Brief introduction to complex adaptive systems theory
  10. The classic long read on chaos theory is James Gleick's book Chaos
  11. 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 the chapter on Leverage Points from Meadows' book (also available here)

March 5, 2018

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


  1. I only used a few slides this week, but here they are.
  2. Here are Vincent and Rose's slides on Kenneth Boulding/
  3. We explored a number of videos/demos of the kinds of stability and cascades of change that you get in self-organised criticality:
  4. The Wikipedia entry on self-organised criticality is also a pretty good introduction.
  5. The examples of leverage points for the climate system were taken from several different case studies:
  6. The game we played this week is called "Triangles".

For next seminar:

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

Mar 12, 2018

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


  1. Here are the slides I used this week.
  2. Here are Levon and Soukayna's slides on James Lovelock.
  3. We played with the fractal maker at Shodor, and saw some cool gifs to illustrate self-similarity: the Mandelbrot set; fern leafs; coastlines; the Koch snowflake.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. We looked at a number of examples of multi-level systems, where the levels of the system undergo change at differing rates:
  7. We spent some time discussing the Adaptive Cycle. The original book on panarchy is Gunderson & Hollings "Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems
  8. 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.
  9. See also, Fath et al, 2015, Navigating the adaptive cycle: an approach to managing the resilience of social systems
  10. 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
  11. The game we played this week is called Space for Living.

For next seminar:

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

Mar 19, 2018

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


  1. Here are the slides I used this week.
  2. Here are the slides from Aamod, Ishita and Revathy's talk on Ludwig von Bertalanffy.
  3. ...and Greg and Deeksha's talk on Norbert Weiner.
  4. ...and Curtis and Sukanya's talk on Werner Ulrich.
  5. 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.
  6. The idea of a Wicked Problem was identifed in a classic paper by Rittel and Webber, Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning
  7. The games we played this week are called "Colour, Furniture, Flower" and "Focus!".

For next seminar:

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

Mar 26, 2018

Critical Systems Thinking
  • Critical Systems Heuristics
  • Boundary Critique


  1. Here are the slides I used this week.
  2. Here are the slides from Gavin and Noah's talk on Ilya Prigogine.
  3. ...and from Chetna and Amna's talk on Mary Catherine Bateson.
  4. We talked a little about how universities are structured in such a way as to encourage silos of research in each discipline. I wrote a blog post about this a while back.
  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 mentioned a counter-point to this individualism - the idea that the most important thing we should do about climate change is to get organised politically. Here's Bill McKibben on the topic.
  7. 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.
  8. The most readable introduction to critical systems heuristics is Ulrich's A Brief Introduction to Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH).
  9. My example of boundary critique and protests about genetically modified food is from this blog post.
  10. We ended on 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.
  11. The games we played this week were Arms Crossed and 5 Easy Pieces.

For next seminar:

  1. Read: Flood: Total Systems Intervention (TSI): A Reconstitution.

April 2, 2018

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


  1. TBD

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