Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Visiting the Systems Zoo with Alan AtKisson

This morning I am helping to team deliver a day-long systems thinking module as a part of this week's Isis Academy (AtKisson Associates), a leadership programme for sustainability practitioners being held outside of Stockholm. Systems can be complex for some people, so we are starting with an introduction by Alan AtKisson, sustainability expert, author and song writer, on the "systems zoo". Listen to the Systems Zoo song here.

The Systems Zoo, a concept originated by German systems thinker Hartmut Bossel, has been translated into a sing-a-long song by Alan. As he walks them through the concepts, the participants don't know yet. At the moment, Alan is introducing the basic concepts, telling stories about them, and having the group say each word (he says they are onomatopoeiac, that is, they sould like what they are.) The words are:

  • Sources
  • Sinks
  • Stocks
  • Flows
  • Oscillations
  • Delays
  • Rates of Change
  • Nonlinear Effects
  • Feedback Loops
  • Na-na-na-na-na (well this is a part of the song, but not actually a systems concept)
To make some these concepts easier to grasp, Alan is using "rumours" as a story example. Rumours have a source, someone starts a rumour and tells it to someone else. And eventually, the rumours stop somewhere (like an internet archive, or a blog page, or in your head). In between, the rumours just flow around as people tell them to one another. Of course, along the way they stop, and potentially accumulate in a stock, like in your head while you desparetely try to not tell them to someone else. And then perhaps at some point after too much accumulations of corroborating evidence for the rumours, you just can't help it and you tell someone else, and the rumours flow again until they finish up (hopefully soon) in their sink.

The song is followed by an introductory presentation on modelling, being done by Piotr Magnuszewski, from the Centre for Systems Solutions (Wroclaw). It has now quickly gone into systems modules, with stock and flow diagrams, bathtubs, fishery models, and an introduction to Vensim. Much more complicated than the concepts seemed in the song and the rumours example, but that was a good familiar introduction to a way of thinking that is not familiar to everyone. Jay Forrester , one of the "fathers" of systems dynamics, was attributed as saying, that people's minds had not evolved to think about solving non-linear differential equations. That's for sure!

Note: The Centre for Systems Solutions website is in Polish at the moment, but they have an interesting new multi-player game in English on climate change negotations called the Climate Game.