This is the fourth post in a six-post series on impact by ACS Associate Will Nielsen.

Spoiler Alert: Systems thinking promotes recognition of the wide ranging linkages and impacts possible from an initial action as well as necessitates greater connection between the sciences and studies of those impacts to maximize knowledge gained. 

We frequently talk about side effects as if they were a feature of reality. Not so. In reality, there are no side effects, there are just effects. When we take action, there are various effects. The effects we thought of in advance, or were beneficial, we call the main, or intended effects.
— Richard Sterman, 2000

Systems Thinking

Just because an impact is unintended does not make it any less important.

Building on Richard Buchanan’s ideas in his paper Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, we need to think more about systems. Systems thinking can be used to push the boundaries of the current separation between theory and practice, which ‘remains a source of disruption and confusion in contemporary culture’. Buchanan argues that the discussion needs to move toward ‘the concrete interplay and interconnection of signs, things, actions, and thoughts’.

Here are a few brief examples of activities (or in economics lingo: transactions) that can cause far reaching impacts when we consider the full system:

  • A new house is built with less expensive lumber imported from a country struggling with illegal logging. This leads to increased corruption in that country and an erosion of the rule of law.

  • The word choice in a public official’s statement on the local economy creates increased anxiety in 40% of the population. This leads to a population shift away from the city center and increased segregation of income levels.

  • A butterfly garden has a butterfly that flaps its wings and creates a tornado 350 miles east destroying a handful of farm buildings and hundreds of acres of crops. This is the classic example of the butterfly effect—a small initial event that can lead to much larger events, but now with the incorporation of a market transaction in the form of the cost to visit the butterfly garden, i.e. the source of the tornado.

Few methods exist to understand these scenarios in their entirety. Recognizing where causality exists in each of these examples is a key step in developing new forms of systematic thinking. Linking the initial conditions of new home construction, word choice in a public statement, and a butterfly’s wings to the results of erosion of rule of law, income segregation, and damaged crops are examples of desired outputs of systems thinking.

To do this we need to expand the connections between mathematics, sociology, economics, biology, and physics. The world does not operate within distinct silos; rather, it is a shifting, blended space where all sciences are woven together. Yet, our study of the connections between disciplines cannot be limited to what we already understand. It must expand into the realm of interconnected disciplines—the study of the relationships between various aspects of our lives.

To understand these interconnections better, we will turn to the subjects of dynamics and complexity in Part 5.