Thinking in Stories and Thinking in Systems
I recently watched ‘Tomorrow,’ a woanderful and award-winning documentary film about how people are responding to the uncertain future of our planet. What struck me was how well the filmmakers balanced the power of storytelling with systems thinking. I think this is a crucial fusion in thinking to dealing with complex problems, so let me explore this a bit further.
As humans, we have a long relationship with stories; narratives that generally (but not always) have a beginning, middle and end. Often there is a hero who undergoes some transformative change and a villian who blocks their progress. Stories are especially powerful when we deal with complex, distant and emotionally challenging topics, like the effects of climate change on the environment.
In ’Tomorrow’, the documentary took an optimistic lens, focusing on how people are trying to do their best to make change locally. Following individual stories was powerful. It evoked emotion and created inspiration, rather then despair.
Where things really got interesting though, was the choice of breaking the documentary down into five related ‘chapters’: Agriculture, Energy, Economy, Democracy and Education. In a small interlude between each chapter, ’Tomorrow’ started to paint a picture about how these entire tremendous domains blend into an overarching system. I found it a simple, but incredibly powerful, way to knit these separate stories together.
Typically, when we think of things like the environment, schools and governments, our impulse is to break the problem down and understand all the individual parts. ‘Breaking things down’ is an analytical lense that is powerful when we want to understand things on an individual level. However, complex systems often only make sense when we bring all the parts back together and see them as a whole. This is synthesis as opposed to analysis. This is systems thinking.
Systems thinking comes from a desire to understand how things in the world fit together, how they relate to each other and how the sum of all the parts creates complex and interesting behaviour. There are systems all around us. Our bodies are a complex system. A school is a system. Government is a complex system. A system is a set of things that influence each other toward a higher order function, outcome or goal. A pile of rocks is really just a pile of rocks. However, many piles of rocks plus seismic events, vulcanism, weathering and other relationships create a full geological system.
Although ‘Tomorrow’ focused only lightly on how agriculture, energy, economy, democracy and education fit together to address climate change, it was a welcome change in thinking all the same. Though I might have hoped for a deeper exploration of the feedback loops and ways in which success in one domain (e.g. education) changes another (e.g. democracy), the filmmakers did an admirable job to fit the content they had into two hours. They showed what are usually considered individual problems to be interrelated.
For example, we can’t expect democratic behaviour to be part of our culture if it is not part of our education system. We can’t expect democracy to thrive unless better economic systems reinforce strong and local democracy. In turn, we can’t expect better treatment of our resources in agriculture and energy unless there are good economic incentives and a strong democracy to manage it.
It can feel overwhelming to juggle all these disparate elements. But we shouldn’t consider them as separate pieces. They are a system. Rather than seeing dozens of unrelated parts, we need to recognise them as connected, with pieces that accentuate or inhibit each other. It is a very different lens, but one that encourages deep and holistic thinking, and which results in a fresh, powerful perspective.
Freeway Photo by Firdouss Ross on Unsplash.