In this article, I will be discussing Systems Thinking and its application in Futures Thinking.
What is a System?
A system is a group of elements that are interconnected and interact with each other in which changing one part of the system affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behaviour.
What is Systems Thinking?
Systems thinking is a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way “how elements in a system are interrelated?” and “How does this interconnectedness of different elements synthesize to create a new effect in the system over time?” In Traditional Thinking, we do analysis by dissection of complexity into manageable components. Analysis fits into the mechanical and reductionist worldview, where the world is broken down into parts. But all systems are dynamic and often complex; thus, we need a more holistic approach to understand any phenomena. Synthesis is about understanding the whole system and its parts at the same time, along with the relationships and the connections that make up the dynamics of the whole system.
Systems mapping is one of the key tools of the systems thinker. There are many ways to map, from analogue cluster mapping to complex digital feedback analysis. However, the fundamental principles and practices of systems mapping are universal. Identify and map the elements of ‘things’ within a system to understand how they interconnect, relate and act in a complex system, and from here, unique insights and discoveries can be used to develop interventions, shifts, or policy decisions that will dramatically change the system in the most effective way.
Example: The image below typically shows the various first and second-order causes of Traffic violation in Chennai city. It is created by me for one of my projects which is done for understanding the favourable context of the traffic violation. From this diagram, you can notice varieties of elements like socio-cultural, environmental, demographic, technology are interconnected to traffic violation Element.
How do Systems Thinking help futures Thinking?
Systems Thinking is more about understanding how one thing results in another thing in a dynamic and constantly evolving system. It highly focuses on understanding macro forces in present.
Cause and effect are pretty common concepts in many professions and life in general. For Example, parents try to teach this type of critical life lesson to their young ones, and I’m sure you can remember a recent time you were at the mercy of an impact from an unintentional action. Causality as a concept in systems thinking is really about being able to decipher the way things influence each other in a system. Understanding causality leads to a deeper perspective on agency, feedback loops, connections and relationships, which are all fundamental parts of systems mapping.
When it comes to future thinking, It foresight a deeper perspective on agency, feedback loops, connections and relationships in possible future scenarios of the system that is derived by studying past & present of the system. Futures thinking is highly focused on understanding the macro forces in future.
Future thinking is a future-centred approach to long-term strategy — anchored in understanding the driving factors and context of different possible scenarios that could happen in future, creating future artefacts and generating creative ideas — that will enhance the way to do strategy for products, services, processes, and organizations. By using Futures thinking, you will have a forward view to avoid future shocks and to create disruptive innovations.
It is more about collecting insights rather than predictions. I would say future thinking is an evolved form of strategic thinking & secondary research.
Steps Involved in Futures Thinking!
Choose a specific Future: Inspire your team to choose a specific future that is directly related to your product, service, process and organization.
Gather Future Signals: Identify the events (Inventions, Discovery, Policies, Startup etc) in the recent past that has a greater probability to affect your chosen future.
LookBack History: Identify the events in history that have directly affected the field of your chosen future and signal.
Find Driving Factors: Identify the factors that shape the future by understanding the factors that shaped past events of your chosen field.
Create Future Scenarios: Based on the driving factors, simulate multiple possible scenarios that could happen in the future which explores insights like how different conditions might support or constrain your chosen field.
Generate Ideas: Use the scenarios which you have simulated to come up with a fresh long-term strategy, vision, and future artefacts.
Share the Story: Once you’ve arrived at the right strategy, vision, future artefact then share the story to introduce it to your colleagues, clients, and customers.
Future thinking is subject to iteration. So if necessary, iterate scenarios according to new gathered signals.
Archetype from movies that are loosely based on these concepts!
(Experts can skip it, it is mainly for students & newcomers)
Lets Consider Marvel Cinematic Universe = System Each Marvel Movies = Elements (Like Ironman 1 is one element, Avengers Endgame as one element) All elements are interlinked in a system = Storyplot of all movies are Interlinked & Interconnected. Consuming this whole set of movies, having a clear overview understanding of all characters, overall story plot & each subplot is Systems Thinking. Watching only one Ironman movie and understanding its story is Traditional Thinking. In one movie called Captain America First Avenger, Red Skull (Villain) says to Captain America “ you will have the power of Gods”. It is a weak signal. In Avengers Age of Ultron, Captain America slightly moves the hammer of the mighty thunder god Thor. It is a strong signal. Based on analyzing these two signals, as a marvel fan, I deduce Captain America will lift the hammer in future (One of the possible scenarios). It is futures Thinking.
Another perfect example of Futures Thinking is mentioned in my last article. In the Marvel movie series, Ironman understood the context of one of the possible scenarios where he dies, so he wanted to safeguard his teenage mentee spiderman. So he created E.D.I.T.H (AR glasses that has access to arsenals & drones) that will help spiderman in very adverse situations. E.D.I.T.H is the result of futures thinking done by ironman. Feel Free to connect with me on Linkedin! https://www.linkedin.com/in/isanthoshgandhi
Tools for Systems Thinkers: The 6 Fundamental Concepts of Systems Thinking (https://medium.com/disruptive-design/tools-for-systems-thinkers-the-6-fundamental-concepts-of-systems-thinking-379cdac3dc6a)
Futures Thinking and Design Thinking Simply Explained! (https://isanthoshgandhi.medium.com/future-thinking-and-design-thinking-simply-explained-d65716d67651)
Institute for the Future (https://www.iftf.org)
The Fourth Way: Design Thinking Meets Futures Thinking (https://firstname.lastname@example.org/the-fourth-way-design-thinking-meets-futures-thinking-85793ae3aa1e)
Systems theory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systems_theory)