Book review : Thinking in Systems — A Primer
This article was originally published on my blog — https://kislayverma.com/books/book-review-thinking-in-systems-a-primer/
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Thinking in Systems: A Primer is a concise and crucial book offering insight for problem solving on scales ranging from the personal to the global. Edited by the Sustainability Institute’s Diana Wright, this essential primer brings systems thinking out of the realm of computers and equations and into the tangible world, showing readers how to develop the systems-thinking skills that thought leaders across the globe consider critical for 21st-century life.
In a world growing ever more complicated, crowded, and interdependent, Thinking in Systems helps readers avoid confusion and helplessness, the first step toward finding proactive and effective solutions.
Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows is an absolutely wonderful introduction to the world of systems and systems thinking. It lays out the conceptual landscape of the entire discipline in language that is accessible to everyone, including non-technical people. It is a basic book which covers only the most basic principles of systems thinking and modelling.
The initial chapter lays out the world of systems, the second chapter explains some basic terminology of systems like stock, flows and feedback. This is used in the subsequent chapter to showcase some typical system structures in what Domella calls the “Systems Zoo”. It is fascinating to explore what remarkable behaviours can emerge even with very simple arrangements of water, taps, and bathtubs! I have written before about modelling complex technical systems like meshes of water hoses, but this book is the master class in that way of thinking about absolutely everything in the world.
The next section covers the properties of complex systems in some details and explains how the principles for feedback loops and stocks lead to a rich diversity of nonlinear behaviour and how the human mind is singularly ill-equipped to comprehend all these forces acting on each other. The resultant “bounded rationality” of actors in systems is a major cause of all the confusion we see in the world around us.
Next come some particularly perverse but unfortunately common system behaviours the author called “System Traps”. These are followed by a list of leverage points which can be acted upon to alter system behaviour effectively, but we have to understand them right. The book closes with some heartfelt advice on being an effective systems thinker (or any kind of thinker at all)
More than teaching the technicalities, the author places a far greater importance on exposing the rich, complicated, and unexpected nature of real world systems through day-to-day examples. She repeatedly cautions against the idea of “control” in a world which defies control by its very nature. In many ways, this is a book about people and their attitudes towards the world. If you have ever heard the phrase “all technical problems are people problems” — this book will make it clear exactly why that is. It warns against false casualties, simplistic explanations, and impulsive action just as it exhorts empathy and humility in our intellectual endeavours.A lot of the theory about teams and organizations has emerged from the principles of systems thinking, and this book explains those principles very effectively.
If you want to understand the world we live in and the systems that exist all around us, Thinking in System : A Primer is an absolutely essential starting point.
The book contains nice summaries throughout chapters which sum up sections, and there is a redux at the end. I have collected the most powerful excerpts of the book to give you a taste of what to expect. Hope they convince you to get your own copy ASAP!
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