Thinking in systems while building worlds

To start to solve big problems (in the world or in business) we need to zoom out and consider the systems in which the problems occur.  To build rich convincing worlds we need to take a similar connected systems view.  Perhaps a world building approach will help provide new perspectives on big problems.

Everything is connected and changes in one part of system have impacts on others.  That is the heart of a systems approach. A city is a system, as are houses, the human body, a manufacturing process or a bicycle.

When we think in systems we need to break down our system into its constituent parts and think about how they connect and interact.  Systems are dynamic and what happens in one component affects another.

Break down your system into components

The human body, for example,  is a set of systems: skeletal, muscular, nervous, endocrine, cardiovascular, lymphatic, respiratory, digestive, urinary, and the reproductive system as a minimum.  If you burn your hand on the stove it will have impacts on many (or all of these systems); from the immediate injury to the short term effect on your breathing, your heart rate and how you feel.

A city is made up of multiple systems too: neighbourhoods, industries, communities, transport, education, recreation, energy, waste, commerce, politics, security.  Each of these is a system in itself (just like the human  body) and the effects of decisions made in one sub system ripple throughout the other connected parts. 

A business is also a system with many components; the supply chain, marketing, customer touch points, employees, customers, information systems, finance.  When we make decisions in business we need to explore the impact they will have on other parts of our business.

We can spot systems because they contain parts that interact or affect each other.  Our job in describing systems is to identify the components and explore these interactions.  We can start by simply drawing pictures and diagrams.

Draw Rich Pictures to explore relationships

I like using Rich Pictures as the simplest tool for visualising systems or problem situations; they are pictures with few words that shows how things interact.  The Open University has a good introduction to Rich Pictures.

Don’t worry if you are not a good artist.  Use sketch figures, boxes and arrows to show the main ideas (the components) and use arrows to show how one idea is linked to another (the relationships).

Here is a rich picture to describe the complexity of digital marketing channels available to a brand.  Notice the thickness of the areas arrived at, as part of a discussion of the effectiveness of each channel.

Use Causal Loops Diagrams to think about dynamic systems

Another useful tool takes the arrows and objects from rich pictures and formalises them a little.  A causal loop diagram indicates positive and negative effects by marking the arrows with the direction of the effect. 

Here are some ideas for a systems view of marketing:

  • Marketing spend increases audience awareness of our brand
  • Awareness of our brand causes more people to visit our ecommerce store
  • More people visiting our site causes more people to purchase
  • More people buying our products increases our revenue
  • Increasing our revenue allows us to increase our marketing spend

And here is a causal loop diagram that captures these ideas:

Causal loop diagrams also help us identify reinforcing and balancing feedback loops.  If A causes B to increase and B causes A to increase we have a positively reinforcing feedback loop where A and B will increase for ever.  This is unusual in most natural systems and we need to look for what other factors are bringing the system back into balance.

Notice each arrow marks an effect and the R in the middle says that each effect (r)einforces the impact on the next. The overall loop is a re-inforcing feedback loop; a virtuous circle in which marketing leads to revenue which leads to more marketing.

A balancing feedback loops is more common (for example considering a simple ecosystem model of rabbits and foxes):

Rabbits left to their own devices will produce more rabbits (a reinforcing loop) and so will foxes. But together numbers are kept in balance. As the number of rabbits increases so does the number of foxes but they eat more rabbits which brings the number of rabbits back down to some sort of equilibrium. This balance is shown in a casual loop diagram with a B.

What sorts of questions can be explored using systems thinking?

Here are some interesting systems to consider and draw as rich pictures or causal loops:

  1. Does building extra highways reduce rush hour congestion in cities?
  2. How can a brand improve its position in Google search results?
  3. What are the causes of inequality and where could governments intervene to reduce this?
  4. How do pandemics spread? How is this similar to transforming a company’s culture?
  5. Where are the security vulnerabilities in a bank or business? 
  6. How might the climate crisis affect your customers?
  7. What are the fastest ways to deliver aid after a disaster?
  8. How does my morning coffee come from farm to cup?

Building worlds is about building systems

Whether we realise it or not we apply the same systems thinking when we build worlds; acknowledging the complexity, the connectedness, and the exploration of what effects what is part of the essential skill set for a world builder.

Our world building template encourages us to consider some of the components and relationships in our world but leaves us enough flexibility to choose the specifics ourselves. It is from these specific choices that our systems model of our world will emerge.

Let’s work through an example based on an imaginary and simplified coffee growing area of a country.  Notice that whenever you think in systems you will make these simplifications and choices.  

1. Where are we?

List the aspects of the setting, the terrain and its geography that matter.

  • Mountainous
  • Strong flowing rivers
  • A coastal plain with an important city on it

Perhaps we draw and label a map to show where we are (a kind of Rich Picture with lots of implicit spatial and communication relationships).

2. Who lives here?

  • Farmers
  • Traders who take goods to foreign lands
  • Coffee berry borers (a very destructive African beetle)

Our world inhabitants includes our current or future characters and other species on whom they depend and with whom they live.

3. Shortages and abundances?

  • Water (plentiful from the mountains but under intense competition)
  • Productive land (in short supply due to other use pressures)

We are already making choices of what to include and what to leave out of our system by choosing what matters in our world. We can go back and add additional answers to any of these questions later as our world and its stories come to life.

4. What is valuable?

  • Ways of controlling pests
  • Labour or automation
  • Rapid access to markets

Notice that I have chosen to focus on what is valuable from an economic viewpoint. Many worlds will explore human emotional values instead and our world will need later to take these into consideration too.

5. How are people organised?

  • Coffee farming in this region has been traditionally organised with many small farmers but it is being replaced by large international food conglomerates who have changed the balance of power; buying up the farms and employing the original owners or their offspring as tenant farmers.

It is easy to see both opportunities and threats to our setting based on this big change in the ways things are done. 

6. What are the rules?

  • Strong quality control regime
  • Very high pressure to deliver to the international coffee market leads to strict control of labour (and discontent)

7. What are the myths?

  • Small coffee growers only grow coffee – in fact for many, coffee is a small side crop alongside other (often subsistence) food crops.
  • Cooperatives are the best way to organise farmers
  • Only some regions can produce high quality coffee

The above myths come from Daily Coffee News. Every world builder needs to do research and so does every system thinker.  Taking a complex topic (such as sustainable coffee production) and using it as the setting for building a world lets us explore the problems, the people and the issues up close.

8. What are the big issues?

  • Climate change 
  • Income inequality
  • Sustainable coffee agriculture
  • Relationships between farmers, roasters, buyers and consumers

9. How is technology driving change?

  • Genetic modification of coffee 
  • Digital tools for monitoring the growing processes
  • Tracing and authenticity monitoring through the supply chain

These big technology changes to the industry can be found here and here.

10. Other big forces? 

  • Coffee is a global business and what happens in one location affects others.

Visualising our world as a system

This is a system’s view of coffee.  It is also the start of a world built around the production of coffee and already the stories are starting to come to life.

In this longer than usual post I’ve tried to show how learning to do systems thinking and building worlds are similar. I’d love feedback or suggestions as to how I can take these ideas forward.

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