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Sunday, 31 January 2010

Systems thinking and outcomes

I'm going to talk about systems. We tend to use this term so casually that we forget that it really requires a big change in the way we think. What do I mean? well, let's start from the beginning and use an example of a community.

You move into a village and you really like it. On weekends, people go to the village green, have picnics, everyone knows everyone else and they welcome you as a local. Someone knocks on your door and tells you that your headlights are on, and they invite you to a party at the village hall. You think, wow, this is really nice and you become part of the village, the unwritten 'norms', the friendliness, the sense of ownership and responsibility to your neighbours and other villagers.

The village becomes popular and more houses get built. Pretty soon, 8000 people become 10,000 and then 30,000 and in a short span of 10 years, you suddenly feel the village has lost its community feeling. There's graffiti on the walls, no one smiles much anymore and there are hardly any village get togethers. What happened? was it because there is more antisocial behavior from the young? is it because of the size? it's easy to say 'well, we went from 8000 to 30000, that's what happened' but that's not a reason. what is it that held a community together at 8000 that cannot hold at 20,000? what if you had to design a village, a city and a community? how would you do it?

Community, is a typical example of an emergent property. The scary bit about emergent properties is that its the property of the whole, and only exists as a whole, not a property of the component bits. you can throw people, pond, playground, houses, village hall, shops and schools together but that does not make a community. community is about the interactions between the components. In other words, its not about people and playground and houses and shops but the word and in between those words.

Health is an emergent property too. It's about our diet, our fitness, our genes, our lifestyle, all interacting with one another. How do you design health? or community? the scientific thinking we've been taught is so component based that i can bet you're thinking... ok... let's see what components go into that system and design it accordingly. er... no...emergent properties cannot be deterministically designed (it's 'emergent'?)That's the problem.

System thinking is not intuitive. Our scientific education have taught us to be reductionist in that the division of a complex problem into separate components is acceptable and that the elements of the whole are the same when examined independently of the whole as when they are examined as a whole. Think about the way we go through our lives - the whole 'plug and play' mentality has made us troubleshoot systems by taking out bits at a time, look at it, change it, fit it back and expect things to work. This is fine if the linkages between the components are weak but disastrous if the linkages are more important than the components - the case of a community.

Systems thinking is important in understanding VALUE and OUTCOMES because it radically changes the way we think and we really have to start thinking in this way. The world we are currently operating in is becoming more complex, where components cannot be analysed on its own, but within their ‘whole’, as the interactions between components are key to achieving system level outcomes. Our world is evolving towards complex systems where offerings are interconnected. The nature of the interdependencies are accelerated by technologies moving towards convergence resulting in the involvement of multiple stakeholders and multiple customers all contributing resources into the system and paying for different facets of the system and deriving different benefits. Emergent properties such as community, health etc. are starting to be key outcomes to society and yet because the design is not one of cause-and-effect, is not one of modularity (plug and play), we need to think differently. During the industrial era, outcomes were achieved with inventions such as steam engine (transportation), TV (entertainment) and these are designed and produced in a reductionistic, component-driven way. Our future in the modern economy wants critical systems-based outcomes such as community, sustainability, health and yet the knowledge to achieve such outcomes is still so lacking.

A final word about emergent properties. If you don't know what caused the emergence, they can be very fragile. Sometimes the wrong interventions disrupt the entire property. i like to use newscorp's monetization of myspace (see economist article here) as how their intervention is destroying the myspace community. The economist attributes it to the neglect of technology. my opinion is that it goes much deeper than that. the emergent property of community in myspace was a result of interactions between users. myspace just never knew how the outcome was achieved and what resulted in that emergence. They now run the risk of ruining that property for good (i happen to know a little about newscorp and I gather that they really want to develop their own content for the community, rather than have the community develop the content. good luck). And I dont buy the 'ubiquity first, revenues later' argument either for developing online communities. The community can go down at 6m, 60m or 600 million if the interventions are wrong.

Online communities give the illusion that we have data for all the interactions - online right? so we can get loads of data, the kind of data we couldn't get from a village community. right? maybe..... but the science and thinking is still the same. systems thinking is to think about interactions and emergent properties (and from the design angle, its about interventions and feedback (see comments in my blog post below on nokia and value). Quite different from component-based design that we're used to.

2 comments:

  1. French say "on peut tuer un révolutionnaire mais on ne peut pas tuer la Révolution". So, i think you can try to control a system, but in reality you can't.
    System is like the life.

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  2. I think the importance of understanding the meaning of interdependencies in an eco-system is beautifully told as a story, so some of your more progressive ideas can be more broadly grasped by different audiences. As I have been following your work for a while I've been aware of how complex the challenge of design for services is, but at the heart of it all is people and how service systems creates value for them. This is, I find, something I can really relate to and I hope that this awareness will make me become a better service designer, and better able to ask questions in the front end of the design process, particularly as over time I have become interested in my knowledge gaps, which once included participatory approaches to generative design. I'm reading about generative research at the front end of design at the moment and it is really SPEAKING to me. I do realise that education never ceases and without doubt, people who progress my own thinking become valued. So thanks Irene for sharing yours.

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