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Can System Think be a Twenty-First Solution to Social Catastrophes?

In his book “rethink, a Twenty-First-Century Approach to Preventing Societal Catastrophes”, Dr. Donald B. Louria advocates a societally-connected system thinking (SCST) approach to tackle current compelling issues that could cause social catastrophes. He outlines three cornerstones of societally connected systems thinking: the systems diagram, the ability to think like a futurist, and each generation’s commitment to solving societal problems. Some of these issues include; emerging infectious diseases, the moral hazards of research related to aging, resource depletion as result of population growth, the militarization of space, teenage drug abuse, and runaway healthcare costs. Although it sounds very promising, Dr. Louria fails to demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach.
Dr. Louria’s vision for the applications of SCST is broad and ambitious. Unfortunately, for people who may wish to apply his approach, he does not provide sound theoretical underpinnings to support its application. Nor does he supply the basic modeling tools for those who wish to gain an understanding of his method. For the sake of brevity I will highlight shortcoming in three areas that diminish the overall value of the book to both the academic and the layman.
1.      No instruction on how to construct a systems diagram. In his attempts to introduce systems thinking to the general public, Dr. Louira highlights the “systems diagram” as the best tool for evaluating social problems. Yet, throughout the book, there is absence of any instructions on how to construct a systems diagram.
 
It would have been helpful in showcasing the versatility of systems thinking if Dr. Louria had taken opportunity to go through the process of constructing his systems diagram in a step-by-step manner, rather than repeatedly stating “I draw a systems diagram”. Without stating their goals, structure, rules, parameters, delays, contingencies and constraints, the circle system diagrams by Dr. Louria appeared to be rather cumbersome and arbitrary. A rough definition of System Thinking is, the holistic systemic flows among multilayer interrelated constituent elements that exhibit certain properties only existing within a system as whole rather than in isolation, and the interactions through the feedback loop both with the elements within and environment outside the system. Dr. Louria failed to break these elements down so that the reader could apply for themselves. It would have been insightful if Dr. Louria had followed some structured and systemic procedures, such as the twelve Leverage points proposed by Dr. Donella Meadows, a prominent system thinker.
 
2.      Failure to showcase the advantage of system thinking over its conventional counterpart. In the first chapter, Dr. Louria gives a short and clear description of the characteristics of a system. However, his definition of Systems Thinking is rather vague. He states Systems Thinking should be thought of, “as a discipline for seeing wholes and a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than ‘static snapshots’”. However Dr. Lauria stops there and does not define these critical terms to his approach. Without precise definitions of these terms, the author fails to establish a firm base for the reader to apply his system. Neither does the author give a fundamental theoretical background of Systems Thinking. By dropping the name of a few of prominent system thinkers and putting many articles in the bibliography, it is insufficient for the audience to abandon Descartes's scientific reductionism and philosophical analysis and Newtonian linear cause and effect in the conventional thinking process.
 
His subsequent analyses of case studies don’t serve the purpose that in System Thinking, the elements of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems. His emphases on the causality of the given events reinforce the conventional thinking process. That is, within a system, the individual constituents can be explained completely in terms of others and the epiphenomenon is a consequence of the primary phenomenon. Hence, a notion of drawing a system diagram doesn’t equate to Systems Thinking. To be clear, System Thinking is a valid approach to understanding certain problems, however, the author has failed to make the case for his application of the approach.
 
3.      Confusing a system in transition with social catastrophes. Dynamic and open systems are constantly evolving and seeking equilibrium. They exhibit chaotic and oscillating behavior. According to Catastrophe Theory, small changes in certain parameters of a nonlinear system can cause deviation from its equilibrium, leading to large and sudden changes of the behavior of the system. Paradigm shift can produce some inferior results, depending on the prevailing environment.
 
Many problems in Dr. Louria’s case studies are raised from the dynamic interactions among the constituent elements and with the forces outside of the system. Some feedbacks cause the system to depart from its current equilibrium in less desirable manner and even migrate to an inferior equilibrium point. Sometimes, the discrepancy between the deviation and equilibrium appears to be alarming, such as in the case of global warming, resource depletion, and rising health care. Even with the large departure, the systems can be still within its path of evolution, without being a societal catastrophe.
 
Dr. Louria’s philosophical analyses bring out some valid points on the unstable interactions among the elements. However, being a negative force on the system is not sufficiently enough to qualify as a catastrophe, as in the example of the adverse impact of the recent aging researches on population. Except in the case of population growth, Dr. Louria is unable to quantitatively state the system limit of his cases. The catastrophes can be viewed as one of, and possibly the worst, of many unfolding scenarios. To “think like a futurist” doesn’t necessarily mean to be in crisis mode at all time.
Conclusion
Systems thinking is widely used in the specialized areas, from Black Box in trading, to dynamic programming in Global Macro analysis. There has been a movement to introduce it to the general public.
System thinking is different from the conventional reductionism methods in the sense that the system thinking views a system as a whole more than just the sum of its constitutional elements. This holistic approach encompasses the transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and multipespectival principles and concepts, such as in the field of philosophy, economics, physics, computer science, biology, engineering, sociology, political science, etc. System thinking does more than just linking autonomous yet seemingly related areas of interests together. By examining the interdependence of relationships of the constituent elements through scientific paradigms, Systems Thinking sheds a light on the properties that can be only “emerge” in a whole system rather than in isolation. As Dr. Karl Ludwig vonBertalanffy, the founder of general systems theory put it, Systems Inquiry, or in the matter of System Thinking, is “Integrating Philosophy and Theory as Knowledge, and Method and Application as action, Systems Inquiry then is knowledgeable action.”
Systems Thinking is not without drawbacks. System Thinking can be very sensitive to initial condition and systemic shocks. It can be cumbersome and convoluted. The intricacy and interconnectivity within a system makes it difficult decode. Different users can arrive at contradictory conclusions when analyzing the same system, depending on the designer’s experiences and the way it is modeled. It is subject to manipulation and myopic construction due to preconceived notions.
Systems Thinking is analogous to Top-down analysis, and Reductionism is to bottom-up approach. Systems Thinking allows you to see things in the big picture while reductionism goes after the nitty-gritty of a problem. They are complementary to each other, and both serve their purpose in the overall thinking process. It would be jumping to conclusions to claim that Systems Thinking is “a Twenty-First-Century Approach to Preventing Societal Catastrophes”.
It is important to incorporate Systems Thinking into daily decision-making. Dr. Louria might be a man of many talents. However, he doesn’t have the expertise and theoretical background of Systems Thinking to educate the general public. Lack of cohesive and systemic application of this approach makes it less appealing and reduces the book simply into a political-charged debate. Unfortunately this book fails in the ultimate goal of advancing this generation’s commitment to solving societal problems, let alone its claim that “it can be learned in only thirty minutes.”

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This book review was done under the request by Mr. Stanley Goldstein of

The New York Hedge Fund Roundtable .



Disclosure: no position