Sustainability is a Society of Systems Thinkers

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly 10/08/2012

By Derek Cabrera

What is the crisis? My colleagues and I surveyed the faculty of Cornell University to identify how scientists from different disciplines thought about the most pressing crises facing humanity. Respondents brainstormed 116 diverse crises, sorted and ranked them in terms of importance and solvability. We used multidimensional scaling and cluster analysis to sort through their answers to the simple question: “What is the crisis?”

“Climate change and its effect on ecosystems” was ranked number one in importance, whereas the crisis ranked most solvable was “loss of civil liberties in the U.S. under the guise of fighting terrorism.” The only crisis ranked in the top 10 for both importance and solvability was “shortage of potable and clean water.” Interestingly, the most important and pressing problems on the list were also the least solvable and the most solvable were also the least important.

The Root Crisis. I asked myself: Is there a single “root crisis” that lay at the root of all of these varied crises? “Systems thinking” was born of a similar question; we know that problems are not divorced from the way we think about them. As a systems theorist, I took a machete to the tangled undergrowth of the field of systems thinking to find the best distillation of systems thinking. One of its early theorists, Gregory Bateson offered:

The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.

“Systems thinking” is a crucial relationship between systems (the basic units of the natural world) and thinking (the mental models we construct of this world). Therefore, systems thinking is a cognitive, knowledge-seeking act to understand the relationships between things grouped into systems.

In over a decade of research, I attempted to answer the question “What is systems thinking?” in a simple, but not too simple, kind of way (as Einstein advised). Systems-thinking “experts” propagated the belief that systems thinking was too pluralistic and complicated to be succinctly explained. Others suggested that it was a practice comprised of long lists of methods and tomes of convoluted readings that’d take years to master. I believed the power of systems thinking was in its egalitarianism, and I refused to believe that systems thinking was inherently impenetrable. I wanted to get to the core of the distinction: systems thinking through its universal properties, fundamental patterns and elemental structures.

The Systems Thinking Solution. Seeking that answer changed my life in two ways. First, it gave me many opportunities worldwide to tell people about the importance of systems thinking and its underlying structure. More profoundly, it changed my thinking and my thinking about thinking. To change one’s thinking in a transformative way is to strike at the root of the crisis.

The root crisis is a Crisis of Thinking. In other words, the root of all 116 crises noted above (and more), is not only how we think about an existing crisis itself, but also how our individual and/or collective thinking, over time, actually creates the crisis in the first place.

Einstein said, “Without changing our patterns of thought, we will not be able to solve the problems we created with our current pattern of thought.” We must think more deeply about the thinking (or lack of it) that led to the 116 identified crises in the first place and that perpetuates their existence. Solutions will likely come both from the creativity, innovation and invention(s) of individual systems thinkers and, more importantly, from the support and understanding of a populace of systems thinkers who recognize and implement the solutions offered in the first place.

Without both individual systems-thinking problem solvers and the support of a collective systems- thinking populace, the crisis of thinking will persist and the many subsequent crises will fester. We must therefore reject the “lazy” definition of systems thinking that it cannot be understood. Systems thinking must not be a rarefied construct available to only a few; it must be accessible to the masses.

And it can be understood by everyone. The same four universal patterns of systems thinking I have taught to graduate students at Cornell are shared worldwide with preschoolers and Ph.D.s, and are used by teachers, parents, students, CEOs, organizations, scientists, inventors and leaders of all kinds. The four interconnected patterns of systems thinking are called DSRP: Distinctions, Systems, Relationships and Perspectives. Systems thinking is cognitive pattern and the metacognitive awareness of these four processes used to structure any kind of information.

Systems thinking drives both individual and organizational learning and lays at the foundation of a sustainable society. By learning together how things are put together and how feedback loops are driving results, we can more easily identify and agree on solutions that redesign how we work and live so that we no longer generate crisis after crisis. (To learn more about the DSRP elements of systems thinking and how they are used to help solve problems, go to my post in the Sustainable Tompkins blog at

One Vision. Systems thinking is a solution to our Crisis of Thinking. Schools and organizations play a pivotal role in creating a sustainable society of systems thinkers, as does a clear, egalitarian, curriculum for systems thinking. Eight years ago, I founded an organization ( that spawned a movement toward an audacious vision: 7 Billion Thinkers. We are making great strides, with positive impacts in schools, organizations and society. Seven billion is a big number. Will you be one of them?

Derek Cabrera, PhD, is the co- founder of Thinking at Every Desk.

If you liked this article, you may want to check out our complete archives of SOS Tompkins Weekly articles