Introduction to Systems Thinking: Singapore OSCE Workshop Summary

For this year’s OSCE, we explored systems thinking with a group of youth leaders (Check out the slides here). Our objective was to introduce the youth to systems thinking, and to conduct a system mapping exercise so that they can gain more understanding of the system they are interested to work on, and design interventions that will be more relevant and effective in affecting change that they want.

The economic system is one that is complex, with multiple stakeholders with differing priorities, interacting with each other and creating certain results. Understanding their interactions will give us clearer picture of the reality and inform our actions. Thinking in system is crucial when considering wicked problems, which are difficult to solve due to hazy link between the problem and solution. These are issues such as homelessness, environmental protection, and transition towards circular economy. Have you witnessed problems that keep persisting after many different intervention? How about solutions that backfires? (See this video) It’s a messy world out there!

For the introduction towards systems, we wanted to know what a system is, and the components and characteristics of a system. To do that, we played a simple ecosystem game. In this game, each participant was given a card representing various actors within an ecosystem, for example plant, cows, bacteria, etc. Then, using a string, they traced the carbon flow across different actors within the system. The string represents the flow of materials and interdependence between actors. After some substantial string-passing, we asked the participants to pull the string taut. We saw an extensive web. No one was isolated from the ecosystem. Each actor had its own function, and the actors interacted with each other to produce a sustained result.

Then, we introduced disturbances - A fire, a typhoon - and started cutting the string. As disturbances were introduced, some actors lost their connectivity within the system. As more strings were cut, more actors were isolated away from the web, and eventually the system failed. A system can take certain degree of disturbances. Its interconnectivity create resilience in the system. However, push it beyond its limit, and the system will crumble.

After that hands-on introduction to systems, we continued with a system mapping exercise to address issues that the participants were interested in (most of the groups did the education system). To create an accurate system map, participants have to be familiar with the system. They should preferably have worked in the system, so that they would have deeper insights on the reality on the ground.

Participants wrote the various actors, processes and values within the system on post-it notes, and used arrows to draw relationships between them.

More information can be found on this worksheet.

Once the maps were done, we took turns sharing our system map. The system mapping exercise brought into light several system characteristics that were previously hidden to us. For example, while the education system in Singapore aims to be meritocratic, rewarding students based on their capabilities, there may be some schools that appear to favour certain groups in their admissions due to school culture. The nature of certain actor might cause them to interact counter to what the system aims to achieve. The system map made us realise that to address a particular issue, we need to look at the areas around the issue and the stakeholders influencing them.

We also saw differences between two system maps of the same system, which was expected. The differences in understanding show the complexity found in societal and economic system, and highlighted the importance of a well diverse team, with group members having different experiences and viewpoints on the system.

Furthermore, after the sharing, several groups took the new knowledge from the other map and updated their system map. We learnt that the systems map is one that will be constantly refined as group members learn more about the system they are working on. System mapping is a never ending endeavour to gain clarity and understanding of the complex, ever-changing reality.

Overall, we had a great session exploring systems thinking. We hope that you too will take time to explore systems thinking!