After reading quite a few books on systemic racism. I was compelled to find a book on the discipline of Systems Thinking. I found “Thinking in Systems” by Donella Meadows to be a highly read and rated choice on the topic. Given the complex nature of systemic racism and racist actions, how do you tackle it. I believe systems thinking can provide a framework for doing just that. Given that we can’t just change a system directly, in “Thinking in Systems,” Donella Meadows outlined a list of interventions you can lever to influence the system. She sorts the leverage points in increasing order of effectiveness, from the easiest to lever/least long term impact on the system; to the hardest to lever/most effective to long term impact on the system. The easiest and least effective is effecting Numbers (e.g. effecting #’s and %’s); the hardest and most effective is Transcending Paradigms (which is almost spiritual), but 2nd to the hardest/most impactful is Paradigms (i.e. changing the societal culture around how we consider each other). I think racism needs to be attacked from the top and bottom, that is starting with Numbers AND Paradigms; converging where they do.
There are 12 interventions you can take to impact change in systems:
Numbers (like subsidies, taxes, standards, minimum wage, research investments) define the rate at which things happen in the system.
Buffers are stabilizing stock, relatively to flows. Big buffers make the system more stable, small buffers make it more subject to change. A good example of buffer is the money you keep in the bank: it helps you manage extraordinary expenses.
10. Stock-and-Flow Structures
This represent the structure of the system itself, how material stocks move through the system itself, and while changing it can in theory change a lot, in practice it’s very hard to do so. For example the baby-boom put strain on the elementary system, then high school, then jobs, then housing and then retirement, and there’s nothing changeable in that.
They determine how much time passes between the moment a change is made on the system, and the moment when the effect of the change happens. You can clearly see how a long delay makes everything challenging, so being able to shorten it could lead to lots of benefits, if possible. Changing delays can have a big impact, but similar to flows structure they are very hard to change. If there’s energy shortage and you need to build a power plant, that takes time.
8. Balancing/Negative Feedback Loops
A balancing feedback loop is a self-correcting logic composed by three elements: a goal to keep, a monitoring element, and a response mechanism. It is a mechanism that tries to keep a specific measurement around a specific goal. For example a thermostat has a goal temperature and it turns heating on to keep that temperature. While it is relatively simple to spot a loop in terms of mechanics, it’s harder in general. For example a law that grants more protection for whistle-blowers is something that makes the feedback loop that controls the neutrality of a democracy stronger.
7. Reinforcing/Positive Feedback Loops
Reinforcing feedback loops are built similarly to negative feedback loops, but instead of keeping a variable stable around a goal, they aim to reinforce it: the more it works, the more it gains power to work more. For example giving bonuses for every sales done is an incentive to sell more (even if we know that it damages the system as a whole more than the benefits of it), or the more you have in the bank the more interest you earn. Positive feedback loops are usually perceived as positive, but since they keep growing they can build up and damage the system in the long run if they aren’t controlled in some other way.
6. Information Flows
Creating new balancing or reinforcing feedback loops, changing how information is propagated and how it’s made visible in the system, these are all changes in the information flows structure.
For example if you put the energy counter clearly visible to a family you make them more aware of how much they are consuming, and the effect is that they consume less. This basically creates a new negative feedback loop without changing any other parameter in the system.
The rules of the system define its scope, its boundaries, its degrees of freedom. Incentives, punishments, constraints, are all rules of a system. Examples are everywhere, from the constitution (a set of do / do nots) to free speech to game rulebooks. These are strong leverage points, and they can be both written and unwritten.
This is the power to add, change, evolve or self-organize system structure. In biological systems that power is called evolution. In human economies it’s called technical advance or social revolution. In systems lingo it’s called self-organization. These are structural transformation of the system, usually due to new elements appearing, such as the currency or the computer. Variability, diversity, experimentation are usually a key element to make a system evolve, but they are hard to accept because they make “lose control” on the system given what they bring to the table is something new and as such still unknown.
Goals have the power to transform and define each and every leverage point above. If you’re creating a system, like an organization, it’s relatively easy to see the goals because usually there’s someone to set them, and if there isn’t, then the organization is likely to have a problem. Leaders, managers, heads of state, have the power to modify or set new goals. If someone with this power says that the goal is to get a man on the Moon, well, a lot of the other variables are going to change to accommodate this goal.
Everything, including goals, arise in specific mindsets, social contexts, beliefs. In a country with a low rate of tax evasion, you need very few rules that try to address that, you probably don’t even need to have “avoid tax evasion” as a goal anywhere. These beliefs can be changed, and while in societies this can take a long time, in individuals can be a matter of an instant. Changing the paradigms from which a complex system emerge can be done by pointing out anomalies and failures. You work on active change, building more and more the new one. You don’t spend time with reactionaries.
1. Transcending Paradigms
No paradigm however is true in an absolute sense, our understanding of this infinite universe is limited. So every paradigm can be embraced, and changed, and treated as a relative variable. There isn’t just a change from an old system to a new system, there’s the possibility of an infinity of them.
This won’t be easy but it’s required, and together we can truly make lasting change, this time.