A Systems Literacy Manifesto

Hugh Dubberly

Our technology is not a random accident, nor is its development self-directed. Instead, we create it, and we choose to use it. We are responsible for the world we live in. Yet today, we are less prepared than ever before to exercise our responsibility. Few people have the language to deal conceptually with our biggest opportunities for innovation—and our biggest problems—which are increasingly systemic in their nature.

Few people are systems thinkers. Fewer still are systems makers. Few have the tools and skills needed to understand existing systems as wholes, to diagnose malfunctions, and to imagine improvements. Even at the world’s most famous technology companies, managers, engineers, and other designers are rarely able to sketch systems views of their products, much less the ecologies in which they compete or cooperate. That means most of their work takes place within an “oral culture”, with little assurance of shared mental models. It is as if they were trying to develop a government without writing down any laws. These people are not stupid. On the contrary, they are very smart—but not very “systems literate”.

A first step to systems literacy is agreeing on a language of systems. A century of research into systems has found recurring patterns—and proposed language and models to describe those patterns. This research constitutes a body of knowledge (all-be-it one that is still growing). We can codify it in a “canon”—a set of readings which introduce the language and models of systems. And we can teach it.

That’s a necessary first step, but not sufficient. Language is not literacy. Systems literacy is more than reading and writing about systems. It is writing systems. Systems literacy is being able represent a system’s structure (based on interrogating an existing system or imagining a new system and abstracting appropriately). Systems literacy is diagramming or mapping systems. (System structures are more easily described and understood as images than as words.) Here too, we can rely on substantial prior work to provide exemplars—a small set of “primitives”, patterns that repeat in many systems. These patterns can be taught, much as one might teach figures of speech, rhetorical devices, or the five-paragraph essay—by asking students to apply them in their own work. It is by this sort of systems writing, that systems literacy will develop.

What’s more: By representing systems, language can be tied to structure. Through diagramming or mapping, systems language can take on real meaning; we can share our mental models, our diagnoses, and our plans. We can increase understanding; more quickly come to agreement; and more efficiently coordinate action. We can begin to live in systems and make them our own. We can take responsibility for our world.

Posted: Oct-2014

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