System Dynamics as a reflective practice

By Igor Oliveira
Located in Lisbon, Portugal
European Master in System Dynamics candidate

The first semester of the European Master in System Dynamics (EMSD) has been my first intensive experience with dynamic modelling. During our first three courses in Bergen, we learn the fundamentals of system dynamics, replicate classic models and have the opportunity to conduct a mini-project by building our own model to interrogate a real world problem that interests us. My project was focused on the emergence of climate conflicts in Africa, in the context of changing land use patterns and ethnic tensions.

As someone who had long been inspired by systems thinking in my consulting practice but had not yet focused on learning modelling techniques, the first striking lesson for me was to focus our energy on first understanding and describing how things really work in society or nature, depending on the problem we are studying.

Focusing on system structures that generate problems is challenging in a world where every apparent correlation is immediately reverberated by news, social media and traditional forms of analytical decision-making. Escaping this trap has a value per se and may allow us to become “institutional hackers”: people who understand the structures which generate problems so well that we are able to replicate and redesign them.

The second striking discovery I made is that modelling informs me even more about myself than about the world. When we challenge our mental models through iteration, we trace our views back to the perspectives rooted in our own background, network and lifestyle. As a tool for self-awareness, system dynamics modelling is therefore highly effective because it provides us with opportunities to test our perspectives and personal values in the real world. Even better, when we practice modelling with a group of people experiencing similar realisations together, the potential for both individual and collective learning is actualised.

Having made these insights, whenever I am talking about System Dynamics, I tell people that it is a social reflective practice. The word ‘social’ carries a double meaning: it refers to the fact that we investigate societal problems and also to the interactive and interpersonal nature of the discipline. By ‘reflective’ I mean it alters both our inner life and our worldviews in a cyclical way. As a practice, it has been spread over the world in ways traditional academic metrics cannot capture, beyond the borders of what we are used to call science or method. But I will leave the epistemological side of this story for the next blog post.

About the author: Igor has more than 8 years of experience as a consultant in the fields of responsible investing (working with asset managers, pension funds and other institutions) and entrepreneurship promotion (alongside government agencies, private foundations, universities and corporations). Currently a student at the European Master in System Dynamics and a newspaper columnist in Brazil, where he has also founded a company and two NGOs.

Contact Igor on LinkedIn

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