how we solve problems

Systems Thinking for Democracy

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In a democratic, dynamic, and diverse society such as the United States, solving problems depends heavily on three things: the news, critical thinking, and active citizens. When election season rolls around, we need to make tough decisions on how to address problems that have the potential to plague our country for years to come. If we demand systematic thinking at all levels of our society, from the people to the president, we will maximize our chances of tackling the root causes of our problems.

In the following diagrams:

  • Orange “Information Links” represent the transfer of information through various communication channels,
  • Pink “Thinking Links” represent the interpretation and understanding of information to form views
  • Blue “Causal Links” represent some other causal connection.

Any problem manifests itself through symptoms that we gather through our life experience or the news. Once we’ve taken stock of the symptoms, it is the job of both the citizens and policymakers to define the problem. Too often, citizens leave this step to the various camps of politicians, and accept the definition that politicians prefer to portray. This is the first link that depends on how we think, and systems thinking can help us understand the problem holistically.

The true underlying problem is as complex as the world itself, so all we can do is draw from the symptoms we observe to form an abstraction. For example, one “problem” that we hear about is our country’s wide achievement gap in education which brings about “symptoms” such as a large disparity in test scores, a scarcity of capable workers, and a growing income inequality. Now what about income inequality? That is a “problem” all on it’s own with its own set of symptoms such as growing poverty, widespread resentment of the rich, and large differences in local tax revenues between low and high-income communities. Since public schools receive a significant slice of funding from local taxes, schools in wealthier communities will enjoy more resources. Disparities in school funding bring us back to the widening education gap, which will eventually lead to growing income inequality. We’ve just walked ourselves in a big circle, and this is exactly the point. We start to approach the truth when we are able to define a problem as the set of relationships between all of the important symptoms we observe.

Once policymakers have defined the problem, they will communicate it to the public through various news media to the people (represented by the orange Information Link below). If the people have independently conceived of the problem, they can compare their definitions and communicate their agreement or disagreement about the problem, which will help refine understanding.


Politicians craft a solution that should solve the problem, or what they have defined to be the problem. Citizens come to understand  the policymaker’s proposed solution through the media (the orange Information Link), and they can assess how well the proposed solution fits the defined problem. Using a systemic frame of mind, they can ask: does the solution proposed address this problem holistically and not just the salient symptoms? Systems thinking tools can help us improve our Thinking Links by enhancing our understanding of the cause-effect structures of complex problems.

The votes, phone calls, letters and protests will communicate citizens’ degree of accordance. If they approve of the solution, it will be implemented. If not, policymakers will have to either revise their solution, revise their conception of the problem, or await new symptoms that can serve as supporting evidence for their case. Ultimately, if the problem definition was accurate, the solution fit, and it even ended up being implemented, the underlying problem can be solved. But this process is hard to see through because of all the Thinking and Information links presented below. Information sources may often convey the wrong pieces of data – bipartisan news channels craft biased stories to their viewers so that even the information we consume may be misleading. Even if we had all the pieces of information that we needed, we each have different mental models to interpret why the problem is happening, and what can be done to solve it.

Without systems thinking, we are prone to oversimplify problems and misinterpret the symptoms we observe. Without systems thinking at all levels of our democracy, we forgo the most important checks and balances we have, the interaction between a policymaker and her constituents. The job of the politician in a democracy is to speak to the consciousness of the people, so it is the people that must take the first step to elevate our consciousness to think about systems and not symptoms.

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2 comments

  1. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an really long
    comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyhow,
    just wanted to say fantastic blog!

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