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Systems thinking reveals emergent properties

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Systems thinking reveals emergent properties

Scott Miker

One of the concepts of systems thinking is the idea of emergent properties.  Emergent properties are effects that come from the various system components interacting.

These may go unnoticed to the person who thinks through problems linearly because they may not see the intended or unintended side effects that are produced from the system.

In Management Science – Decision Making Through Systems Thinking, authors H.G. Daellenbach and D.D. McNickle state, “Unfortunately, all too often emergent properties are not desirable or even planned.”

They go on to say, “One of the compelling reasons for using a systems approach to problem solving is exactly to predict planned desirable emergent properties and unplanned undesirable emergent properties resulting from a given decision better.  It is then possible to take suitable counter-measures or alter the original design to alleviate or avoid undesirable emergent properties at the planning stage, before they occur.”

We see this all time.  Years ago I was living in a city that was seeing business after business leave for another city for its headquarters.  This started to mean significantly less tax dollars coming into the city to be spent on improving the city and providing amenities to its residents.  Residents would brag about the great reasons for living in that city and low taxes compared to neighboring communities. 

This started to mean that the city officials had to find ways to reduce spending.  Obviously this started to impact the residents.  But too often I would hear neighbors complaining without any understanding of why they previously were able to have such great amenities, only seeing that something was being taken away. 

At one point a very large business wanted to build a new facility in the city.  The local residents got together to oppose the new business because the area that they wanted to build had a lot of wildlife and the building would destroy natural habitats.

Interestingly, many of these people couldn’t connect the fact that blocking businesses from entering the city meant the city officials couldn’t bring in new businesses to recover the tax dollars that disappeared when other businesses left. 

At this point, most residents wanted the benefits of each system change but not the consequences (emergent properties).  They wanted the tax money from businesses but didn’t want the natural resources to be impacted from new buildings. 

While this example shows many things, this highlights the importance of seeing the full system.  Opposing the new business might be the best thing to do.  But we need to be aware of the emergent properties (lack of incoming tax dollars) of this decision. 

Too often we look linearly at a complex system and just pull out the information that supports our opinion at the moment, never realizing that the emergent properties might have unintended consequences. 

But if we can better understand the system we can change how we approach problems.  We can try to work with the business to locate their new building where an old abandoned building currently sits.  We can determine what amenities will be cut if funds don’t increase, which may shed new light on how important that natural habitat is.  Maybe it makes that decision easy, but maybe it means the parks will lose the funding to keep up with them.  It could mean any number of things and without looking at the full system and all of the emergent properties we will likely gloss over some elements and highlight others, without really understanding the full scope.

When you look at a problem, make sure that you look at the full system when you decide how to tackle that problem.  What may seem like an easy decision might in fact have unintended consequences due to the way the various elements of the system interact.  Doing this will give more insight during the planning stages so you can adequately address emergent properties before they become problems.