Systems Thinking at UCL - notes

Raul Leal – Systems Thinking at UCL

Arvind, Alex, Alex, Inka, Bob, Mike, Barry, Janos, Clive

Presentation slides: Systems Thinking for Critical Thinking


Systems Thinking Engineer in Dept. Physics and Space. Systems view required in engineering. Sell training courses to industry. Initiative to take systems thinking wider – for PhD students at UCL. Delivering to the public – charged. £35. Promoting systems thinking as beneficial to society. Coincide with Critical Thinking – ST important for us.

What is ST? SLIDE Way of thinking which needs practice – make habitual. With practice will change the way we see things leading to better answers. Life is interconnected. Framework for the education of the mind. eg. Journey, family, city, device development. The device itself or the people producing it. System of interest – core but around it are people, supply chain etc. system development system. Masters Degree. Is the modeller part of the system? Premature question. Modelling will come. Defining systems. Place the platform on which will construct. Tools to help us integrate.

Properties of Systems – parts, interacting, emerging property, architect – system within a system. Engine is a sub-system of a car, its super-system. Company – essence is the people. Emerging property - Shareholder value, services and products. Project is a system irrespective of being temporary. Glass – could be seen as a system at the appropriate level of the hierarchy of things.

What is not a system? 

The architect decides. Workshop is a system. Created when decided to create it. When it is conceptualised and realised. When you want it to be a system. We want something from things. Architect is important. Sometimes we want an architect but it doesn't exist. Definition of a system is subjective. Diversity of architects sometimes necessary other times a single view. Importance of the architect. Committee, composition may change but the entity and processes produce the system in time. Context? Environment and natural systems? They are there own architect. Fibonacci series – expanding universe. What was there before the singularity? Universe is expanding but did it compress previously? Not choices/events. Mind – consciousness. Inorganic. Vernacular Architect – self organisation. System boundaries - important. We may not know about part of the system. Need to know about them. Hard to define boundary or it may move. Bring in elements from outside the system. Boundaries are linked to the architect. Deal with uncertainty around boundaries. Determine what is a system. Things outside is context or environment.

Revert to architect to see what is desired of the system? What do you want from a system / company? Shareholder value – create market, products. Undesired emerging properties – pollution from a car. Minimise undesired emerging properties. Creating mission statement? Different way of looking at a system. Is the output what we want? (slide 19). Process improvement. Measures/indicators. More objective way of getting to where we want.

Stafford Beer – A platform for change.

Classifying systems – different perspectives. Why classify? Specialising can bring extra knowledge.  By domain. Complexity – number of elements. Hard/soft. Closed/open. Mechanical things receipes to deal with them – human interaction makes it unique. Soft system workshop – adapting to the interactions. Closed – artificial boundary. Conceptual or Practical. Static or Dynamic – passage of time. Deterministic v probablistic - predicting with high certainty. Capacity to predict the future state of the system. Stochastic systems – approximate, estimate, probablistic determination. Characterise future state. Linear or non-linear way of interactions. Simple clear effect in linear systems. Magnifications eg. Weather. Linear systems are simple to define. Making non-linear systems linear – piecewise. Need the right model. 

Assumptions: Communal agricultural land – 30 users size is sufficient to produce organic food for survival to sustain the community– sense of community– agreement of common purpose, no impediments to use the land. 

Context is nature and human society . 

Elements – land, humans, climate/weather, inputs seed, fertilisers, water labour outputs food bi-products (compost), fuel, surplus for income/reserve, storage expertise/experience governance

Classification: Complex, Soft, open, Practical, Dynamic, Probablistic, Non-linear.

Emergent properties – Yield-food, social dynamics, income and cushion for future, quality of life including health pollution

System boundary – is the physical land and the community

Super-systems – tax, law, markets and societal/national context, interference from GM

Sub-systems – ground preparation, design/planning culture planting maintenance, harvest, seasons storage, climate/weather irrigation, access mechanisation.

Difficult internal problems: Division of labour and outputs

Difficult external problems: Weather, regulation, markets, supply 

Systems Thinking – principles: Holism, hierarchies, partitioning, lifecycles, Subjectivity. 

View of the bigger system will give us some coherence of the view of the flaws within silos. Incorporate elements which should be part of the system. Complete the picture of the system. Identify the elements which should be in it. Examining cause and effect, systems. Need the data.

Factors which affect the number of chickens. You can play with models – what if scenarios. Potential of models. 

What assumptions you make and where you want to go. Declare our values, what we see as valuable. Is working valuable. 

Value: customer/supplier relationship – imbalance; define the value here. Where is the value in the relationship. What we want where we are going assignment value to all the things of value. 

Alternative value system?

Hierarchy of values – eg. What do we mean by health? At the national level, at the company level.

Hierarchy is not about power but importance. 

Boundaries important in partitions. Perfect modular Integrated.

 Always have a lifecycle view.


Seven Samurai 

P1 within a context S1 in which P1 resides

Conceptualisation of an intervention system S2

S3 is the realisation system need to understand

Deployed system S4 changes the context S1  (Modified context)

S5 is a collaborating system 

Sustainment system S6

Competing system S7

About subjectivity – understand each element (SYSTEM)

S1 - British society with its current financial system

S2 – Expose the flaws

S3 – Education program materials etc. - backing / collaboration Positive Money

S4 – Execution

S5 – Collaborating system to support execution other groups and organisations. 

S6 – Sustain and explain alternatives

S7 – Economic orthodoxy – academic, business, 

P2 Attacks from Banking interests

Definition of problem and S2 are key

Managing Subjectivity

Process of enquiry -  

soft systems methodology



Session 36 – 10th September 2013

Time: 7pm to 9pm

Venue: Friends House, 173-177 Euston Road NW1 2BJ - on the ground floor in the corridor outside the cafe


1. Round up of week's news/events - Syria (30 mins)

2. International trade – trade barriers (40 mins)

3. GMO (40 mins)

4. Systems thinking course details/preparation - 11th September (10 mins)

* Please note Linda Kaucher will be talking international trade next week, 17th September 2013

Session 35 – 3rd September 2013 notes

Time: 7pm to 9pm

Venue: Friends House, 173-177 Euston Road NW1 2BJ - on the ground floor in the corridor outside the cafe


1. Round up of week's news/events - Syria (20 mins)

2. Systems Thinking with Raul Leal from UCL (80 mins)

3. Free discussion and planning for next session (20 mins)

Session 35 – 3rd September 2013 – notes

1. Syria – following the patterns in Iraq;

2. Complex to model a society. Consider all the variables which influence; what is possible? Systems thinking is not a recipe but framework to think containing a series of suggested perspectives; embraces tools to help think from different perspectives. Requires knowledge and tools to accommodate a diversity of points of view. People with different experience. Five or six perspectives – tools / methodologies. Opinions within perspectives. Focused on one objective/problem. One essential prerequisite – what is a system? it has 4 properties: more than one element, interconnections, at least one emergent property; there must be an architect. Nature is our conceptualisation of what we see – and we can be wrong – so we fix our model/representation of it. For cars there is an architect; implicit that there are boundaries. The idea of the architect is novel to UCL. Boundary is implicit but difficult to define in human systems. Complexity in human systems – soft systems thinking; identify the elements, understand the dynamics; help us control it'; hierarchical aspects of the system; life cycles, heritages and future; what can we learn from the past and how can we plan for the future; partitioning. ST portrayed as holistic thinking – another perspective. Partitioning is the opposite – not to incorporate everything – try to identify its parts. If there are three parts how do you determine what belongs where (sub-systems); super systems of which the specified system is a part. Holistic approach, partitioning; subjectivity – force oneself to take a different perspective. Designer, user, owner of brand, manufacturer, Dept of Transport; think from the others point of view. Soft systems perspective – using soft systems methodology – understanding systems containing human elements; ill-defined problem which is felt; diversity of ways to see life within it; eg. patron and servant. Complex and robust; Peter Checkland Systems thinking/ systems practice – soft skills.ST course taught three times a year to PhD students – different disciplines; using the PhD projects. Agreed to run a 7 hour course at UCL on one day in September using the land issue as the basis for the course. Date to be agreed.

Land issue; holes in Fred Harrison's thesis? Offer a language and windows where to look; make a simple model; Peter Senge, Donella Meadows; 6-7 hours; land; in September.  – after the course it would be worth reading Systems thinking/systems practice. Viable system model – recursive view. Stafford Beer worked with Allende in Chile. Platform for change; human geneticist; artist. Demonstrations against Mexican government; Shock Doctrine – applied globally; heritage – anthropology; systems.

Leadership – as children lead by parents; product of survival; 

Syria – vote; France and America; left of centre government; Occupy conflated over Syria; The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement by David Graeber - recommended.

A brief for the land issue – modelling is beside the point- we want to get out of it; constrain by saying what we want out of it; constrained by time? no. where do we draw the boundaries?

Next week:

International trade – trade barriers



Session 34 – 27th August 2013

Time: 7pm to 9pm

Venue: Friends House, 173-177 Euston Road NW1 2BJ - on the ground floor in the corridor outside the cafe


1. Round up of week's news/events - Syria (30 mins)

2. Help with Systems Thinking from UCL (10 mins)

3. Land, rent and wealth - analysed in Structural Thinking (60 mins)

4. Free discussion and planning for next session (20 mins)