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systems thinking for social change

A 2015 book by David Peter Stroh 


Whether you are committed to ending homelessness, strengthening education, improving public health, reducing the problems of poverty, developing environmental sustainability or helping people  live better lives in other ways, you may have noticed that the organizations and systems you want to change have a life of their own.


This is the start of the introduction of a remarkable book by David Stroh, a founding partner of Bridgeway partners who also cofounded Innovation Associates, a firm whose thinking inspired Peter Senge to write “The Fifth Discipline”.


“Systems Thinking for Social Change” explains the powerful mechanisms that perpetuate the status quo or deterioration of many elements of society, despite everybody’s best intentions and best efforts. It makes the case of how many efforts actually exacerbate the problems that they are trying to fix and it does this by explaining a number of concepts that many, if not most social systems have in common.


The first realization is that people’s thinking, attitudes and beliefs form part of the system. In an example often referenced in the book, Stroh explains the research finding that fear of becoming victim of a crime is a bigger driver behind incarceration than crime rates themselves. This fear has some relationship with actual crime but is also driven by less tangible factors like perception of groups other than one’s own.


A second concept presented in the book is how in many systems an action can have multiple effects and not all of them occur instantaneously. Longer term effects may only become visible over time, but they tend to also stick around much longer. An example of this is how homeless shelters can actually have a unintended and long term negative impact on homelessness by diverting funds from affordable housing and making the problem of homelessness less visible.


The third characteristic of many systems is that they operate in loops. Actions trigger change in one parameter, which will in turn affect one or several others. This cascade of changes often turns back to the original parameter and can either reinforce it, balance it out or even turn it negative. Since many effects only happen after significant delays, it is not always easy to recognize these dynamics.


“Systems Thinking for Social Change” is written for anyone who wants to create real change in complex systems. It describes the mechanics of understanding and visualizing systems as well as the ways to build coalitions and address hidden agendas. A highly recommended read!



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