The Social System Design Lab: Engaging Communities and Building a New Generation of Systems Thinkers
The Social System Design Lab at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis has been applying system dynamics in community settings for nearly 10 years.
In that time, the Lab has engaged a range of organizations in projects that clarify problems and identify opportunities to increase quality and effectiveness of
social well-being and health services. At the same time, the Lab is preparing the next generation of problem solvers by involving high school, undergraduate, and
graduate students in system dynamics projects.
Most of their work is with foundations, non-profits, and K-12 schools. Peter Hovmand, the founder of the Lab, adds, “We also do research in collaboration with groups
which typically involves working with both those who deliver programs and services as well as the intended beneficiaries of those efforts.” Childhood obesity, nutrition,
food systems, cancer, and gender-based violence are just a few of the issues the Lab’s client organizations are tackling.
Hovmand founded the Lab in 2009, but was introduced to Systems Thinking in the 1990s while a graduate student at Michigan State University. As is the case with so many
system dynamics students from that time, he was intrigued by the work and ideas of Barry Richmond, founder of isee systems. “I had the good fortune to sit next to Barry
at a conference luncheon,” says Hovmand. “He keyed me in to the role of language in Systems Thinking.”
Richmond’s decades-old insight on the importance of language to Systems Thinking was central to a recent engagement that offers an example of the Lab’s work. A group of
healthcare leaders were trying to improve the quality of care in hospitals. With Professor Camilo Olaya and a technical assistance unit from the Inter-American Development
Bank, they were able to introduce the concept of the capability trap and work with leaders to recognize capability traps in their systems. Hovmand explains, “A capability
trap is a situation where people get so busy fixing errors and putting out fires that they don’t have time to invest in process improvement. Everyone works harder and
harder. People get burned out. They think, ‘Why should I have to work so much harder when the process is obviously broken?’”
Identifying these situations and being able to communicate that to others, especially those outside their organization, can remove some of the barriers to working more
effectively together and align their efforts to remove capability traps. “People in healthcare generally want to help and care a lot about their patients. They want to do
good work,” says Hovmand. “Over and over, we hear that clinicians want to spend more time with patients to increase the quality of care they deliver. And they’re willing
to lend some of the resources they control to get that time.”
Workshop participants took the idea of a capability trap and the language of Systems Thinking back to their hospitals, clinics, and classrooms. Hovmand has heard several
examples of how organizations used the capability trap to think about how to investigate and improve their system of care delivery. He has found that Systems Thinking changes
the language, removing blocks to collaboration and coordination. This helps “teams work more effectively to achieve lasting impact in their communities.”
There’s a lot to be gained by using Systems Thinking to teach and empower students to develop their skills in Systems Thinking, whether that is to advance their interest in STEM,
become the next generation of leaders, or simply find ways to be more resilient
Hovmand plans to apply his twenty years of Systems Thinking experience to leading more projects in community settings. “We want to build capacity and capability in community-based
social dynamics,” he says. “Projects often exist in a social network and we can take advantage of that. We’re also interested in learning systems. How do effective organizations
look at problems in a way that helps them learn? And there is so much work to do in healthcare, social services, and K-12 education. There’s a lot to be gained by using Systems
Thinking to teach and empower students to develop their skills in Systems Thinking, whether that is to advance their interest in STEM, become the next generation of leaders, or simply
find ways to be more resilient.”
The importance of engaging students through Systems Thinking is what draws Hovmand to Stella®. He’s found that his high school students are more willing to make and fix mistakes with
online software than they are on a whiteboard. They’re more confident about playing with Systems Thinking online and like that their work looks more professional. Once they can use
Systems Thinking on their phone, they can move outside the classroom and lab and share their work with friends.
The Lab’s graduate students use Stella for more rigorous System Thinking applications. They draw on generic structures or check the literature for a model that provides a good starting
place, then tailor an existing structure to their own research and projects.
Stella creates a balance between model builders and content experts who use models
Lab students often run their own projects and participate in workshops. “Stella creates a balance between model builders and content experts who use models,” says Hovmand. Hovmand has
been working with students long enough that some have graduated from high school and begun to use Systems Thinking in their post-secondary lives. Many are pursuing careers in teaching
or working for the Lab as staff and helping to lead the design of future K-12 efforts as they share their experience and skills with others around the country.
Ten years ago, when Hovmand’s team first had the idea of investing in K-12, it wasn’t intuitive or obvious to many since they were a small group focused on mostly federally funded research.
They believed in making Systems Thinking accessible to all students and the importance of investing in the field’s future capability and diversity. What they couldn't have seen then is how
much it has positively shaped them and their practice.
“There’s the saying in Systems Thinking that ‘structure determines behavior,’” Hovmand says, “and so we may sometimes feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the systems and challenges we face
and helpless in the moment. While we may have limited immediate influence on outcomes from a system, we can choose how we affiliate ourselves with others, what we share, and how we can be
open to learning from others. That does start to change the structure of a system in very real ways. It’s an amazing thing to see and be a part of.”
Read more about the Social System Design Lab.