Representing systems

Rosa had put it clear during the last class when she said I understand everything but I can’t see where are you heading to. So, after two tough conceptual classes we devoted our third session to think and represent systems.

We talked about four representation tools.

The first pair is previous to the systemic approach, and they may be very useful to set up things and closing scope. These first two tools are:

Mind maps. They are unstructured, quick, and not thought. They can serve as a first (and avoidable) step to focus things.

There are many graphic tools to draw mind maps. We are not going to recommend any of them mainly because at this stage we still prefer using paper and colour markers.

 – Concept maps. They are structured; you can draw relations, give them values… You can find topographies, paths, etcetera. They reflect static situations and can be very useful to close the scope of the matter.

We like Cmap software to build concept maps. It has been developed by the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition and it can be downloaded for free here. It’s a very intuitive and easy software that allows you to build, save and share concept maps.

Then we went to the second group of tools, these yet conceived to represent systems.

Remember first that, unlike objects, systems have to be thought. You can build a system out of whatever subject or situation you may think of. The only thing you demand is to be useful.

When building systems, we try to go in depth from the facts to the structure, achieving in each step more ability to influence:

FACTS              BEHAVIORS                 STRUCTURE

⇒   ⇒    ⇒    ⇒       + Influence         ⇒   ⇒   ⇒    ⇒   ⇒

We include in this group causal loop diagrams and models. As a previous step we introduce behaviour over time charts.

Behaviour Over Time Graph. A behavior over time graph (BOTG) is used to show what happens to something over time. In a BOTG, the horizontal axis is always time and the vertical axis is what we are watching.

BOTG can help us to find the correct question and the useful variables to measure in our system.

If we think of a trend (expressed in a BOTG) as a behaviour and the relation network as a structure, then we can put the following equivalence:



So, if we find the relation between relation network and trend, then we can link behaviour and structure.

Causal loop diagrams. They are the easiest systemic information device. CLD are contingent; they generate informational contingent structure; they are also anthropocentric and dynamic.

You can learn more about CLD and the basic structures at The feedback view

In the entrance A portrait of cooperation as a system,  you can also see an example of a loop represented with CLD. And you can also take a look at our special CLD Kumu examples.

 Again, you can find many free software to draw CLD, and you can also use paper. However, we like specially, for the easy use and possibilities of the tool.

Models. A model in systems thinking or system dynamics is the causal loop diagram put in a mathematic language. A model enables you to experiment; it gives you an insight into the future course of a dynamic system; and it leads you to further questions. Good models are thus good thought organizing devices.

We didn’t go deeper into models, because they need a more specific technical training.

Kumu allows you to draw model structures, but without the mathematic language behind, so that you can’t experiment future trends etcetera.

There are many System Dynamics software to build and run models. We like both Stella  and Vensim, they are not for free although you can have a low price licence for students.

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