Sometime in May, I’ll be running a new graduate course, DGC 2003 Systems Thinking for Global Problems. The course will be part of the Dynamics of Global Change graduate program, a cross-disciplinary program run by the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Here’s my draft description of the course:

The dynamics of global change are complex, and demand new ways of conceptualizing and analyzing inter-relationships between multiple global systems. In this course, we will explore the role of systems thinking as a conceptual toolkit for studying the inter-relationships between problems such as globalization, climate change, energy, health & wellbeing, and food security. The course will explore the roots of systems thinking, for example in General Systems Theory, developed by Karl Bertalanffy to study biological systems, and in Cybernetics, developed by Norbert Wiener to explore feedback and control in living organisms, machines, and organizations. We will trace this intellectual history to recent efforts to understand planetary boundaries, tipping points in the behaviour of global dynamics, and societal resilience. We will explore the philosophical roots of systems thinking as a counterpoint to the reductionism used widely across the natural sciences, and look at how well it supports multiple perspectives, trans-disciplinary synthesis, and computational modeling of global dynamics. Throughout the course, we will use global climate change as a central case study, and apply systems thinking to study how climate change interacts with many other pressing global challenges.

I’m planning to get the students to think about issues such as the principle of complementarity, and second-order cybernetics, and of course, how to understand the dynamics of non-linear systems, and the idea of leverage points. We’ll take a quick look at how earth system models work, but not in any detail, because it’s not intended to be physics or computing course; I’m expecting most of the students to be from political science, education, etc.

The hard part will be picking a good core text. I’m leaning towards Donnella Meadows’s book, Thinking in Systems, although I just received my copy of the awesome book Systems Thinkers, by Magnus Ramage and Karen Shipp (I’m proud to report that Magnus was once a student of mine!).

Anyway, suggestions for material to cover, books & papers to include, etc are most welcome.


  1. I’m a professional Systems Analyst with a BS in MIS that fortunately introduced me to General Systems Theory back in 1988. The world has never seemed the same since. :)

    When trying to help others learn Systems Thinking, I found Donnella Meadows book to be very useful. If you intend to touch on system resilience, I can also recommend Resilience Thinking by Walker, Salt, and Reid. ( It’s good at presenting global level systems, scaling, and hierarchical systems-of-systems.

    Thank you for continuing to teach. My hope is to someday see Systems Thinking introduced to middle and high school students so they get a taste for how the word works.

  2. @George Almond: Many thanks – Walker et al looks like a great book, I’ve ordered myself a copy. And serendipitously, Amazon recommended Frances Westley’s book, “Getting to Maybe”, which I’ve been meaning to buy for ages.

  3. I really like the sound of your course description. In fact I’ve been trying to find a Master’s program that is basically focused on those Do you know of any programs like this? Working with systems thinking, very interdisciplinary studies, global studies and macrosociology, philosophy, sociocybernetics, futures studies, that sort of thing?

    Thanks in advance! This looks like a great course!

  4. Pingback: Systems thinking and Genetically Modified food | Serendipity

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