Time To Burst Tech’s Bubble: Systems Thinking In Tech

With systems thinking tools, tech innovators can go from providing patches to known issues to truly solving problems in key areas of our lives, in ways that benefit all stakeholders.

Technology, startups, disruption, innovation, these all terms that have become synonymous with creating the future. If you are looking to disrupt an industry, innovate for better user experience, or are a startup with a technology that will revolutionise the way “something” works — the following question is for you:

What kind of future are you creating?

Too often, in the pursuit of that infamous product-market fit, technology is viewed in an isolated bubble where all we can see is one industry, one user group or one problem. Markets are not laboratories that exist outside of the rest of the world, and it’s about time we stop tinkering with them without wider consideration for the effects these technologies will have on the world. It’s time for tech companies to adopt a systems thinking approach.

Photo by Anastasia Dulgier. Unsplash

What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking is a discipline that looks at not just individual parts of a system, but how those parts are interconnected. Systems thinking understands that a solution that seems to work in one way in isolation will behave differently when used, adapted and transformed by different users in different contexts. There are a number of useful tools, such as system archetypes or causal loop diagrams, which can help thinkers map out these connections and paint a picture of the system in question. At the heart of it, systems thinking is about really understanding the root cause of a problem by examining it from various perspectives, understanding connections and detecting patterns.

With systems thinking tools, tech innovators can go from providing patches to known issues to truly solving problems in key areas of our lives, in ways that benefit all stakeholders.

Systems Thinking — Causal Loop Diagram

Imagine if Airbnb had taken a moment to step back and consider how their technology could affect rental markets in cities with a heavy tourism industry (spoiler: it doesn’t end well for residents). Where would emissions from the transportation sector be if the likes of Uber and Lyft had focused on true community ride-sharing and foreseen the risks of increased solo-passenger rides for traffic?

Adopting this kind of approach is not easy, but understanding the world you work in can provide a significant competitive edge, as you can then truly innovate with different users in mind. Just like Airbnb and Uber, once a technology scales, the effects in a complex societal system can often take us by surprise, posing significant risks for the company. These are elements that become more and more important for a company as their tech scales. Though startups often work with a laser-like focus on creating results measured in dollars and profits, at the end of the day the largest and most widespread effect of tech will be felt beyond the investors’ and founders’ bank accounts.

How can startups avoid the tunnel vision of merely creating “solutions”, and innovate with the systems thinking in mind?

Here are a few steps to get started:

  1. Find diverse viewpoints: Whether it’s about recruiting, engaging with beta testers or scanning your industry for opportunities, expose yourself to different kinds of people and ways of thinking. Document these findings and see if you find patterns or connections emerging between different groups.
  2. Map out your ecosystem: No company works in a void. What larger systems are you a part of, and what are the flows of resources, thoughts, activities, emotions and/or people that you rely on to succeed? How do your own measures of success relate to this system?
  3. Predict and adapt: Understanding where you sit in the world will (hopefully) shed new light on your activities. Now, how can you use this knowledge to mitigate risks and increase your competitive edge? If the relationships in the system change, what happens to your company? Or what happens if certain connections or resource flows are strengthened or weakened?
  4. Educate yourself: Take a lunch break to read through an introduction to systems thinking (we recommend The Systems Thinker). You don’t have to dive into the deep end and start drawing causal loop diagrams for your organisation, but adopting some of the systems ways of thinking may lead you down surprising paths. If videos are your preferred style of learning, you can also check out Systems Academy.

Technology can transform our societies, disrupting how we live our lives and how our businesses function, but transformation doesn’t happen in isolated markets and industries. When ride-share drivers are purchasing cars and our democratic systems are broken by tech company algorithms, it’s time for tech to take a new approach. Call it sustainability, corporate responsibility, impact business, at the heart of it, it’s facing and understanding the full picture of the reality we live in.

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