Peter Senge: “Systems Thinking for a Better World” – Aalto Systems Forum 2014

Peter Senge: “Systems Thinking for a Better World” – Aalto Systems Forum 2014

Ladies and gentleman welcome back to the
seminar. Our keynote speaker today Peter Senge is a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
He’s a world-leading systems thinker who among his many accomplishments has
developed the notion of a learning organization. In 1997 Harvard Business Review identified Peter
Senge’s book the Fifth Discipline as one of the
seminal management books all the previous seventy five years. For
this work he was named by Journal of Business
Strategy as the strategist of the Century.
Please give a warm welcome to Peter Senge. So first off let me
say it’s a great honor to be here as a part of this
celebration. What you all have done in building this
center is really very inspiring to us around the world. Thank you. Uhm, it’s also a lot of fun for me to be here in Finland. I don’t get here
very often. I have many really great friends and
colleagues. Finnish colleagues, who I tend to see
all around the world. But occasionally I see them here in
Finland. So it’s always a special treat to be here with them, here in Finland.
Particularly all my friends in Team Academy who I seem to bump into everywhere. Most
recently was in Bhutan and China, a week apart. So, I think maybe what I’ll do for a few minutes is
just reflect a little bit personally. Because it’s interesting of
course listening to the way, in particular, Raimo’s summary of the journey of building the laboratory. Very easy for
me to identify not just with the lab, as that probably
only known you Raimo and Esa for fifteen years or so.
So, it hasn’t been 30 years but certainly has been a journey of
that sort for me personally. So I couldn’t help but also just kind of connect that with my
own personal background. So just let me say a few words about that, and then Raimo suggested that we’d be a very
diverse audience. I should probably say a little bit about kind of the work we’ve been doing
for a long time – basics. So that we all are more less starting
from the same point, and then we’ll see where we go from there. I was always drawn to this field of understanding
systems. Even before I probably had a good word for it. Just through
my youth I became very aware of, what at least
as I recall, best I can recall. You know. memory is by its nature retroactive, as we call it retrospective. Well as best I
can recall, I probably even had the word systems.
But, the part that I can recall very clearly, I grew up in Los Angeles. And the most powerful experience
beside all the time outdoors playing baseball
and with all my friends. The most vivid
experience I had over a period of about thirteen or fourteen years is watching
paradise disappear. When I was a young child growing up in Los Angeles, I can remember
sitting in the back seat of my mother and father’s car driving for hours
and hours. And all we would see is lemon groves and
orange groves. It’s kind of hard to imagine this today
because of course they’re all completely gone. Disappeared within about 10 years. Woosh! Shopping malls and housing developments
had replaced all the orange groves and lemon groves. And it’s kind of hard to
imagine it today. I’m sure many of you have visited Los Angeles. You’ve certainly seen it
represented in countless films and television shows. It really was a paradise. It was an incredibly
beautiful place. The weather was perfect, the air was
clear, there were trees, palm trees, and the orange and lemon groves everywhere. And it
was amazing how rapidly that occurred in probably no coincidence
that was kind of synchronous with my own youth. So at the early stages of my youth I
can remember that vividly and by time it was time to go off to college. We woild have many days when we would be warned by the city government that children
should not go outside because the air pollution was dangerous. And the place I grew up was surrounded by mountains. But by a
time it was time to go to college. You only saw the
mountains a few days every month. So that happened very quickly and it
made me very aware of something – a dynamic which I would
say is probably the dynamic in some ways that unfolds around the world. But of
course because it unfolds around the world, we don’t experience it around the
world, we experience it in localities. I spend a about a month a year in China for the
last almost fifteen years now. And of course what I
lived through in Los Angeles the people in China
live through very quickly. All of a sudden, boom! The air is unsafe, you can’t
really see anything and the forests are gone. And in place of them are buildings and roads and lots of cars. I think I was probably about 17 or 18
years old. I kind of have this recollection of a conversation with my mother. And of course, again, all of this is hindsight. So, but I think it’s
relatively accurate. When I said something like, well it seems to me there is one problem in
the world and all the problems in the world arise out of this one problem. And, as I understood it then, the problem
was interdependence. That interdependence is life. I often think it’s important for us in
this system’s field just to remember that ‘systems’ is just a
word. It’s become kind of the mainstream
scientific word, you might say systems and
complexity. The kind of two mainstream scientific words to say something which
people have understood as long as people have understood
anything. We do not live alone, we have never lived alone. We live in
a world of extraordinary interdependence. This is a sensibility which defines in many ways native awareness. By native, I mean before the industrial
revolution. Of course, but really before the agricultural revolution. There is many people who have reflected on
the evolution of culture, who would probably say that was the first
fundamental break. In many ways defined and of course is embodied
in almost all of our Axial Age religions. Not all, but most of
them. Sometimes very explicit because those
religions had their roots in a time period very similar to the
beginnings of organized agriculture during which time
human beings go through this profound shift. There was no word for nature. Most native communities have no word for nature. You do not need a
word for something that is you. They all have words for Mother Earth. They all have ways of talking about the
human in the sky, Mother Earth, Father Heaven. Well lots words like that show up in
native cultures everywhere. But the word nature is an abstraction,
very familiar to us. Because we live in that abstraction because somewhere during that journey in some
places in the world. Probably as long as four five
thousand years ago, probably a little more recently, but in many
places in the world literally in the last few hundred years, all of a sudden the human and nature
are two separate things. So while I know I didn’t say it that way when
I was 17 years old. What I did say was something like: It’s very clear to me that we’ve built
this extraordinary web of interdependence. Now you might say it’s a web layered on top
of a web life is interdependence. There is no such
thing as living separate. That we inherit that all species inherit. But on top of
that web we build a second web because for sure this is as far as any of us know the first time
in human history where simple daily acts our everyday ways of living. Very mundane
things like – we plug it into the wall. Right, very few of us think of this as
an ethical action, charging our device, whatever that device might be. But of
course that device uses electricity. That electricity has to come
from someplace. It does not actually come from the socket in the wall. Right, it comes
from a an electronic grid, a grid that that moves electricity all over this part
of the world. My guess is here most of it comes from fossil fuels imported probably from
Russia. In my country about seventy percent of
electricity comes from burning coal. Now it is
shuttering people. We get caught up. We’re kind of, I
would say dazzled might be a good word by our
technology. We have to realize none of it works, none
of it works, if we don’t plug it into the wall and
burn former living things. So next time we
think we’re so sophisticated we should remember we burn shit to make the device work. That’s how it works, but of course we don’t see
that system because that’s a system we layered on top of the innate system
that defines living, so systems on top of systems. And what I
was most aware of having that experience as a child growing up in a paradise lost, if I can reuse an old phrase, and was the total out of control nature of the process.
Because I’m quite certain, if you had brought together any group of
people children like me, adults people in
government people in business people in the middle of the development boom Because of course all what happened in
Los Angeles was driven ninety-nine percent by private
development, the opportunity to exploit possibilities for building things and
making money. But if you had asked any of those people this is a a way of talking about, I know
I didn’t quite understand then but I felt it if you had asked any of those people “do you wanna
destroy the orange groves and the lemon groves do you
want to destroy the possibility for children playing outside, do you want
to destroy the possibility that children can walk to school by themselves, do you
wanna destroy the air” of course they would have all said no. How many of
us want to destroy species? Really you look up in the morning and think ‘Ah, what a beautiful day to destabilize the
climate a bit more’. Of course we don’t think that way. No one
wants to produce the systemic outcomes that we consistently produce. And what I
started to realize is that is almost a kind of to me the
archetypal definition of systems intelligence, or let’s just say systems ignorance. One of the faces that paraded along during Raimo presentation was a very very dear friend, Donella Meadows. Dana and I were very close. She died way
too young. And Dana was one of the most articulate writers in my experience, in the systems world. At least in the US
the only environmental writer I know whoever was nominated for a Pulitzer
Prize. I mean she wrote beautifully, she kinda wrote
as she talked. Those of you who aspire to write just
remember it’s really simple, if you can write as you talk, your writing
will be good. Then your talking will get better too. But most us of course, you learn to write in schools, so we don’t
write as we talk, we write as we wrote for our seventh-grade teacher. So we could
impress her or him by how much we knew. Unfortunately most
academics never escape that trying to impress
somebody about how much they know. It’s another subject But Dana a was a farmer. She lived on a
farm in New Hampshire, a communal farm. A lot of
colleagues many of whom were working on the same
issues, many of you may remember
Daniella Meadows as the co author the Limits to Growth one of the books that Raimo put up and showed a
couple of the simulation curves pointing out that
you know it was all very crazy and radical to most people fifty years ago. It was published actually in 1972. So it’s really only a little over forty
years ago. I was at MIT when it was published. I was
a graduate student. I got to know all the people working on the project. Very good friends. But today
of course we have all these sustainability issues, which is a relatively new kinda jargony term, not a very good
term. Good term I think it’s played a useful function
because I too have been part of using this term it has played a useful
function because it has at least corrected one profound error we were all making for
a long time which was to separate the social and the
environmental. So of course we have a lot of environmental
activists. We have many organizations that have grown up around the world to
Kind of draw attention to the imbalances we create in the
environment and then we tend to have separate
organizations that are drawing attention to the plight of the poor and social inequity. This has been a big error because the two are not separate. Poor
people always suffer most when there’s
environmental stress and people who are really trying to
figure out how they’re going to live and if they have any reasonable food for
the next few days cannot be good stewards of their natural
resources even if they would really want to do so.
So the fragmentation of social and
environmental issues has been a big mistake and ironically a
lot these same organizations compete for various kinds of philanthropy or
government grants. Compete with each other you know can you
give the money here to give the money here and they don’t work together. They are in a word not very systemic in their practice even
though they’re trying to help the world understand a particular set of very
systemic problems. So that too kind of identifies one of the key elements.
It doesn’t really help much to have a systems awareness up here. It
all comes down to what we do, how we operate, how we think and act. So I eventually came to this very simple, I guess I would say gut level, you know here understanding
of all these systems issues before I could
really articulate them very well. But as I remember telling my mom I think
there’s this one problem it’s the level of interdependence has grown extraordinarily in the world
and we do not understand it. Because I knew very well as I said that nobody wanted to produce the
consequences that development in Los Angeles have
produced, nobody was trying to accomplish that, and yet that’s exactly what was
accomplished in a quite a predictable you can even say systematic manner. Inputs
in, outputs outs. It’s very systematic, very
predictable, and I guess that’s when I started to understand why this systems stuff is so important.
The archetypal system for you and I human beings, for most of us, is
the family. And when Raimo had his list of given types of systems, of course that
was up there because as human beings we grow up in families. If we just simply ponder, I don’t mean to
Impose this so if it makes sense, just to ponder for
a moment the suffering that you’ve seen firsthand
produced in families and that’s suffering can range from hurt
feelings to miscommunication, to many many forms
of course we know are very common, of abuse and ask yourself the question is it
anybody’s goal to produce this suffering, is anybody trying to hurt
feelings or hurt people and yet we consistently
produce those outcomes. That’s systems ignorance and the word is probably not the best word. I am only using it to juxtapose it to
systems intelligence but it’s probably a pretty technically
accurate word. In the Confucian tradition it is considered
a sin to be ignorant, not a sin like the Western you know original sin kind of sin, but really
a fundamental error to be ignorant of that which you could, if you
worked at it, be aware. So we live in a world of
systems ignorance and that’s an abstract way to say we
live in a world where we consistently produce suffering for a each other, for other humans and for
living creatures of all sorts, which nobody intends. And I really don’t need to say anything
more than that to know why we’re sitting in
this room. That’s it. It’s not abstract it’s not intellectual it’s not an
argument based on some heavy theory of any sort it’s simply a reflection on our
experience if we really reflect on our experience we can come to this conclusion. Now I’m
obviously articulating in a particular way, a way that is meaningful for me. Because it just my own life journey as
I said kind of brought back to my awareness by
listening to to history as a center here because there’s many centers like this, not a lot
not nearly as many as there could or should be but there’s plenty of places in world where
people have come together with some version of this
awareness, some version that as a species, as societies we are blind. We have so little ability to be aware of the
consequences our own actions and the real irony to
put it in a kind of a classic dilemma form our interdependence has grown and our
awareness of the interdependence has declined. And that in a nutshell I would say is the more succinct way to
express what I was feeling by the time I was ready to go to
university. If you imagine those two curves, they have been diverging for a long time, and
probably by and large they continue to diverge and they won’t diverge forever because
we’re just a species, were not particularly significant. Beyond that
we’re just another species and we’re actually a very young
species very very young in any kind of
biological or evolutionary terms. And all species exist only in a niche. That is biology 1.01. Species in niche coexist, no species exists except in a niche. And it’s very interesting question maybe a very good question for us
gathered here this morning. to just ask this: what is our niche? Now you can
consider that first just geographically obviously it has to be considered in
terms of different types ecosystems but you think of it geographically.
There’s plenty of examples of human cultures surviving for thousands of
years there’s probably more examples of those
that don’t survive that long, societies that survive but in some case thousands of
years. I know a lot of native cultures and in United States have had a good fortune of
having a lot of contact with a lot of the native cultures and of course you have native cultures here not
far away if you just go a few hundred miles to the north. You’ll find lots of people who live not
too different than they lived five thousand years ago.
The Blackfoot Indian say they’ve been there for about fifteen thousand years where they live today. That would be roughly true
for quite a few of the older Native American cultures. The
primary migratory paths and this is all on their own teachings
we now have this confirmed genetically by tracing the movement of genoms around
the planet. Their primary migrations started
about fiveteen thousand years ago during the
last ice age when there was a land bridge connecting what today is Russia and
Alaska. Many apparently also migrated by boat, but that was a primary migratory
route and they’ve been there a long time. So there’s not the problem that it’s impossible for human beings to survive and thrive in a niche. We have plenty of examples of it, all of
which are local. They are in particular
geographies and to me to put this same puzzle and basically all I’m trying to
do is in many ways articulate a puzzle of what I
would consider maybe a core dilemma: it appears that this species is kinda hell-bent on
making the planet earth our niche. I mean that’s one very simple way from a biological perspective to articulate climate destabilization we are actually altering a very complex
set of global systems which shape weather, climate. So you could say well the trajectory of our economic, technological and
population growth the church of all three of those
multiplied together now makes us an agent shaping life on the planet, and the conditions for life
on the planet of course as I have been already saying. Mostly in a way
they have complete unawareness. In fact you could say still a lot of people can’t believe that this could be occurring and
I would say it’s not because they’re crazy. This never occurred in history before, so
it’s very natural when someone says well human beings are
altering the global climate that people would naturally respond
initially well that’s impossible. There is just a
few of us. I travel for miles in my country I don’t see
people and I know most of the earth is not covered with human beings and sure our population is a
lot bigger than it was 50 or 100 or 300 years ago.
But still how can we be altering the planet’s climate. But we seem to be doing that. While I was in China recently about a
month ago the World Wildlife published its annual State a planet -report
which and this was covered in the newspapers in
China. China by the way, there is a tremendous amount of
environmental activism in China, we don’t tend to see that from far away but when you’re close
you see it. So this was a covered quite extensively
in China the State of the planet report the World
Wildlife fund the WWF, you all of course know them.
probably the best-known environmental NGO in world that in the last years we’ve lost 50
percent of the wildlife species in last 30 years. Again who’s trying to make that happen the
short answer of course is you and me we, the big we. So to just kinda keep that one frame of a
puzzle since all organisms only existed in niche the obvious question
for any organism if you consider its change and its growth as humans, as this particular
species has, what’s our niche? Which to me leads to a
very interesting question: if our niche is to
be the planet what’s the consciousness that that will require? Because probably given the
particularities of this species we cannot exist in any niche without some way of thinking, believing,
some ethos, some set of ideas, some sort of
overarching ways of thinking and talking that enable us, since language is so
important in how this particular species functions,
not unique to us of course, but very important how this species functions,
that we will have to have a way of thinking and talking that allows us to exist in a niche. If you
spend time with any of the native peoples who have existed in some geographic
niche for many thousands of years you’ll immediately discover that they have ways
of talking they have ways of being, they have ceremony
they have sculptural praxis which helps them continually reflect on
this awareness, for example, the Blackfeet, the Blackfoot
indians have no nouns. Theirs is a language
with no nouns by the way that’s the way David Bohm got
the idea for the rheomode. It was proposed to him by a man named Leroy
Little Bear an elder of the Black Feet was pointing
out this is a little conversation Esa and
others and I have been having. David of course, a very famous physicist, some of you may have heard of him, who just had come to the point where he was convinced that while the mathematics of quantum
theory were terribly compelling very very very very maybe zero physicists experienced quantum theory. They knew it here. They knew it in their
mathematics, they did not know it here and here. And if we don’t know something
here and here we really don’t know it, and he had come
to the conclusion that we should reinvent a language and he was
inspired by this idea that what if you got a language with
no nouns, of course nouns are wonderful way of reinforcing a certain confusion. Right, we see things, nouns give us a perception in a
linguistic way of reinforcing a perception of definiteness. This is the way it is, this is a seat this is a person, these are shoes. Right? None of which of course is accurate. Approximate, maybe useful but it’s not the
truth. There’s nothing in the physical world that ever stays put that stays in one form form is a continuous process of flux.
You might find it interesting to know that was the most a common phrases
the Blackfeet like to use this is a way of articulating
life they talk of surfing the flux, surfing the flux. They cannot describe things, they can only describe processes. Now that is a linguistic evolution that has helped them remain harmonious
with their geographic niche for fifteen thousand years so it’s not that
human beings cannot do this. We know plenty of examples were human
beings can do this. We just don’t know a lot, and most of them have been more or less eradicated over the past 100 to 200 years as this global industrialization process has not only destroyed species but
cultures. Again the irony at the very time when we’re
starting to appreciate a little bit of what we need to know, the sensibility of people who have
existed for thousands of years were busy doing
everything we can to destroy those people. Mary Catherine
Bateson is a woman I met through Dana, a very interesting woman,
anthropologist. Her father was a man named Gregory
Bateson. Many of you may know in the history of
Systems. Her mother was a woman named Margaret Mead. I’m sure many of you know. Also a famous
anthropologist. Mary Catherine and I we’re traveling around South Africa
together for about two weeks about just a little before apartheid ended, so
it was around 1988 or 89. And I never forget she said to me, and I don’t remember anyone
saying this before and it really touched me she said: I have the
same passion for the conservation of cultural
diversity that a biologist will have the passion for conservation of species diversity. Nature produces variety. For those of us, every one of us in this room to a high
degree probably very very high degree who’ve grown up in the industrial age
which is the age we live in today, it is not over, that is a terrible error, to say that the
information age replaced the industrial age.

Hardly. The information age is the
industrial age. There is a whole industrial age, it has been punctuated
by radical shift in dominant technology. That is the Industrial age. Schumpeter was the first one to articulate that in a vary clear way in many half sense. In the industrial age this linguistic consciousness of
focusing on things becomes augmented, accelerated,
deepened, spread more widely, by a fascination with
devices. Or as Lewis Mumford wrote many many years
ago when I think he rightly called the
industrial age, the machine age and I couldn’t help but
think as I was kinda reflecting on the journey on the
systems field again as Raimo was
summarizing it that’s so much of the language, so much of
the applications, not all, but so much was really to the
effective organization of machines an effective machine thinking for the organization of human work. I remember my professors in operations
research and I know that they were really a neat people
people, this was when I was an undergraduate at Stanford before I came to MIT as a graduate student but there was nothing in them that ever touched me as how I could
better understand what it meant to be alive. Most of the systems field is an outgrowth of many different
branches of engineering. I too am trained as an engineer. My
mentors, most them came out of that tradition. I think it’s
wonderful tradition I think it’s provided many schools for understanding
interdependence feedback dynamics and even in cases when you’re serious about it complex nonlinear feedback dynamics, which start
to give you a little feeling for life. But it is very clear to me at this
point in time that our survival in all likelihood literally depends not in understanding
complex systems, which the very word of course for 95 percent probably of the Finnish people, I certainly would say it’s
98 percent of Americans, the very words system sounds like machine. Hey we have a systems problem around
here, we need to get a systems expert. We all know what that typically means:
our computers aren’t working correctly. Of course the other most common use the
word system is hey it’s not my fault it’s the stupid – Ever
heard anybody in a company say this? so neither of which is what we’re
talking about here. A simpler word for here would simply be
life, which is by its nature systemic, interdependent, interconnected,
continually unfolding continually in a state of flux. So partly what I’m trying to do to kinda
reflect with you on what was evoked as I was sitting listening this morning. Obviously just sharing my own personal journey a bit, the kind of key questions that have gradually crystallized for me and
again I’m just saying this so I can
share with you my own way of looking at this: how do we
start to close the gap between independent we create and the interdependence we understand. That would be a kind of simple, kind of technical way of saying it. How do we understand the ways of
thinking and being that will be required, if in fact the earth the planet itself is to be our niche.
That would be a slightly different way of saying it because by the way if that doesn’t happen, since we do know
I think this is a pretty good first principle I mean it’s
all just ideas well send it right. For me it’s a pretty
good first principle that all species only surviving in the niche.
So therefore that’s a good way to phrase it. And if the answer
to that question is: we won’t develop,the
awareness, the ways of thinking, talking and acting consistent with surviving in the niche called
planet Earth, we won’t survive that niche. Period. We will end up maybe in a whole cluster of small, a lot more
local niches. That’s probably not a future that any of us would desire. Since probably it will only come about in concert with some sort of a larger
collapse. But there’s a a third way to express the
same question. As you can tell I guess that I was fortunate enough, I
didn’t really have Esa Saarinen as a professor when I was a student but i did
have some very very good philosophy professors while was busy being a a major
in systems engineering I was being a minor in philosophy. Hence all these problems that still exist. I heard this question articulated in a little different
way about a three or four months ago and as I was
listening I was thinking of this story. This is a not a technical way or even a rational succinct way but its a very meaningful way for me. Because when
I lived through this little experience, I thought yes. So one of the areas that we’ve worked
in for a lot in the last 10 years is fisheries. Again Raimo’s summary one of the the archetypal understandings that has
pervaded a lot of the field of understanding human and ecological or
environmental interfaces. It is the Tragedy of the Commons. I imagine many of you have heard of that, Raimo included it in his summary, and fisheries are a perfect example.
Seventy-five eighty percent of the world’s wild fisheries are either collapsed or near collapse. The most of the rest are on that path,
but not all. In the last decade fifteen years there’s actually quite a few remarkable
success stories of the restoration of fisheries. Not nearly
enough. But again it’s not like we can’t do this. It’s very important just as I was
pointing out about humans cultures and societies that have
lived in harmony with their natural environment for
long periods of time. We cannot make the statement that human beings do
not know how to do this. It’s just we’re not doing it. So there’s a quite a few wonderful
success stories of restoration of fisheries. Generally the claims made by the
Environmental Defense Fund it’s the NGO in the US that has been most active in
this and and they would say that today if you take the Pacific Coast of North America north of
Mexico so then you’ve got California Oregon a
Washington state British Columbia and up to Alaska. You take that whole swath of about for five thousand miles of coastline.
About eighty percent of the fisheries wild fisheries are now managed. They have some sort of quota system very often, depends on the species will have protected areas We know this area is crucial for the
breeding and reproduction that species. So they will have ‘no fishing’ areas, they’ll have
management quotas of different sorts. So people can only catch so much. And
guess who is the key to making this happen just factually? Almost anybody who has been involved in this
work, any of the scientists you ask, how have the success stories occurred who do you think is the absolute
critical actor in these success stories? What would you guess? This is a little systems intelligence or systems intuition test, we will call it. Go ahead so you said it The scientists are important for sure
because you’ve got to have good ongoing process of tracking the
population. What they did to be called the census, a common term today is a TACs total
allowable catch. So that has to be a scientifically based
number we know during this season, during this year here’s the total amount that can be
caught to not further deplete the population and help in its process a restoration.
So the scientists are important but they’re not who I was referring to because the scientists are trying to do this in
every fish around the world and there is only a relatively small number
that have have really started this regenerative process. The
local fishermen. In every single case it is the leadership
for the fishing communities themselves or as the people work in this area called
the fishers. There is a leadership of the
fishers themselves that is absolutely crucial. So we’ve been getting involved in
that, we being a lot of us interconnected
systems folks, in many ways goes right back to the
inspirational people like Dana Meadows years ago. Because it’s actually I think an area
where all of us can learn a lot. In many situations we have severely
depleted ecological conditions, the restoration
process will take centuries but oftentimes marin ecosystems are
relatively resilient if they’re not pushed too far. Fish
populations, it varies of course by species, breed relatively fast if you’re dealing
with prawns or various of mollusks. They can actually generate literally
in two to three years. So it’s a great place to learn, its one of
the reasons we got very involved. I mean I believe just in strategic standpoint in my own personal view as a systems person probably the single most
important thing to do is to find the places where people are doing
it well. Where this I would say innate systems intelligence which we
are all born with and I’ll return to it before we wrap up, because
I think it’s may be the single most important insight that I think now we have a lot of evidence for this innate systems intelligence,
really is being brought into play on a scale in a setting around issues that we all
care a lot about so we spent a lot time trying to understand,
work with the people in this restoration process. So in that context, I was in the La Paz
Mexico. If you could picture Baja California I grew up in Alto That’s what they
were called, where I grew up. In America we call it California but
to the Mexican it is Alto California. Baja California is
the long a three four hundred thousand-mile Peninsula that extends down and in the very tip of it is La Paz, with the very very historically rich clam fishery and the the Sea of Cortez the big body of water
between Baja California and the mainland of Mexico is the source about eighty percent of the
marine life productive life of the country
Mexico. So that whole area is very important and there is a
lot of efforts for fishery restoration throughout but is very difficult. Because unlike Alto, my California when growing up and United States and British Columbia
the places where this restoration has occurred, you do not have
rule of law that is very reliable as many you know I’m
sure. The country of Mexico is in a state of chaos and disintegration because the
drug trade because of course there is demand for drugs
in the country I live in. That’s made it very difficult for the
marine biologists and the fishing communities to do this, but we were there and there
actually in the last few years something quite remarkable has
happened in the clam fishery of Baja
California as I say

I’m always kinda drawn to where is it
happening, how do we understand that. And in this little conversation I think I saw
something which I never really seen as clearly as I saw it. This was about, I think
this was in May of this year’s. So quite recent. So
we were sitting in a circle kind of typical systems practice we’ve
gravitated to over the years, not a new practice by the way, every
native people ever spend any time with have that as their
core government system, the circle. So we were sitting in a circle and some of the members of the so called NOS, ‘Nor-Este Sustainabilidad’ that’s the NGO that is based in the La Paz. Mostly marine biologists who because
they understood it will come to the fishing communities they located their office in the middle
the fishing community and for many years they have been building different quality of relationships.
Scientists often don’t build good relationships with a fishers. This is important for all of us, because
most of us in this room have this common liability we’ve been way way way over-educated, right? Many of us have been in school pretty
much our whole life and now you’re sitting with people who
may, very a few whom ever completed secondary education. No one that I know of in the leadership of that fishing community
are a university graduate any then you have these scientists who get kind of parachuted in with all their PhD’s and they’re gonna help
the fishing community restore their fish. You get the sense of the problem right away. The
very first thing NOS, Nor Este Sustainabilidad, which is abbreviated as NOS, which of course in Spanish is also ‘We’. So that’s what they call themselves ‘NOS’. The very first thing NOS did is they
located their office in an old run-down building in the
middle of the fishing community. They kind of refurbished it little. It is not fancy but it works. The next thing they did is they realized the children, like all communities, their first concern
is always for their children. The children guess what they’re Mexicanos they love football they would play soccer all day long if
they could. So they built a soccer field for the kids. The kids had no place to
play soccer so they build a soccer field. Marine biologists educated in all these universities. Their
first intervention in the community is to build a football field. It’s just a
dirt field, but before that the kids from the fishing
community had no place to play football. And of course when the kids play football the parents come around and they will watch, and they cheer.
They get excited again, they’re Mexicans. They get very excited. and the football team is quite good the kids are actually very talented and NOS had some reasonable good coaches. And so their
first revitalization strategy for the fishery was a soccer field. The
second strategy thus they start working in a year or so was organic farming. I tell you this story
in a little detail because I don’t know about you but I get
lost in all the abstractions about systems intelligence, but when I can see it and feel it it
starts to sink in. The second strategy was organic farming. The practical aspect of this is very simple to restore fish one of the first things is
you almost always have to do is stop fishing. Where would food come from? Well all of a sudden the whole community which is called el Mangle. The whole community is really getting into
organic gardening. Say within a year they’re producing a lot a really nice
vegetables and they’re very proud of them and of course they are cleaning up things. So they
have a more orderly physical arranges they can grow their
food and meantime they’re not fishing at all because as they’re kinda building
coherence and commitment in the community the kids, the gardening the markets they create for their food
and of course employment opportunities for many of the
people who are very important during this process so they are working on job creation and some
enterprise development micro finance and all those kinds of
things you know are a part a of a early stage development in very poor
countries. Their claim fishery is starting to rebound and again this is a species that can
regenerate quite quickly so they had a census. I think this was
about March or April where their local clam fishery was up to about three million clams again, And it was basically zero or near zero two years ago. So we’re
sitting in this circle reflecting on this process and by way they’re still not
harvesting they want the population to get back and the scientists and the fishers agree to about four to five million before
they can start reasonable harvesting. So we’re sitting
around the circle reflecting on this extraordinary journey. With members of NOS. Several of
us visitors who are there trying to help support real systemic change in settings
like this and many of us know each other. We’ve
worked here now for about five years and several of the fishers has joined us. And I’ll never forget this story. And this is my long preamble to get to this
little story told by Armand who I found out later had
actually been arrested for illegal fishing and jailed
that doesn’t happen much but does happen ocassionally. Its what’s supposed to happen. Because the
Government has been trying to shut down this fishery for years the government can’t do it. THe only people who can do it is the fishing community themselves. Because they are the only ones who can enforce it. So
Armand apparently had been arrested and jailed for some time because of illegal
fishing. He had a reputation as a kind of a, you know a guy who would do what he need to do to make the money for his family. Which of course is the basic issue
for all these people. It’s not like they’re criminals but
their whole history is fishing and they’re gonna fish. And I have literally heard people in these settings say we are racing for the last fish. It breaks
your heart when you hear people say that but then you
realize the reality is such that they really don’t see an option but
to race for the last fish. So Armand is telling this story and the story is this he said when I was a child I always wanted
to go with my dad fishing. But he would’t take me, he said: too
dangerous I can’t take you to the boat you are a little kid and then he said when I
was about six or seven he said but if you get good grades in school for the next two years I’ll take you
fishing with me. So Armands says I worked really hard. I got really good grades at school and then I’m about eight or nine years old
my dad says you can come fishing with this morning. Now these are clam fishers
so what they do is they dive. Okay so they dive they surface dive, they
don’t use any artificial air. They’ve been doing this
for many generations so they can dive. The water is maybe no more
than that 10 meters or so. So it’s like seven to 10 meters depth. So he’s in the boat with his
dad. His dad dives off the side with his big
bag to gather the clams. And Armand is sitting there and he is sitting there and he is sitting there he is sitting there. And his dad doesn’t come up and of course first he
thinks well of course you know my dad he can dive for long time. Dad still
doesn’t come up. And he starts to panic. Should I jump in?
I mean I can’t save my father. But he’s not here. And Armand says I had no
idea how long this was. Of course for an eight-year-old boy it felt
like forever. And finally his dad pops up. Armand says I had no
idea how long it was. It was at least hours for me. His dad
comes up of the water with this huge smile on
his face. And he says: I only hope that someday you will see how beautiful it is. Another way to say it we have to rediscover our love for the natural world. Armand is now a famous leader of the restoration of this
fishery. And what has allowed him to do that was what he told us in that story and he took by the way about an hour to tell that story because he had discovered something. That it will
start with the emotion of love. We are systems
thinkers by our nature. We are born, we are predisposed, we are biologically predisposed to love. Now in universities and academie we don’t
talk about this a lot for all kinds of reasons. The word gets very confused in our
cultures. We don’t really use the term you know Agape much anymore. But long enough ago we had multiple terms
to express different aspects in context of love. We had different words in our modern culture. Of course about Finnish I don’t know a clue about. Maybe you still have some of that. But still a a great teacher for me someone who I
always love just kind of recognizing because this
is beautiful opportunity for me to reflect and he’s been the person is probably
taught me as much about reflection as anyone. I’ve been taught by some wonderful wonderful
teachers. He’s a biologist and his name is Humberto Maturana. So you may
have heard of him he’s very famous in the system’s world. M-A-T-U-R-A-N-A he was the teacher of a man named Francisco Varela Francisco and he later became colleagues and co-authors. Famous in biology for what’s called the
Santiago theory of cognition, the first biological theory. Humberto is
an experimental biologist by training did his postdoc research at MIT with a man
named Jerry Lettvin very famous work on the the biology of perception how a frog
sees a fly very very famous work in biology. That
was Humberto as a graduate student than he returned to Chile and to
Santiago theory of cognition is of course from Santiago
de Chile. Where Humberto has lived throughout all the
turmoil of the last forty years in Chile. He’s
revered by Chilenos because he stayed. Lot of the intellactuals fled in the Pinochet era, he stayed. He says I I’m a Chilean and I belong here. So Humberto makes some very interesting points. Humberto makes lots of
interesting points but pertinent to the point I was just making with you that this is not cultural. We have a tendency to think that a lot of our ethical norms and lot of our understanding of
relationships is based on our cultural systems. and of course that is true. Most every child learns from her or his mother about
relating to other people and a lot from heror his father so yes of course this is
influenced by culture. But Humberto has a very radical perspective as a biologist he said we are a loving
species. And he uses to illustrate this by many many
things but that’s of course what was
flooding to my awareness as I listen to Armand’s story. You all know this in evolutionary biology. Right the
theory of the opposable thumb. Right, we are the only species, we used to
say that we are the only species with this we know that’s not actually accurate anymore the bonobo chimps also have
opposable thumb. But it’s a very significant distinction in our evolution which of course allows
us to grab thinks. The standard kind of evolutionary
theory but the opposable thumb and the evolution
of cognition, awareness ways operating which is basically the jist of Humberto’s Santiago theory of cognition. That is
about structural coupling, it is about our harmony with our environment.
Not our thought process but that you can come
back to. But Humberto says no this is not just for grasping we are not only the species that grasps we are the species that caresses. It is biological not just cultural. That’s why when Humberto this very eminent biologist says we are a loving
species. It’s worth noting. And when I heard Armand’s
story I realized, yep. And that’s why we have an innate systems
intelligence they are two facets of the same thing. Because it is through our ability to extend our compassion, if I could use that term,
very similar idea, our empathy, our appreciaton, our ability to
feel what others feel, our ability to care, our
ability to actually build a relationship based on mutual care. Those are all
manifestations of the words were using here ‘systems
intelligence’. We are loving species so a third way to articulate my dilemma or puzzle I want to share with you is that: how do we
fall in love once again with the world. Not just with one and another not just with
those close enough to us but with our life and with the world. In the
last five to 10 years I spent most my time working in education and traveling a little tour around the world with my colleague
from Denmark here doctor Mette Böll. Who’s kind of helping to nit together remarkable innovators in education. And from this experience one of the things i’ve
seen not from this last few months but over the last 10 years watching systems ideas and tools
for understanding systems in the hands of three-year-olds
four-year-olds five-year-olds you will be stunned to see that innate systems intelligence showing up. The best analogy I’ve been
able to kind of find for this imagine you know children were never given a musical
instrument there would not be a lot of musicians in the world. Children are not given any of the tools and artifacts and processes
to cultivate their innate systems intelligence but were born with musical intelligence
the instrument allows us to cultivate it or the joining together and singing in some
sort of organized process of singing together allows us to cultivate it. We have none of that for systems intelligence, we have immense innate systems intelligence it’s who we
are we are a loving systems intelligent species and the various gaps I was trying to
characterize before will only be closed. I come to a
conclusion, in my opinion, will only be closed if we
discover that again.

42 thoughts on “Peter Senge: “Systems Thinking for a Better World” – Aalto Systems Forum 2014

  1. Through touching stories Peter Senge articulates in this great talk three big dilemmas or puzzles that call for systems thinking, discussing why it is so important, yet so hard for us in the world we now live in? He ends with an encouraging view and a way to the solution: as human species we are born with innate systems intelligence: ”We are loving species. So… how do we fall in love once again with the (natural) world?”

    These passages resonated with me the most:

    ”We do not live alone. We have never lived alone. We live in a world of extraordinary interdependence”. ”The was no word for Nature. Most native communities have no word for Nature. You do not need a word for something that is you”. ”..the word Nature is an abstraction, very familiar to us. Because we live in an abstraction.” Somewhere in the historical cultural development, probably starting from the development of agriculture ”all of a sudden the human and nature are two separate things.”

    Systems ignorance.
    We do not understand the interdependencies of the system we live in. Therefore we tend to easily make choices that do not serve us well in the long term. Take for examples the effects of urban development.
    ”…if you’d ask any of those people [urban developers / sales people] … do you want to destroy the possibility for children playing outside? Do you want to destroy the air? Of course, they would have all said no. How many of us want to destroy species? Really? You wake up in the morning and go: ah, what a beautiful day to destabilize the climate a bit more! Of course we don’t think that way. No-one wants to produce the systemic outcomes that we consistently produce.”

    We are loving systems intelligent species.
    ”…the various gaps I was trying to characterize before, will only be closed… if we discover that again.

  2. There is a lot of good stuff in this talk, insights based on experience. Happy that Peter voices his respect for the way people in less materialistic and more spiritual cultures have lived lives for 15.000 years and longer. And I couldn't agree more with the LOVE we feel for Life.
    However I wonder if the parameters of the talk don't need to be extended to a degree that most people will find difficult, especially when used to sitting in these neat conferences 🙂 . I'm sorry to conclude based on my deep research that the proposition "we continually produce results we don't want, that NOBODY wants" is only partially correct. There are forces – about to be defeated by VERY LOVING STARFAMILY as well as AWARE HU-mans – that were actually engaged in clearing Earth' humanity for their own kind (from somewhere off-planet). It's all nice and well to blame us people for the pollution in our sky and land, and I don't wish to remove any co-responsibility, however when chemtrails filled with neurotoxins poison our skies and land and seem to be part of a transhumanist (=anti-humanist) agenda, don't we have to broaden the parameters of the 'discourse'? And when we find out 'democracy' is a situation at least Europe and the US do not experience at this time… that no matter how intense people protest for example food fascism, Monsanto in the US still forces its agenda on the people and the land…. that mind-control via the media, owned by only 6 companies, is rampant…. that in my view accounts for a lot of things 'not going the way we want'!
    So I toast to our innate loving systems intelligence to incorporate truthful info – often not to be found in the controlled places of 'Learning' in the way we speak about so*u*lutions??  Now that even the positive military's intelligence services are talking about the treaties the US government has made with 17 extra-terrestrial groups? (most of them benevolent, and the negative, dictatorial et's being defeated more and more). I would say YES, let us humans become aware to the highest degree of our interconnectedness and reclaim our sovereignty and Source-given rights, for the benefit of ALL Life <3 !

  3. there is no tragedy of commons for indigineous peoples. The only tradegy of commons exists in capitalist societies and the true name for it is the tragedy of private

  4. Really insightful talk … and no powerpoint!
    I think the insight of those Baja California marine biologists in devising the strategy they used is really representative of systems thinking applied to daily life.
    The intuitive thought that comes to mind is – how can we train people to lead like that. The answer and the succeeding question comes from Peter Senge again when he says that we are innate systems thinkers of a loving species…. so does that mean training is not necessary? However, he talks about humans innate ability for  music and he says that we need musical tools help us cultivate that innate ability for music

    My question is what are the tools that we can use for cultivating systems thinking in our schools and how can we best use them and how can we measure the impact they produce and demonstrate that impact to the world.

  5.  and based on this its not that Blackfoot don't have any nouns, its just that their language is strongly verb based language

  6. Interdependence is a logical consequence of determinism. It probably even IS determinism… People are system ignorant, because children are no longer being raised to observe and think… And there aren't any different systems… Only one system: The universe. Nothing is ever independent from anything else.

  7. Beutiful, just loved it. stuck to my chair for the whole hour. We need more of this in the entire world. Guess I got a lot of reading to catch up to. Any recommendations?

    Ohh,..just another thing. Does anyone know if Senge has a twitter account? looked for it but only found one with no posts lol. Maybe a blog?

  8. After listening to Senge, I can't tell the difference between what he calls "systems thinking" and plain common sense. Why does one need a PhD and 30 years experience to come up with a soccer field/organic garden/micro-financing as a means of temporarily diverting poor people away from fishing?

  9. Yes it,s true for many our independence has grown and our awareness of interdependence has declined, maybe this has to do with humans having innate systems intelligence which allows for an innate predisposition for systems manipulation. This lecture sets a positive framework for positive change and understanding etc, etc, Nice One.

  10. Having studied Senge's Systems Thinking, I was very pleased recently to read the insightful sentiment by Pope Francis' in his encyclical on the environment. Hope abounds.

  11. How come incredibly smart people like Peter almost never question the common denominator of Money in this systemic game called Economics? But not just the old complaints about money but here we have a human created institution which literally directs the macro movements of billions so how are these controlling structures shaping our global planetary health?

  12. 25:29 Peter I don't believe we are intentionally trying to eradicate 50% of our species, I believe what you meant is that we are doing it, with out hindsight of the possible consequences –  unintentionally. "Trying" makes it sounds like a tedious forlorn effort, to rid of species we have a quarrel with

  13. I'm wondering if Dr. Senge purposely chose the word interdependence vs. interconnectedness. And, as I type, I see "interconnectedness" may not be a word. lol

  14. Mr. Senge, (Peter) continually references the use of fuels in connection with the generation of electrical power. Essentially, his point of correct if you substitute the word fossil fuels in place of the word coal. No to distract from his presentation, this correction is suggested. He makes a number of excellent observations. PDH

    What is U.S. electricity generation by energy source?

    In 2016, about 4 trillion kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity were generated at utility-scale facilities in the United States. About 65% of this electricity generation was from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, petroleum, and other gases), about 20% was from nuclear energy, and about 15% was from renewable energy sources. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that an additional 19 billion kWh (or about 0.02 trillion kWh) of electricity generation was from small-scale solar photovoltaic systems in 2016.

    Major energy sources and percent shares of U.S. electricity generation in 2016.

    Natural gas = 33.8%
    Coal = 30.4%
    Nuclear = 19.7%
    Renewables = 14.9%
    Hydropower = 6.5%
    Wind = 5.6%
    Biomass = 1.5%
    Solar = 0.9%
    Geothermal = 0.4%
    Petroleum = 0.6%
    Other gases = 0.3%
    Other nonrenewable sources = 0.3%
    Pumped storage hydroelectricity = -0.2%

  15. Corrections: Essentially, his point is correct if you substitute the word fossil fuels in place of the word coal. This comment is offered, not to distract from his presentation, but to add clarity. He makes a number of excellent observations in his presentation. PDH

  16. "Watching systems ideas and tools for understanding systems in the hands of three-year-olds, four-year-olds, five-year-olds, you will be stunned to see that innate systems intelligence showing up.

    The best analogy is this: If children didn't have access to musical instruments, there would not be a lot of musicians in the world. Children are not given any of the tools and artifacts and processes to cultivate their innate systems intelligence. But we are born with musical intelligence and the instrument allows us to cultivate it, or the joining together in singing in some sort of organized process of singing together allows us to cultivate it.

    We have none of that for Systems Intelligence. Yet we have immense innate systems intelligence. It's who we are. We are a LOVING, SYSTEMS INTELLIGENT SPECIES. "

    Near the conclusion

  17. I had to stop at 25:00 b/c there's nothing here of merit. Checkout Toby Hemeway talks on permaculture if you want to hear intelligent discussion about "systems" that gets straight to the point and presents solutions to problems.

  18. What is the definition of system thinking in learning organization?
    Can anyone help me by giving a very simple example?

  19. And of course the Blackfoot language has nouns. Every language has nouns. Man this dude is full of crap. He's like some kind of secular evangelist.

  20. "Complex non-linear feedback dynamics." That should tell you all you need to know. A really sneaky way of saying "bullshit."

  21. Culture diversity killed hundred of millions of people in the history of human kind. There is no culture diversity in engineering, chemistry, mathematics… and no one fight there.

  22. I would argue systems think it's a totally different state of consciousness. This is the case, why engineers make good business leaders, they have system's thinking skills.

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