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Gulf Oil Leak: A Systems Thinking Perspective

June 30th, 2010 1 comment

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by isee’s consulting & training partner Chris Soderquist

Oil on a Pensacola FL beachIt’s been a little over 10 weeks since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that has resulted in a constant flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  Oil is now beginning to impact the economy of the Florida coast.  Some estimate that the disaster could cost nearly 200,000 tourism jobs.   Efforts  to remove the impacts on the environment, including a massive rescue of manatees could cost billions.  The ability to truly restore the environment to pre-April 20 conditions is beyond that of mere mortals. It is an event truly unprecedented.

Who’s to Blame?

The current media focus has centered on an activity I refer to as the Find the Knucklehead Game. The idea is that there must be someone out there to blame, tar and feather, and that if we just remove the idiot from the system we’ll never have this problem again. Finé. Complete. Case closed! (And there was great rejoicing…)

However, if we begin to apply the systems thinking paradigm, there’s another analysis that might suggest we are in a long-term trend that is still just ramping up – and that if we don’t take action soon the impact on the economy and environment may be much worse.

A Systems Thinking Perspective

Two of the skills required to practice systems thinking are Dynamic Thinking and 10,000 Meter Thinking. If we look at the history of oil extraction from the balcony, as a long-term trend over time, we see something that may be quite useful. Let’s apply a concept developed by Charles Hall (SUNY-College of Environmental Science and Forestry) called EROI (“energy return on investment”).  EROI is the ratio between the energy we receive – to run our transportation system, heat our buildings, run electricity generators – and the amount of energy required to get the raw material out of the ground and process it into usable form. In the early 20th Century, oil was easy to extract. In many places it was just below the surface in the wide open fields. The EROI was 100:1 in 1930 – 100 units of energy received for 1 unit of energy extracting/processing. Since then there has been a marked decline, and as the United States passed peak oil production (the maximum production rate) in the early 1970s, and as we’ve begun importing most of our oil, the EROI for oil in the US is approximately 20:1.

Charles Hall's Energy Return on Investment Graph

Charles Hall's Energy Return on Investment Graph

Why the marked decline? Because the purest, easiest to extract/process oil has likely been found and burned (leading to too much in our atmosphere, but that’s another point). We now need to go to more distant places (no longer fields) – offshore, into the Arctic – to find oil. Often the oil is no longer in purest form; converting the “oil goo” from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada is a prime example.

Continuation of a Trend

Using the systems thinking perspective, we may conclude that the “event” of Deepwater Horizon is an inevitable continuation of a trend (that includes the Exxon Valdez). And that the trend is likely to get worse as our need (thirst) for oil increases – which will occur as developing nations continue trying to catch up to the developed world, and as we hope for “economic recovery.”

This leads to several questions in my mind.

  1. If it’s true that the easiest to extract and process oil has been found and used, what’s this indicate about the risks we’ll incur as it requires increasing effort to get oil in the future? More deepwater drilling? Environmental degradation/damage to get oil like tar sands extracted?
  2. How much oil really is left – how long will we continue to have this cheap resource?
  3. Further, if we are facing increasing risks and costs for every unit of oil we acquire, when will that begin to have severe impacts on our economy (as the per unit cost of the stuff we love – iPods, cars, flying to Europe – increases, the profit margins of our globalized corporations will decrease)?
  4. And when will we decide that we need to develop a way of living that is independent of this resource? To recover from our “addiction to oil.”

How Much Oil Is Left?

I’ve developed and published an isee NetSim model that you may use to explore questions regarding how long the resource will last and the implications of the economy on that length. You may explore it here.

"How Much Oil is Left?" online simulation

Ultimately, we need to stop the Find the Knucklehead Game and instead recognize that it is we – in the collective sense – that are responsible. Not just for the recent disaster, but the long-term trend and its consequences (including the unintended consequences of climate change). The system is behaving as it is designed. It is up to us to design a different system!

We have met an ally and he is Storytelling

April 29th, 2010 8 comments

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by isee’s consulting & training partner Chris Soderquist


iStock_000010849371XSmall The April 26, 2010 article in the New York Times titled “We have met the enemy and he is PowerPoint” has created quite a stir. It is particularly telling that three days after its publication, it is the most emailed article on their website! The most interesting aspect of the article to me, as a system dynamics practitioner, is the publication of a system dynamics map on the US Counter-insurgency strategy as the example (i.e. visual sound bite) demonstrating why PowerPoint is so problematic. This is actually a poor example of the author’s point, since it is not PowerPoint, and because the map was shown out of context.

Although the diagram doesn’t portray how or why PowerPoint is misused, it does demonstrate some reasons why system dynamics maps and models are not more broadly used to communicate systemic issues. In this post, I will describe what issues a PowerPoint paradigm creates and how system dynamics can address those issues; more importantly, I will show why the STELLA and iThink software have features such as storytelling and web publishing in order to help people develop deeper, more systemic understanding of the complex problems humanity must address.

The Problem with PowerPoint

I don’t have anything against using PowerPoint. Those of you who have taken one of my webinars for isee systems know that I rely heavily on the software in my instruction and facilitation. I think there are inherent software limitations that combine with a cultural paradigm, that lead to its misuse. Currently, I see it promotes the following approaches to problem solving:

  1. Narrow focus in space and time – due to limited screen real estate
  2. Passive absorption of information of data – lazy learning, not experiential
  3. Simplistic bullet point thinking – linear thinking, focusing on factors in a non-operational way

iStock_000005896614XSmall This all creates confusion between reducing complication and simplifying complexity. The world is a dynamically complex place, and thank goodness for that! Picture the blandness of a world that is simple, where everyone thought and acted the same, where you always knew exactly what would happen because it was so simple. Boring! On the other hand, dynamic complexity makes it difficult to resolve what currently appear to be intractable problems, such as environmental degradation, poverty, global economic turmoil. Living in a dynamically complex world necessitates finding ways to simplify complexity to its essence, making manageable and useful mental models.

That’s why people are drawn to lists (e.g., bullet point and linear thinking), believing it simplifies complexity; just give me a list of what’s wrong or what to do! What lists do well is remove complication, but they also remove the dynamic essence of reality, often making mental models that are less than useful.

System dynamics

System dynamics is an approach to building understanding that expands boundaries, looks at the world as comprised of feedback loops, uses a visual language that promotes operational thinking, and creates active learning. It’s a terrific approach to counter the many problems inherent in applying PowerPoint paradigm!

All of the above helps develop useful mental models that are both simplified and still capture the essence of reality. However, taking a map out of context – even one much simpler than shown in the article – and including it in PowerPoint will not create understanding, only confusion! When I’m in front of a group and have enough time, I will always draw it up on a flipchart or board, to bring the group along with its unfolding. The rapid feedback creates an engaged group capable of learning. But in the absence of time, or if you need to communicate to people “on their own time” you will find features in STELLA and iThink invaluable!

I’ve published a map to the web with the isee NetSim software to demonstrate how you can use system dynamics to create online experiential learning labs. Take a tour of the map below to see how the stock/flow language and Storytelling can overcome the passive absorption of bulletized information that PowerPoint facilitates.

Click on the image below to make sense of the map

Launch the story of COIN dynamics

Another interesting perspective from Linda Booth Sweeney on the New York Times article can be found on her blog.