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Systems Thinking — the new American idea

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Systems Thinking is a somewhat vague concept, but one that is getting increased attention thanks to the news about coronavirus. The premise is simple, but putting Systems Thinking into practice can be challenging, especially for individualistic-minded Americans. Systems Thinking is the understanding that all systems are made up of individual parts that interact in important ways to produce system outcomes. Systems Thinking is broadly useful as a way of thinking and learning and has benefits for problem solving, innovating, promoting collaboration and cooperation, and in understanding complexities, trends and data.

Recently, we have seen governments here and abroad employing a sort of anti-system approach to slow the transmission of the coronavirus by literally pulling apart the system pieces through social distancing and stay at home strategies, thereby creating distance between the system parts to lessen or in some cases completely prevent interactions. 

In this way, by breaking the usual ties that bind us together, the hope is that there will be a decrease in the person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus, less people will fall ill, hospitals will not become unable to handle the patient loads and less people will die. 

The premise of this approach is sound, as it is seated in an understanding of the interconnectedness of society, but not everyone is onboard or seems to really understand why distancing and limiting interactions is so vital. To achieve full cooperation in these efforts we need everyone to become Systems Thinkers STAT, as they say in critical healthcare situations, and understand that as individuals we are critical parts of the system and impact its outcomes.

Individualism, a cherished American ideal, has helped our country become the unique nation that it is. However, as we battle a growing pandemic it may also be our Achilles’ heel. According to research on diversity in thinking, individuals from more idealistic societies put more emphasis on personal choice and freedom, and this way of thinking significantly changes fundamental reasoning. Whereas individuals from individualistic societies focus on separate elements and consider situations fixed and unchanging, those from collectivist societies consider the whole and the relationships within when thinking about problems.

As Zeynep Tufekci recently argued in the Atlantic, asystematic thinking in the U.S. may have contributed to the coronavirus outbreak we are now seeing, costing us precious time in mitigating its impact. Evidence of asystematic thinking is clearly found in the news cycles from earlier this year with headlines depicting the virus as nothing for Americans to panic about because, as one infectious disease expert put it, “we have the tools to prevent it from ever rising to the level of something we should really worry about seriously.”

Even now with most community systems taking bold action in shutting down system parts — schools, arenas, theaters, restaurants, stores — to create social distancing, if people continue to fail to understand why their role in following orders is imperative, compliance will remain inconsistent and incomplete. We have seen this play out on social media with people posting pictures of themselves congregating in bars and at beaches or boasting about traveling even once restrictions were put into place. A recent news story about the man with coronavirus who boarded a flight to Palm Beach, Fla., exposing a planeload of passengers, is just one scary example of this individualistic thinking and a failure to understand that individual actions relate to products of the system. This one act impacted the 112 passengers and 5 crew who were forced into a 14-day self-quarantine and made them into potential vectors of the disease itself. There’s no way to accurately quantify how many individuals were impacted by this one self-serving act.

Our interwoven national and global structure demands a respect for its interconnectedness and an individual responsibility to understand how this linkage impacts our lives in both positive and potentially negative ways. Right now, more than ever, everyone must commit to becoming stewards of the entire system and do their part, even when that person, community, or issue seems remote to ourselves, because a distant strife can quickly become a personal circumstance, as we are now seeing with New York, as the latest virus epicenter.

If we do this right, our national and global connectedness can be our salvation rather than our downfall. But for this to become a reality we need to foster Systems Thinking and develop Systems Thinkers. We need to teach it to our young, reinforce it as the new American ideal, and be more able to deploy it into practice. We need to cease viewing the world only through our individualistic lens and stop shying away from really seeing the world as it is, a vast web of interrelated, interacting parts all moving because of, not despite the singular actions and efforts of the individuals within it.

An isolated use of Systems Thinking by just a few Systems Thinkers is not a model that will work. An immediate shift in thinking from asystematic to systems-based must occur. Let’s promote being like bees living in a colony and adopt hive mentality, so we can act as a sort of super-organism where the aggregation of individuals and individual forces function as an integrated whole to accomplish the shared goal of saving lives.

Jill Steiner Sanko is an assistant professor of Nursing and Health Studies at the University of Miami and a Public Voices Fellow.

Tags community-spread Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID19 Pandemic transmission

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