A “simple” system: the Gulf Stream

Tactical Systems Thinking

Many systems, such as the economic system, can be diagrammed as flows of something – money, energy, water, moving armies…  Instead of cluster diagrams or mind maps, which are good for mapping ideas in our own minds, it is often better to use some sort of process diagram to illustrate processes in the real world.  (Here we use the Gulf Stream as an example of a system.  In Australia we need to be concerned about the weather patterns (and our influence on them) which make up the Monsoon system, El Nino and La Nina.

The Gulf Stream as a system

The Normal Gulfstream
Here is a simplified diagram of the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream is a vast river in the Atlantic Ocean.  It gains heat in the Gulf of Mexico, flows up the western side of the Atlantic Ocean towards Greenland, veers over close to the British Isles, and wends its way back to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

The heat carried by the Gulf Stream significantly warms England, Norway, and the rest of Europe.  It would be of some concern to people living there if the Gulf Stream slowed or veered south earlier.  Brrr!
The Slowed Gulfstream
Conceivably this could happen if there should be a large influx of freshwater into the North Atlantic from Canada due to melting glaciers.  It would deflect the Gulf Stream southward.

So this is a ‘point of change’ − a point where a change in one part of the system can shift the way the whole system functions.

We can use this method of thinking to identify points of change that would help our whole system work better, or prevent it from working worse.  For example, it used to be that the material from most of the things we use ended up in a waste dump.  Now, as you know, we recycle a lot of it.

[For a sophisticated account of points of change, please read Donella Meadows’ Places to Intervene in a System. Meadows points out that the most powerful points of change are in people’s worldviews.  A more detailed account of feedback loops in systems is in Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline.]

We can find many points of improvement once we understand how a given system works.

Thanks to Andrew Gaines for this article.

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