Introduction qualitative system dynamics

Institute Artes Sophiae, short artesS, is a foundation and a cooperation of professionals who want to provide research and training in qualitative system dynamic thinking and working.

There are two main approaches about system dynamics, a quantitative and a qualitative approach. The first one is a so called object related quantitative approach and the second one a subjective related qualitative approach. ArtesS wants to seek in the future a bridge between these two disciplines, for now artesS elaborates the qualitative approach, epistemological situated in the functional paradigm (a synthesis between ontological and mythical paradigm).

Developing qualitative system dynamics, short QSD, is related to the necessity that (interdisciplinary) knowledge needs to be managed and integrated. Knowledge integrators are very useful in a world with complex problems and on the other hand a lot of investigations, solutions and results. QSD is very helpful to integrate separated knowledge, knowledge areas and disciplines. In particular, by developing `conceptual archetypes´ so that the integrator can construct inter related patterns between compatible models to see and think deep insights.

The specific approach of artesS is uniquely, because all models are compatible to each other, so that you can see and think and work out rapidly the analogues relations between the different models and theories. That is very necessary, when, for example, a manager, in an organisation, used action research, a special method, developed by artesS, for practicing research on the work floor. Action research is a four step method, analogue to the empirical cycle, with four stages: open dating, axial dating, conceptual dating and functional dating. Action research, in the way of artesS, is not possible without QSD.

The most important ability of artesS is that we are working with teams from learning organisations in what we called a field, a dictogram. Working methodically in a system dynamic qualified field composition, with a precisely selected research question, shows the ability of persons to elaborate, in 16 methodical steps, unconscious knowledge to find unknown solutions. Every outcome of working in an analogous field can be verified by analogous models and iterative patterns with their underlying theories.

See for example our lecture on the university of Wageningen.

The way that you can organize compatible models in one sheet is the result of year’s research. Meanwhile you can practise qualitative system dynamics within 24 hours.

ArtesS wants to publish all the theory, models and patterns on her website:, open source, free to download. There is still a lot of work to do: uploading models, developing system methodical thinking, translating QSD in other languages, and so on.

An important wish of artesS is to find partners, where ever, who want to cooperate in developing QSD archetypical structures and to learn and train people to work with knowledge integration in relation to severe questions and problems in and between organisations and humans, the so called clinical paradigm, our speciality at this moment in change management. Other challenges are welcome.


(Dutch version)

Systems awareness: learning to connect the dots in an integral system dynamic approach.

We are greatful to have found, and build on, an article written by Linda Booth Sweeney - Learning to Connect the Dots: Developing Children's Systems Literacy. It was a wonderful experience to find words, which tell the mission of Artes Sophiae. We used this article to perform our story:

Systems awareness.

Everyday practice illuminates that everybody, young and old, have the awareness of systems and connectedness.

How can you nurture student’s capacity to connect the dots, a simple expression for system dynamics, through everyday conversations and activities?

How to build a course that leads to see the patterns that make a difference?

Artes Sophiae points out that thinking about systems means paying attention to the interrelationships, patterns and dynamics that surround us. Everybody has a natural attend to these phenomena.

Artes Sophiae builds upon this natural understanding to help promote this integrated way of thinking and working for students, trainers and managers.

To discover a general notion of systems, everybody can start with a simple question, for example: What happens when everyone says: me first! Seek for yourself minimal two everyday examples to illustrate what could happen.

In every example you will discover that any system shows interrelatedness between two or more parts that interact to form a whole. When you get a notion of a system, you enable yourself to make complex observations.

The result of this observation is that a system thinker recognizes the impact of little parts or aspects on a larger whole.

For example, each individual action or decision has an impact on the whole organization or even the whole society. Each individual action is defensible on its own, but they can have a devastating impact on the larger whole if you combine them.

This understanding is crucial to solve the interlinked problems in the world: social, ecological, economical, political, and so on.

Students could learn to see how small aspects interact within a larger whole. How can you give students the opportunity to develop those insights by system dynamic thinking and working? How can you develop student’s awareness of systems that will serve them all their lives?

How can you teach students to see beyond the surface, to recognize many different interconnections and dynamics among parts and particles of events? How can you teach them to start thinking about how to use these interconnections to improve their world?

How can you educate their primal notion about the world as a dynamic interconnected and tightly woven web of related, interacting elements and processes?

For all these questions you need only two interrelated words: a system that could interact dynamically with other systems, short system dynamics.

A reticulate approach.

Students today are growing up in a complex world with many problems, related to and a result of a narrow analytical approach. They must become aware of the causes and consequences of interconnected systems to handle their challenges.

Reality asks a reticulate approach Edith Cobb - the ecology of imagination in childhood, which means that people have the notion of a net or network between a lot of data. They have to learn to work in sophisticated mind maps, design maps, concept maps and functional maps. These maps are methodically build up in action research: open dating, axial dating, conceptual dating and functional dating, making it possible for students to think and work in a system dynamic frame work. See process and problem based research methods. For the diagrams and dynagrams of Artes Sophiae see Library 'artes techné'.

To handle world wide problems students need to have a well-educated understanding of system dynamics related to the discipline they want to learn. The knowledge of system dynamics must be both comprehensive and abundant enough that they are capable of putting it to use. System dynamics is a specific level of thinking about complex conceptual knowledge (knowledge about system principles and behaviors) and reasoning skills.

For example, the ability to see problems in wider contexts, see multiple levels (or angles of perspectives) within a system, trace complex interrelationships, look for within and without system influences, have awareness of changing over time and recognizing recurring patterns that exists within a wide variety.

Being aware of dynamic systems results in awareness of the pattern that connects them, with possible constructive results.

System dynamics is a prerequisite for solving problems, from a fragmented point of view, in an interconnected world. For a long time scientists work on the assumption that they can safely deal with parts, leaving the whole to take care of itself Wendell Berry - the way of ignorance and other essays.

Nowadays the students have to gather the scattered pieces, figure out where they belong and putting them back together in a system dynamic way. For the parts can be reconciled to one another within the pattern (framework) of the whole thing (process) to which they belong.

When students learn about system dynamics and become more explicitly systems aware, their worldview shifts. They become the power to transform their way of thinking and working. This new worldview is what Artes Sophiae calls a functional paradigm. In and through a functional paradigm the student conceives and perceives experiential wholeness. The student no longer sees nature, people, events, problems as separate and unconnected. Stephanie Pace Marshall - the power to transform: leadership that brings learning and schooling to life.

The student has to discover that human behavior is part of the ecological problem, becoming aware that he or she is not an outsider but an insider, experiencing the connection to all the others. The human being is part of nature, rather than parted.

The student knows that the farmer working with the landscape’s natural processes, encourages a diverse group of plants and animals to grow, maintaining its own ecological balance and adding little or no waste to the ecosystems around it. This could cultivate biological food with less unintended negative consequences, for example the death of beneficial insects from pesticides and the run-off of chemicals into local water sources with unknown effects.

A system dynamic educated student will tend to look at all the several problems as interrelated. From the systems perspective nothing stands alone, my problem is your problem, so what is the answer on the question what happens when everybody says me first?

System dynamics makes students less likely to blame a single cause for problems. The student obtains a habit to look for recurring patterns and to seek out indicators of interrelated causes and to anticipate how the functioning of an organization will change if a part or process is changed.

System dynamic thinkers recognize that small actions can have big consequences, and vice versa. They seek and understand diversity within complexity. For example, they can develop closed loops of production and consumption, where waste from one source can be used for another.

Learning about system dynamics can help students come to a deeper, more compassionate, more accurate and more sustainable sensibility about what is essential. But more important is the competence to see a system as a result of multiple causes, effects and unintended impacts. So the student needs a reticulate approach.

System dynamics tracks numerous interdependencies, manages large amounts of data and anticipates unintended consequences.

Synthetic thinking with analytic facts.

A traditional student was taught that the best way to understand an object was to analyze it or break it up into parts. But research shows that working in dynamically complex systems, containing multiple feedback processes, time delays, nonlinearities and accumulations, performance is suboptimal.

With system dynamics a student develops, within co-learning research actions, higher-order skills such as critical divergent and convergent thinking in notions and images, analysis and synthesis, problem solving and problem dissolving.

Fragmented knowledge in compartmentalized curricula is not an appropriate way to handle complex problems. Students have to learn how to bring insights of many disciplines together in creative and effective solutions. Because the key challenge of this century will be to build ecologically sustainable communities in such a way that they do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. Fritjof Capra - the hidden connections: a science for sustainable living.

Many systems operate in non linear ways, thus system dynamic thinking and working requires access to advanced training in complex systems theory, action research and agent-based modeling to develop more expert levels.

A growing body of research shows that many students intuitively think about systems without any formal training. However this capacity for understanding system behaviors needs education in a methodical way. The spontaneous belief that everything is connected with everything else and that everything can be explained by everything else is a very important base to develop a more sophisticated system dynamic scope and behavior.

System dynamics teach that humanity’s survival depends on human’s willingness to comprehend feelingly the way nature works so that the student can understand what needs to be done and what must not be done, to work in harmony with nature’s processes.

By connecting the dots in a diagram or a dynagram students can see how processes are situated in an open functional interaction or caught in a closed causal loop. It is a balancing feedback process, a set of interactions that return a system back to a state of equilibrium. By their very nature, they are goal-seeking, working to bring things to a desired state and keep them there. Once a student sees this pattern, he can look for ways to change it in harmony. One strategy is to revisit and reset the goal or to develop a maintenance goal as a new equilibrium with more success. Perhaps it is necessary to trace and anticipate changes over time in a dynagram, where you can see some process rising, falling or oscillating so that the student can research the question what set of relationships might be causing this pattern?

Important is to observe and look for the patterns that repeat and let the students seek for examples of balancing and reinforcing feedback.

How can the student learn to change perspective? How to manage the anticipation of unintended consequences by extending the present? How to make it a game to look for things that build up or accumulate? An accumulation is a stock. The rate at which the stock changes, is its flow. How to challenge students to think in terms of stocks and flows? Stocks and flows play a key role in generating some of the most perplexing dynamics the scientist encounters.

How to teach the student to build models of better problem definition, problem solving by axial dating and design mapping. This enables them to analyze and act in informed ways, aware of recurring patterns. They can use this understanding to correct their own actions, anticipate unintended consequences and help others operate more effectively. More information about System dynamic mapping as a heuristic method and the art of mapping.

What happens if everyone did system dynamics?