Systems thinking is an important component of good futures thinking, at least as taught through the academic futures studies programs in the United States. As anyway who has employed some form of systems thinking and mapping with organizations know, it generates a more complete picture of the landscape, creates a shared picture of the landscape, and focuses attention on the feedback loops that all systems have.
A recent post on the Lawfare blog by Adam Saxton, “(Un)Dignified Killer Robots? The Problem with the Human Dignity Argument,” prompted a little example of “seeing” systems in the descriptions of issues we face (in this case, with autonomous weapon systems) and of applying some systems thinking to expand the issue in your own head.
In the article Saxton is examining the ethical arguments for and against regulating and controlling the development and deployment of autonomous weapons (think, Reaper drones and all their future progeny). In the article, Saxton notes how one of the arguments against further developing and deploying autonomous weapons is that such weapons will “increases the moral distance soldiers feel from killing,” which, the argument follows, will lead to greater killing and suffering. Illustrated, this reasoning takes on the following form:
Without trying to get too deep into this space, the example in figure 1, on its own, would represent linear thinking, literally. Left alone, the thinking leads from one thing to another, based on either intuition or historical data as a basis. In thinking critically about the future, however, it can be useful to employ even a little bit of systems thinking. When thinking in terms of systems, we are looking for a larger whole, for the connections between parts, and we’re looking for the feedback loops that make the conclusions from linear thinking (see, above) erroneous.
As an example of this, a first thought would be that the same technological advance that is enabling more autonomous and deadly weapons is also enabling mobile devices, web apps, and widespread wireless internet access. Put simply: everyone everywhere has a camera and the means to share images and video from just about everywhere in the world. Following this additional line of thinking, we might expand the thinking from figure 1 to incorporate a bigger picture as illustrated in figure 2.
Ultimately, this picture might prove erroneous, but at least we are starting to paint a more complex – and likely more realistic – picture of the issue that we are examining/forecasting.