In her book, Coming Back to Life Joanna Macy described a way for people to have “a direct experience of the dynamic nature of open systems.” Since that is a key idea in our Social Design Foundations class in the Carnegie Mellon School of Design, we played Macy’s “Systems Game” to explore ideas of complex social systems. Here’s what happened.


Debriefing: some key things to remember about social systems

(…and by “social system” I mean school, family, corporation, local food system, government,….)

After the activity shown in the video, we sat down to debrief and reflect on what we had experienced, listed some of the key characteristics of a social system, and considered the implications for our work.

You can’t just look at the individuals.
There are too many, and they are constantly interacting. Some of that interaction is invisible. “Big data” won’t help you.

The interactions are RICH.
One thing is affected by many other things, and in turn it affects many others.

The interactions are nonlinear.
Small changes in inputs or interactions can cause surprisingly large effects.

The interactions involve loops.
I influence those around me, that affects their behavior, and in turn they influence me.

They don’t stand still.
There is a constant flow of energy and information.

They have a history.
They evolve and their past is co-responsible for their present behavior.

Cause-and-effect is the wrong lens for understanding.
It’s doesn’t work by “this happened, so that happened.” People in the system can’t tell what the whole thing is doing. They can only respond to what’s available to them locally. Yet, something BIGGER emerges from these local interactions.

Further reading

If this interests you, you might like…

My Notes on Emergence, gathering in an article on

A PDF guide to facilitating the systems game, kindly provided by LeAnne Grillo of Reos Partners.

We’ll post more notes from time to time as this course progresses.