Systems Thinking About Preparedness and Scaredness

Thursday March 12, 2020: Toronto, Canada

Events like the COVID-19 pandemic provide us with examples of how to think about systems and why, when, and how to prepare, panic, do neither or both.

A Thursday evening trip to the neighbourhood supermarket was anything but ordinary. The first sign was the lack of parking spots and no shopping carts outside.

Inside it was a frenetic hive of activity with lineups for the cashiers snaking around the entire building surrounding aisles of empty shelves where toilet paper, cleaning products, dry pasta, and bags of rice once sat.

Those in the lineups were mostly glued to their phones looking at the latest news saying that schools had been shut down, sporting events and leagues had either been suspended or outright cancelled, and that an entire continent was subject to a travel ban. This was on the same day that a world leader was self-isolating and the global stock market edged further lower.

In crisis comes opportunity to learn and this provides a brilliant case study in how systems — biological, mechanical, and social — work.

In the first in a series it’s worth exploring how we can better understand systems by looking at the teachable moments that we have before us. Let’s start this examination with system dynamics.

The Case of Toilet Paper

The COVID-19 pandemic as it’s name suggests is affecting the world and revealing the often taken-for-granted interconnections between humans, the natural world, and the artificial (designed) world. If we look at systems thinking and the variety of theories and concepts associated with it, we see clear examples that can help us understand our world better.

System dynamics focus on the inputs, stocks (things) and flows (movement) through a system. Anyone looking at the supermarket will see this with the case of the run on toilet paper. Toilet paper (a stock) is a hard good and has a countable supply. Manufacturers can increase the amount of it by ramping up production, but that might take time. The toilet paper we buy on the shelves today was likely manufactured before or perhaps at the earliest stage of the COVID-19 outbreak.

This means a time delay between the stock (literally) and getting it to us. This is where human decision-making comes in. Preparedness means taking into consideration the chance that we might have to self-isolate or quarantine, however in most cases that is recommended for 14 days. What this means is that having two-weeks worth of toilet paper is not unreasonable. Given the stock (amount of toilet tissues) and flow (the amount you actually use per day) and you can determine what the minimum amount ought to be based on the size of your household.

Fixes that Fail

This is where buying many things over and above your normal amount and what is reasonable is actually what systems thinkers refer to as a ‘fix that fails‘.

The choice to over-load your cart with what you deem as ‘essentials’ well beyond what’s necessary strains the system to where there isn’t enough for others and this is where that self-interest can backfire.

Buying litres of soap and hand-sanitizer beyond what’s necessary means less for others, yet it is from those others and their access to and use of soap and hand-sanitizer that mediates their contraction of a virus. If others fear that you will take more than what is reasonable, they will be more likely to do so. This creates a spiral effect or negative feedback loop where more demand leads to less supply and less supply leads to greater demand.

It also has spillover effects for vulnerable populations, reduces community trust, and amplifies fear and anxiety that can have negative personal and social health consequences that can make us more prone to getting ill in the first place. Panic buying hurts us.

What to do?

As its name suggests, system dynamics is all about a system in motion. What this means is that while there are static elements and dynamic elements at play, the entire system is constantly shifting as part of a dance between these two thing. As we’ll explore in future posts, the effects of our actions affects those around you and may have far reaching effects beyond simply having enough bathroom tissue for the coming year.

These dynamics and the myriad interconnections between these subsystems illustrate why we need to take systems seriously and how we can avoid creating fixes that ultimately fail us or have implications that might go counter to what we want. It also enables us to plan more consciously.

(To illustrate consider the bans on large gatherings of people, which include schools. While promoting social distancing is a reasonable and effective way to prevent or at least curb the infection rate (and protecting from a surge on the healthcare system), it’s worth noting that many healthcare workers have children in schools. Who’s going to look after them? Are we reducing capacity in the health system when we invoke a measure to increase capacity in the health system? How do we plan for that?)

Be safe, be well, and be good to each other. Generosity and care means thinking about the systems effects of what we do and how we do it, for all of our sake.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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