The International System Dynamics Conference 2021 is the first conference I participated working for Delft Technical University. I submitted work about transition and human behavior. Because my work was not yet that well developed, I submitted to the feedback session. I was hoping to get feedback from experienced system dynamics practitioners.
Already in preparation for the conference I got feedback on my Causal Loop Diagram (CLD) from an experienced system dynamics practitioner working at Delft Technical University. I have been using CLD before and I never managed to get to a stock and flow model.
Ok, back to the start! What is a CLD? (If you know what it is skip the part and go to the next heading) A Causal Loop Diagram is a tool that helps to understand and visualize causal connections among different objects. I am going to explain with a common example in system dynamics. The more people there are the more birth one can observe. Obviously, the more children are born the more people there are. The same would also work in the opposite direction. Hence the less children born, the lower the population number. The variables are connected in a reinforcing manner. Thus, both either increase or decrease. Not only the beginning of life is affected but also the end of it. The higher the population number the more people are dying. The more people are dying the lower the population number. In contrast to the birth-population loop, the death-population loop is a balancing loop. This is as the variables move in opposite directions; one increases while the other decreases. When one looks at the overall behavior of the variable population, one can see the beauty of systems thinking. Death and births affect population and the CLD illustrates this nicely. Of course, this is a simple example. Systems thinking can be used for much more complex situations and it is in these instances where this way of thinking can help understanding the matter at hand. Now imagine that there is a chain of reaction so to say. By following the chain of reaction one can better understand how a change in the system can affect a distant variable.
If the system is very complex the change in one part of the system can lead to changes along the rest of the system which are hard to predict without the help of a computer model. This is where system dynamics comes into play. The formulation of a stock and flow model (computer model that can be simulated) is however not necessary. The question is what the purpose of systems thinking is. I have been in the field of systems thinking for a while now and I know that some experts would raise serious objections stating that a CLD is useless without system dynamics. I think however that already mapping out connections is helpful and can be a great learning exercise. This can be observed in group model building exercises where potentially for the first-time participants have to illustrate their mental model. Not only that this can be reveling in itself, it can also be revealing to understand how different people see the world.
The starting point
I am now at the stage of trying to transform my CLD into a stock and flow model so that I can see the effect of certain interventions. I have submitted my CLD to get feedback from others. I have to highlight that this strategy worked very well. I was delighted to see that all four reviews pointed out that I am on something interesting. The same was iterated during the feedback session. I am kind of proud that the chair called my research intriguing. The positive feedback makes me optimistic that following this path can be fruitful. Admittedly, I am doubting my own work and so positive feedback is helpful.
I got even more positive feedback from several people contacting me before or during the conference. People were curious about my contribution and so I shared my preliminary work. I know from one person that there is a bit of disagreement on who is going to be the actor of change. However, this transition has never taken place, so it is all theory. Hence who is wrong or right can only be proven after the fact. Personally, I think it is pivotal that researchers take different avenues. The sustainability problems we are facing are enormous and urgent. It would be foolish to just bet on one horse.
My feedback session was on the first conference day. Thus, I could enjoy the rest of the conference. For all conferences this is always the preferred day for me. I was also volunteering at the conference, so some work needed to be invested aside from learning and listening.
I like conferences. Not because of the networking to be honest. I am a bit of an introvert, even if I like my 5 minutes of fame in the spotlight during my presentation. The amount of people is just too overwhelming for me. These slightly awkward small talks, this searching for and looking at the name tag to start off a conversation, this over and over repeating of one’s own story or this unintended interference in a meeting of old conference friends. Despite my introversion I usually “perform” well on conferences. Once one gets past the initial awkwardness, I enjoy a little talk with interesting people. I also enjoy the conference dinner, with the obligatory talk about my diet (people see I eat something different, and they ask why) and I love field trips. The travel is one of the nicest parts of a conference even if there is only time for a short stroll in the conference area.
Although this was an online conference, I could network quite a lot. More than usual I would even say. I do not know why that is. Partly I suppose because I have been contacted by people, partly because I was actively looking for support in advancing my research and partly because of volunteering. It was also great that all sessions were recorded so one could watch it at a later point (or even re-watch!). This is not only great because of different time-zones and one not being forced to stay up until 4 am. It is also great because often there are interesting talks at the same time. Usually, one would need to skip all but one. However, the recordings make it possible to get even more out of the conference.
I really enjoyed the talks and it was great to see in how many fields system dynamics is applied. Furthermore, the conference provided opportunities to learn something new in workshops and it provided possibilities to connect with more experienced systems thinkers. I have to highlight that this was one of the best things of the conference. Before I have indicated that I am at the step to develop a stock and flow model. However, I am slightly overwhelmed and do not know how to begin. The conference definitively helped me in this regard. I have signed up for mentoring and will meet my mentor soon. Also, the chair in my feedback session offered the opportunity to have a talk. This talk was also useful. Moreover, I think I am at least with one foot in a community where I have more learning opportunities in the coming months. I have signed up for another workshop and I will follow some more meetings in the next weeks. For the volunteering part I was a bit scared that volunteers would be overburden with work. This was not at all the case. The organizers where those with the main burden and the volunteers were really just there to help. The organizers have for sure not slept much during (maybe even before) the conference. I had a very good experience volunteering, and I can only recommend it. Chapeau to the organizers!!! Though, this chapeau is not limited to organizing volunteer w