Embedding Systems Thinking into Education

by Dr. Shann Turnbull

Dr. Shann Turnbull

Simplifying Complexity

The complexity of the existential threats to humanity can only be countered by recognizing a fundamental System Science “Law of Requisite Variety” (LRV). Ross Ashby, a founder of system science, explained the LRV by stating: “Only variety can destroy variety”1. It means that the only way to counter the interrelated complexity of the accelerating degradation of our planet’s atmosphere, oceans, soils and biodiversity requires engaging with the eight billion people on the planet creating the problem. This is just common sense.

It is this type of commonsense law of system thinking that needs to be embedded into school level education. The need for the very young to learn this way of thinking could assist in adapting human culture to eternally survive the current global predicament of the number of people on the planet exceeding its renewable resource boundaries. How human culture will need to adapt is indicated below by considering the practices of pre-modern societies.

According to some authorities, an eternal solution to exceeding planetary boundaries requires reducing the global population to 1.9 billion2. This estimate probably makes no allowances of future degradations of planetary bioregions during the centuries that are probably required for socially acceptable ways of reducing the population. The “Ghastly Future”3 now identified for humanity by scientists could force de-population accelerating with a likely overshoot to threaten our existence4. Some analysts like David Hawk, who has been voicing concerns for the last 40 years, believes that humans are unlikely to survive.

Time Lag in Population Control

It could take at least three or four centuries to reduce the population to an eternally sustainable level. The global maximum population in a degraded 25th century might well be reduced to say 500 million. But another problem arises from people living longer to reduce the opportunities for refreshing the population. “Since 1900 the global average life expectancy has more than doubled and is now above 70 years5”. This has more than halved the percentage of childbearing women in the world. As life expectancy increases further the proportion of women with the ability to give healthy births will decrease further. The privilege of breeding and living with life sustaining technology will become a matter of global interest as it was in pre-modern communities when average life expectancy was only around 30 years.

Humans who are living longer, introduce greater consumption of life support technology and energy not required for healthy people. This is another way the total population limit could be further reduced. In pre-modern communities that migrated with the seasons those who were incapable of walking were left behind. There are many examples in recorded history of weak individuals choosing to be left behind in natural disasters or otherwise. As case in point of the latter situation arose in March 1912 when Captain Scott was returning from the South Pole while running out of supplies. The party were only eleven miles from supplies when a 32-year-old frost bitten companion sacrificed himself by walking off into a blizzard.

An illustration today of how older humans make new claims on resources is provided by the Japanese. Life expectancy has increased so much that: “There are more adult diapers sold in Japan than baby diapers”6. At the same time their total population has shrunk by 5% over the last ten years7. There is already a growing spread of declining populations around the world, mainly in affluent countries. There is also evidence that planetary pollution is decreasing the ability of humans to conceive8. This could be nature’s way to keep the number of people on the planet under control.

Migration of humans to other planets, without supporting biodiversity, is unlikely to provide superior wellbeing that could be regained by maintaining survivors on the planet that created us. Biological diversity is not only needed to avoid inbreeding but also for the largely invisible, complex inter-related life-supporting microbial supporting systems in our food chains and in our bodies.

Two conditions could promote greater voluntary population reduction: 1. A universal wellbeing income to remove the need for the poor to have children to look after them in their old age, and 2. Birth control education and facilities.

“Solutions to counter environmental degradation need to engage all citizens on the planet as well as providing local democratic community oversight measures to counter environmental degradation, loss in biodiversity and a viable eternal birth rate.”

Details of how these objectives could be obtained using the insights of system science are next considered.

Efficiently Regulating a large System

Besides reducing the number of people on the planet, there is also a need to distribute people to bioregions capable of sustaining them eternally according to the availability of local renewable life sustaining resources. Trade between bioregions is expected to continue but at a reduced level. An outcome required not just to reduce the resources consumed in trade but more importantly to provide local bioregions greater self-reliance and resiliency in maintaining the existence of humanity. An objective that requires a more holistic three-dimensional approach of creating “spherical” economies rather than just a “circular” economy.9

The above considerations reinforce the need for obtaining direct engagement with all citizens. But it creates the problem that Ashby described as “Regulating the very large system”10. Regarding regulating complexity, Ashby states: “The Law of Requisite Variety, like the law of Conservation of Energy, absolutely prohibits any direct and simple magnification but it does not prohibit supplementation”11. However, neither the United Nations nor its member states possess local democratically controlled supplementary organizations for countering planetary degradations12. Pollution of the air13, oceans and soils14 has already been reducing biodiversity and human fertility. This is expected to accelerate with the overshooting of environmental damage.

“To regulate a very large system, like our planetary biosphere, we must obtain a requisite variety of indirect “supplementary” agents for terminating degradations of our bioregions while enriching democracy to promote socially acceptable population controls.”

Bioregions represent natural ecological communities. With exceptions, they are typically defined by major river systems. For bio regional agents to achieve their purpose they would need to become an ecological form of bottom-up democratic self-governing organizations committed to protecting and nurturing their host region. How this could be established is next considered.

Polycentric Control Agents

Ecological governance enhances15 the polycentric form of governance described by Elinor Ostrom in her 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech16. Polycentric governance introduces a requisite variety of decision-making centers to distribute power and so introduce integrity in decision-making, communication and control channels. The division of power introduces checks and balances from contested decision-making. Crucially it liberates individuals to act naturally to use their DNA hard wired instincts to possess contrary – supplementary, Yin ~ Yang like behavior. This essential self-regulating, self-managing, self-governing characteristic is described as “Tensegrity”17. It exists in all living things18 and the universe19. Tensegrity has been neglected by social science scholars and in self-governing Design Principles identified by Ostrom20.

The research carried by Elinor and her husband Vincent, as political scientist for over half a century, were mainly involved in unincorporated competing agents as found in communities seeking access to life sustaining natural resources like water for irrigation, or land for grazing and hunting. Their research revealed that the assumption by economists was not necessarily true that competition for limitedly available life sustaining natural resources between competing interests would result in their over utilizations to deny them for many creating the “tragedy of the commons”21.

Overpopulation has now created a “tragedy of the global commons”. Because corporations are typically structured as a centralized command and control hierarchy, they have been an influential contributing agent exacerbating global degradation of the environment, inequality and undermining democracy22.

However, there are outstanding exceptions. These are the largest corporations in the world that possess bottom-up democratic polycentric governance. They have demonstrated their efficiency, competitiveness and resiliency for over half a century through several challenging business cycles. Examples are the John Lewis Partnership in the UK, Mondragon cooperatives in Europe and VISA Inc. in the US. They also prove that no change in corporate law is required in leading jurisdictions of the world for introducing polycentric democratic stakeholder governed corporate agents to become widely introduced. In this way corporations could then take on the role of being supplementary co-regulators to counter degradation of the global environment and the fundamental problem of population control.

There thus exists the opportunity of using a shareholder tax incentive to transform corporations from being part of the problem to being part of the solution by becoming supplementary co-regulators of global problems at a highly distributed local basis to engage with most citizens on the planet. However, this opportunity for salvation of humanity could be frustrated, denied and/or lost because of largely unrecognized knowledge gaps, as is next considered.


There are four largely unrecognized knowledge gaps that represent problems that need to be overcome as soon as possible for countering the existential risks to humanity. Two of the problems arise from not applying system thinking to how society is organized. Overcoming these two knowledge gaps would automatically resolve a third knowledge gap that explains a crucial unreported source of inequality that arises in private property economies23. The fourth problem is that neither system scientists nor management scholars have identified how Tensegrity is crucial. Tensegrity is pivotal characteristic required for reliably managing risks and in driving adaptations in organizational architecture to improve their survivability.

The first two problems arise because without system thinking managers cannot understand why it is impossible for command-and-control hierarchies to reliably identify and manage ordinary business risks, let alone those that affect the survivability of humanity. The second related problem is that no known institution provides education of how to create polycentric governance.

A fundamental problem of hierarchies is that they are typically both managed and governed by the same individuals who become accountable, mainly to themselves, in identifying and managing their own conflicts of interests. In other words, they can set and mark their own exam papers establishing conflicted “toxic”24 dysfunctional governance. A problem that can arise in government bureaucracies or in the non-profit or for-profit sectors. A separation of powers as introduced by polycentric governance can solve this problem if other systemic shortcomings in hierarchies are also corrected.

Another problem of hierarchies is that they are unable to identify and reliably communicate complexity faced by workers at the bottom of their pyramids of power and authority because of the lack of cross-checking communication channels. They also lack cross checking centers of decision-making that could simplify the management of complexity and provide access to a requisite variety of control agents to counter such complexity that is identified25. Twenty sources of systemic toxic problems arising from simple centralized command and control hierarchies are identified in my writings26. Polycentric governance introduces ways to either eliminate or ethically resolve each problem.

Global Education Gap in Polycentric Governance

The second knowledge gap is that your author is not aware of any graduate school of business, management or government providing an education on how to reliably manage the complexity of a business or government agency with a matching complexity of decision-making, communication and control channels as found in living things27. This intellectual void was recognized by the Academy of Management28 that held a Caucus at its 81st Annual Conference in 2021 to consider “Education for Managing Existential Risks of Humanity”29.

This social science intellectual void could be filled with the knowledge widely available in science and engineering faculties. They provide education on how to design and build self-regulating, self-managing and self-governing automobiles, robots and space exploration vehicles. Self-governance is beyond the comprehension of social scientists, unaware of “polycentric governance” as identified by Ostrom. A global survey of employee-owned firms suggests that a condition for their survival has been their local development of polycentric system of governance.30

Your author unwittingly introduced polycentric governance for the national controlling body of skiing in Australia and for the progenitor organization of the Australian Institute of Company Directors31. There are many other examples of polycentric governance in sporting and civic organizations around in the world that illustrate self-governance without the need for “Markets or State” as reported by Ostrom.

Tax Incentive to introduce Ecological Governance with Tensegrity

A compelling self-financing tax incentive could be used for investors to amend corporate constitutions to create stakeholder shares that each year would be gifted by a book entry, a fraction of their equity. The investor/shareholder would obtain a bigger profit quicker with less risk in return for giving up ownership after their investment time horizon. Only individuals who vote for politicians would be given stakeholders shares. This creates a compelling incentive for politicians to provide the tax incentive funded by taxes created by the stakeholder shares32.

Ecological corporations would distribute all their profits each year like cooperatives to minimize the dilution of shareholder equity. But unlike cooperatives they would use dividend reinvestment plans to fund the creation of “offspring” enterprises to grow their business and provide new investment and management opportunities for both their investors and managers. Nested networks of human scale organizations would be created that were locally owned and controlled. In this way corporations would obtain the power, incentive and ability to nurture and protect their local environment as supplementary coregulators. Stakeholder voting of one vote per person would replace shareholder voting of one vote per share to establish democratic process for maintaining the eternal wellbeing of bioregional populations.

These roles would be supported by stakeholder shares establishing a universal minimum wellbeing income to care for all citizens to make them independent of child raising. The benefits provided to citizens are funded by distributing surplus profits that would otherwise be paid to investors if they maintained unlimited ownership rights. This reduces a major unknown, unreported, unnecessary systemic unfair overpayment of investors with unlimited property rights. Accountants cannot report the overpayments because they are not required to identify investor time horizons. As a result, economists are not aware of major systemic source of inequality. What is not reported cannot be taxed.

Ecological corporations solve this problem by distributing investment overpayments to the voters who elect politicians. Politicians can then seek election reducing taxes for shareholders, providing a wellbeing income for all citizens, and a process to counter degradation of our planet and its existential risks.

1 Ashby, W.R., 1956, An introduction to cybernetics 2 Kilvert, N., 2019, How many humans can Earth sustain? And what does it mean if we've already passed it? 3 Bradshaw, C.J.A. et al., 2021, Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future 4 Dowd, M., 2021, Collapse in a Nutshell: Understanding Our Predicament & Dowd, M., 2021, Overshoot in a Nutshell: Understanding Our Predicament 5 Roser, M., Ortiz-Ospina, E. and Ritchie, H., 2013, Life Expectancy 6 Herships, S., 2016, There are more adult diapers sold in Japan than baby diapers 7 Nippon, 2020, Japan’s Population Falls for Ninth Straight Year 8 Pizzorno J., 2018, Environmental Toxins and Infertility 9 Gleadle, C., 2021, Sustainability, ESG, and the productivity paradox 10 Ashby, W.R., 1956, An introduction to cybernetics, p. 244 11 Ibid, p. 268. 12 Turnbull, S., 2021, Privatizing regulation to enrich democracy 13 Carrington, D., 2021, Air pollution significantly raises risk of infertility, study finds 14 Pizzorno J., 2018, Environmental Toxins and Infertility 15 Turnbull, S., 2021, Do we need “A new model of corporate governance?” 16 Ostrom, E., 2009, Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric governance of complex economic systems 17 Fuller, R.B., 1961, Tensegrity 18 Ingber, D.E., 1998, The architecture of life 19 Turnbull, S., 2021, How cybernetics explains behavioral tensegrity and its advantages for organizations 20 Ostrom, E., 2009, Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric governance of complex economic systems 21 Hardin, G., 1968, The tragedy of the commons 22 Turnbull, S. & Poelina, A., 2021, How Indigenous wisdom can protect humanity 23 Turnbull, S., 2000, Stakeholder governance: A cybernetic and property rights analysis & Turnbull, S., 2021, Tax incentives to localise and democratise equity, power & work to counter planetary existential risks 24 Carucci, R., 2018, 3 ways senior leaders create a toxic culture 25 Turnbull, S. & Guthrie, J., 2019, Simplifying the management of complexity: As achieved in nature 26 Turnbull, S., 2000, The governance of firms controlled by more than one board: Theory development and examples 27 Turnbull, S. & Guthrie, J., 2019, Simplifying the management of complexity: As achieved in nature & Turnbull, S., 2021, Privatizing regulation to enrich democracy 28 The Academy of Management has 20,000 members in 120 countries and describes itself as the “preeminent professional association for management and organization scholars” 29 Details of Caucus are here: 30 Bernstein, P., 1980, Workplace democratisation: Its internal dynamics 31 Turnbull, S., 2020, The case for radical reform of corporate governance: A Narration 32 Turnbull, S., 2021, Tax incentives to localise and democratise equity, power & work to counter planetary existential risks