The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Steve Peterson: Systems Thinking

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On January 8, Engineering Senior Lecturer Steve Peterson joined the Rocky Leadership Fellows winter retreat to lead a session on Systems Thinking. He started off the session by asking fellows what big issues they viewed as being important over the next 5-10 years: Climate Change, Multi-Dimensional Inequality, Guns, Immigration, Education were all answers that fellows gave. Professor Peterson proposed Systems Thinking as an important tool for analyzing complex issues in today’s world. He described the technique as dynamic in nature, transcending boundaries and focusing on the interdependency between many factors.

To illustrate this idea, Professor Peterson mentioned a recent Thayer School of Engineering study that linked the 2010 US Department of Transportation’s Tarmac Delay rule to increased overall delay time. While this result seems counter-intuitive, the Professor talked about how failure to think about the systems related to various issues can lead to unintended consequences, as illustrated this study.

One of Steve Peterson’s most impactful applications of systems thinking was to the Youth Violence Systems Project (YVSP) that started in 2008 in Boston. Professor Peterson spoke about this project to the RLF Fellows, emphasizing how they ensured that the community was involved throughout the course of the project: by collaboratively creating a schematic of how Boston youth become involved in gang violence with a number of community members, the YVS project was able to better understand the important issue, creating a detailed, system dynamics computer model of youth violence in Boston. These insights were then used by the community to implement programs that have significantly reduced youth violence in Boston.

The fellows then broke into groups to practice thinking in systems about youth violence, each group creating their own schematics and ideas for how to understand and address this complex phenomenon, before coming back together to a larger discussion on this very grave issue. Professor Peterson talked about his experience working on the Youth Violence Systems Project, speaking to how this technique allowed him to really connect with community members.

Steve Peterson’s session has equipped us with the tools for leading teams that will address some of the most important, complex issues as we graduate from Dartmouth and enter the workforce. These skills can also be applied to a larger range of issues, allowing for a more complete understanding of the world around us. It will be interesting to take this skill forward and apply it both to leadership and other aspects of life.

Submitted by Zonia Moore ’16, Rockefeller Leadership Fellow.

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The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences