The Story of “A Systems Story”

The Balaton Group is a little-heard-of group of some of the world’s most pioneering sustainability minds. Founded by Donella and Dennis Meadows – authors of the seminal Limits to Growth – it is an annual meeting place to discuss global problems, new solutions, and most of all, leading new actions in the pursuit of sustainability through the help of the systems thinking discipline.


But just what is ‘systems thinking’? It conjures up ideas of maps, connections, computer models, complexity, and for the average person: something too complicated to comprehend. It is exactly this perception of systems thinking that BEE is aiming to overcome, to make the discipline – and all the wonders that come from it – accessible to the average curious mind.


I  was lucky enough to be accepted to the Balaton Group last year as a Donella Meadows Fellow. Part of the fellowship included a grant to complete a project of their own choice. For this, I was determined to not only learn more about systems thinking – but to help ensure others could also learn from this process. Enter: the BEE team!


Months were spent, poring through the writing of leading systems thinking analysts, notably those of Donella Meadows (see especially, Thinking in Systems: A Primer), but also the work of Linda Booth Sweeney, among others. All of these resources further cemented in us the idea that systems really are everywhere, and to understand systems thinking, we need to be able to apply its concepts not only to complex world problems, but also to the everyday.


As the result of our research and brainstorming, we chose to develop a video that introduces systems thinking in an easy to understand format, but devoid of many of the complex terminology and diagrams that can tend to be off-putting at an early stage. We decided to tell a story – and through what better example, than the universally understandable system of love?




In order to illustrate this story, we wanted to choose a unique technique, and decided on ‘alphabetic cubes’. On six-sided cubes, we created images that told different stories within one set of blocks. Each scene of the video uses a unique set of cubes, which when turned around illustrate a distinct component of the systems thinking ‘recipe book’ – yet clearly, all are connected in a bigger system and sub-systems. And the fact that we used these alphabet cubes, often thought of as simply children’s educational toys, illustrates that even something as complex as systems thinking should and can be accessible to a wider audience.


We hope that this video can be used by those who want to introduce systems thinking to different audiences, in a new and accessible way. We hope to illustrate that even ‘complex’ environmental disciplines or issues can be made understandable through new types of language, that focus on simplicity. But most of all, we hope that this video is not only liked, but awakens new interest in systems thinking!


Note that we also plan to develop some accompanying educational tools to go with the video, but for now – enjoy watching it here: A Systems Story.