Learning to think in systems – using LEGO bricks.


What does Google’s Pagerank, the scientific citation index and the taxonomy of plants, animals and insects have in common with LEGO bricks? They are all systems. A post over at the MIT Technology review examines the history of the Pagerank algorithm and shows that in fact, this thinking had been around for quite a while until it was so successfully exploited by Larry Page and Sergei Brin of Google. They of course have a strong bond with LEGO bricks too, Larry claiming that the bricks taught him to be a scientist – to think digitally, in systems, networks and to iterate. Quoting from the article:

The PageRank algorithm is a key part of Google’s method of ranking web pages in search results. It uses the network of links between web pages to determine their value and, famously, judges a page to be important if it is linked to by other important pages.

One crucial feature of this idea is that it requires an iterative approach to constantly re-evaluate the value of a page as the importance of others varies. Iterative ranking algorithms have since become an important part of network theory.

Increasingly, this way of understanding the world – not as a set of static known constructs, but a series of relationships which can either combine and influence one another or not, is at the heart of some of the biggest innovation in the late 20th and early 21st century.

The world is not static, our knowledge or even perceptions of the world are not static – instead we need to understand systems, whether it be eco-systems in nature or increasingly, eco-systems of value creation that spell the future of business models, of enterprise and of innovation.

To be able to experiment with such abstract concepts, while simultaneously engaged hands-on is an invaluable gift to give a child, or indeed anyone, because we learn by experience and we store our learning in terms of experiences of what worked and what didn’t work.

Systems thinking is complex, it’s potentially vast in scope and also abstract in nature so being able to understand relationships by manipulating bricks, which have endless opportunities to be combined with other bricks, yet follow a distinct, intelligible system, whereby you don’t need to know every brick by heart to know how to combine it with another one. You learn that by understanding the system and you understand the potential of a new brick by understanding the system. That is the power of LEGO bricks, but also the kind of thinking we need to master in more and more domains as globalisation and digitisation blaze the trail of connecting the world through supply and demand, finance, security, communication and environmental responsibility.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Very interesting and insightful, as ever, Cecilia!

    As you say, we live in a world where from time to time even the basic rules seem to change, and paradigms shift, often without too much ‘warning’ for people who have taken their eyes off the road.

    To be even more like the real world, then, LEGO bricks would have to occasionally morph so that they were no longer based on studs and tubes, but were stuck together with interlocking triangles, or bolts, or suction!

    Of course, that would make it an unsatisfactory toy, or creative material, as we like to be able to predict how things will hold together (in LEGO) without the anxiety about the system changing altogether.

    So … would you say that LEGO helps us to learn about systems, such as those which exist in the world, but in a somewhat ‘protected’ environment?

    Interesting stuff, thanks.

  2. Mads Bab says:

    Great piece on systems thinking.

    As a positive psychologist and therefore also with a keen interest in positive emotions I see a strong connection between systems thinking and the research being done on positive emotions.

    Where negative emotions tend to behave very simplistic (fear = run) positive emotions behave according to a complex system http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complex_system. And it seems as though a complex system is exactly what explains systems thinking as you describe it.

    Barbara Fredricksom covers in her book Positivity how positive emotions broadens our perpective and builds our capabilities. She discovered that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads people creative thinking in a manor very similar to your description of systems thinking.

    Psychology has with positive psychology finally taken a serious interest in what works and with that found so many interesting ways of describing ways of learning and living.

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