Widgets Magazine


Understanding the Systems of Our time: Take 1.

Yesterday I was accosted by a well-meaning, unassuming representative of an international environmental non-profit (he was stationed right on University Ave in case you want to avoid him).

He explained to me the importance of the role of the individual in stopping patterns of environmental degradation. I was touched by the pathos of his pleas, and genuinely surprised at my own willingness to stop what I was doing to listen.

He then asked me to fill out a membership form. I subsequently tried to explain why I couldn’t afford the membership at the moment.

He pointed to my conspicuous cup of organic peppermint tea. “But you can afford that?” He asks, raising his colorless, pierced eyebrow.

I had nothing left to say.

After about 20 minutes of awkward, ethically-inclined banter, I managed to walk away, having completed the membership form, having understood the great significance of my monthly $15 contribution to the cause of saving the rain forests of the world – except give my credit card information to this organization over the phone.

I left, thoroughly ashamed. At the risk of seeming vastly unoriginal, perhaps I resented that young man for forcing me to stop and really think about the value of what I’m doing right here, right now. I suppose there comes a point when those who are willing to take action do, and those who like the idea of taking action flop.

So was I a pretentious flip-flopper who only likes to engage in self-absorbed thoughts and discussions? What separates me from the people pounding the pavement collecting signatures and new memberships? Have I been morally compromised by the looming shadows of the ivory towers?

Finally, lodged within the confines of my self-indulgent melodrama, I realized I was being totally ridiculous – and self-absorbed.

What I have come to accept is that in that moment, we were both wrong. If every person in the world became a member of this nonprofit today, would we actually save the rain forests of the world? I’m guessing the issue is a bit more complicated than that. The actions of individuals can certainly create positive change, but thinking about the actions of individuals as inputs into a system of institutions and behavioral norms is comparatively more interesting and plausibly more impactful on a larger scale.

In the past few weeks, I have been working with a group called ChangeLabs, which is located within the Mechanical Engineering Design Group. The focus of ChangeLabs is to develop new approaches for achieving rapid, large-scale impact on the world’s most pressing challenges.  We conduct research, implement initiatives and pilot theories and frameworks that pertain to the dynamics of rapid transformation.

ChangeLabs aims to create a space for this sort of research within the innovative and collaborative atmosphere of Stanford and the Silicon Valley. We want to be able to think about issues like protecting the rainforests of the world, but we want to do it from an holistic, systems-oriented perspective.

The issues our world faces have become increasingly interconnected. The forces of globalization and increased socio-political interactions have created many new comparative benefits in trade and culture, but we have also inherited new problems. It is incumbent upon the entire human family to iterate new sets of tools that enable us to think about and collectively address these problems.

I’m thrilled to be a part of ChangeLabs, and I certainly have a lot to learn. I want to be intentional about the actions I choose to take – and that doesn’t include being lured into paying $15 per month to passively save the trees. Instead, I’m choosing to become more informed about how various systems operate, and to act accordingly–mindfully, and with the intention of escalating rapid, positive impact. I hope you will follow me on on this journey of learning to practically conceptualize the systems of our time, and in using this framework of action as a way of serving the world.

-Samri Tessema