Researching system dynamics

Once you’ve scoped your system boundary, it’s time to get googling. Pull out articles, academic papers, reports, interviews – anything that contains interesting insights on your problem system.

The aim of this step is to gather as many ‘system dynamics’ as possible within your chosen system. 

A system dynamic is any form of causal relationship that exists within a system. If X causes Y, it’s a system dynamic.

If A results from B, it’s a system dynamic. As you read through your sources, highlight causality wherever you see it – this is a quick and easy way to start drawing out system dynamics.

Let’s say your chosen problem system is ‘rising obesity levels’ and you’ve scoped your system boundary further to focus on rising obesity in India.

Here’s an excerpt that contains some interesting system dynamics: can you identify them?

India's obesity crisis

Prakash Shetty, of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), says lifestyle and food habits change as an economy develops. There is a significant increase in the consumption of fats, sugars and energy-dense foods. The main drivers behind changing lifestyle and food habits are rising incomes, urbanisation and globalisation.

Rising incomes and urbanisation lead to the substitution of servants or appliances for physical work around the house, while family breadwinners take to desk jobs instead of ploughing the fields. These factors also encourage more sedentary pursuits such as television viewing and computer use, and well-off city-dwellers travel by car instead of walking or cycling. 

At the same time, globalisation puts junk food and fast food within easy reach of a population often hard-pressed to find time to cook healthy meals, but with more than enough money to buy a greasy lunch at a nearby restaurant.

In India, these factors have contributed to the rise of bad eating habits and lack of exercise amongst a growing urban middle class, and their effects are startlingly visible.

A University of North Carolina study conducted in Andhra Pradesh showed that 37 percent of women living in cities are clinically overweight or obese, and a study by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) found that 76 percent of women in Delhi suffer from abdominal obesity. 

But India’s obesity crisis has been further exacerbated by some peculiarly Indian factors. Despite India being a vegetarianism stronghold, the average Indian’s diet severely lacks fruit and vegetables – an abysmal low of 150 gm a day against the WHO recommendation of 400 gm a day. 

Instead, Indian consumers’ calories come mostly from refined carbohydrates and fats. Indian food also tends to be amongst the most oil-rich in the world, and while Indians have taken Western junk food to heart (quite literally!), India also has its own array of fried snacks (think pakoras and samosas) which make the population susceptible to weight gain without even factoring in globalisation. 

To add to this dismal picture are schools which promote a culture of fierce academic competitiveness and leave children with no time to play or exercise. That Indians are as an ethnic group more genetically prone to obesity and its health consequences is the cherry on top. Indians have up to five percent more body fat than Caucasians at a given weight and height, suggesting that Indians may face higher health risks than expected at a given weight. Some researchers have even gone so far as to suggest that Indians are genetically more likely to store fat due to a ‘thrifty gene’ that evolved out of undernourishment in the past.

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