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Systems In Focus

Systems in Focus

Systems are all around us. Using Systems Thinking, we can better understand them by building models that can be simulated. These videos show common systems overlaid with the underlying dynamics that make them behave as they do. By looking beneath the surface, we are better able to bring these systems into focus.


Energy production is one of the defining problems of our time. As global demand and consumption rise with population growth and economic development, so do emissions, resource waste, and health hazards. We are in a time of transition from polluting, wasteful, and dangerous ways of generating energy towards technology that is safer and decreases the strain on non-renewable resources. As some of the greatest impacts and threats come from climate change, there is an urgency to the issue of energy transition like no other.

Building capacity in alternative energy sectors takes time and large investments. The transition to other sources has to be financially feasible, as well as timely to prevent further damage from pollution. How can the mix of electricity generation technology change, based on both cost and pollution? This Systems in Focus model analyses how capacity can be developed in different energy sectors over time.

Simple Energy Model
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This Systems in Focus model takes a look at Sustainable Fishing. In theory, Sustainable Fishing is achieved when fish are caught at a rate which does not cause a decline in the overall fish population. In practice, sustainable fishing can be very difficult to achieve.

Fishing areas are within the commons, which encourages greater investment in ships when there is demand. More importantly, we can never really know the population of the given fishery and therefore whether it is in danger of being fished out. This model explores the trade-offs between investing in more ships to catch more fish and the long-term viability of the fishery.

Simple Conservation Model
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The modern assembly line is one of the greatest and now most common manufacturing process concepts in history. It was created to save time and money, and to increase the overall quality of the output. By mechanically moving parts in a line through a factory to different work stations, a product can systematically be built up piece by piece, while decreasing time spent moving parts. This process was perfected and used most famously by Henry Ford in the 1920s.

In this simple example, we have modeled the basics of a bottling plant. Before we can model the process however, we need to consider the supplies required to create the final product, in this case, water. A bottling plant requires a constant supply of purified water. It is usually run through three sets of filters that remove smaller and smaller particles before being sterilized.

The bottling side starts with bottles that have either been shipped in (glass) or are blown into the proper shape from small stubs of plastic. Glass bottles are placed on a disk-shaped hopper while plastic bottles are often dumped into an open box hopper. The hopper feeds a machine known as an unscrambler, which puts the bottles onto a conveyor belt in single file. From there, the bottles are quickly rinsed to ensure cleanliness, filled with water, and capped.

The bottles are then inspected for stray particles inside and some bottles are rejected. Since filling made the bottles wet, they are blown dry before labels are affixed to them. At this point, any labels that need to be printed onto the bottle are added. Finally, bottles are grouped and packed into containers. In the case of water, the package gets shrink-wrapped. The package of water is now ready to ship!

Simple Manufacturing Model
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The video above shows a waterfall in a serene setting. A lot is happening behind the scenes to create this picturesque vista. Rainfall on land creates runoff and therefore stream flow. Some of this runoff is absorbed into the soil. Some of that flows beneath the ground to the stream and some returns to the air through evapotranspiration. Another part of it percolates further down through the soil layers to become part of the groundwater, which provides a base level flow for the stream. Using Stella Professional, we are able to draw a map that corresponds closely to the physical world and then simulate that map to see what happens. This both increases our understanding of how this system works and allows us to experiment with different policies that might lead to alternate, more desirable outcomes.

Simple Watershed Model
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