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Games to Foster Systems Thinking

Updated: Mar 11

Systems thinking is a way of understanding everything as a system–a network of complex relationships rather than a collection of distinct parts. It uses objective observation and relational analysis to see the whole picture, to uncover the underlying structure of inputs and outputs, and understand the key feedback loops that define the system’s properties.


Systems exist everywhere. Everything is part of a system, and everything can be viewed as a system in and of itself. There are physical building systems, natural systems, and cultural systems (the people and organizations that inhabit the built environment). Todayʻs complex problems require that we employ systems thinking to understand how physical, environmental, and cultural systems function as one larger system with distinct properties. Systems thinking is where MKThink does its work.


Systems thinking is not always intuitive and easy. So, the best way to introduce it into a group is to make it fun.


stakeholder engagement
Credit: Stakeholder Engagement - University of California Santa Cruz

The University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) maintains a culture of healthy contention among its constituents, who, at times, see themselves as distinct groups rather than components of a larger whole. The University’s very livelihood and identity are defined by a culture of critique, debate, and protest. This culture of opposition, however, created challenges for the university when planning new graduate student residential facilities.


The student body was largely opposed to the development and degradation of natural spaces. UCSC needed to develop a planning strategy that met the demand for student housing while supporting the students’ commitment to environmentalism, as well as the University’s own sustainability goals, both environmental and financial. Developing the strategic plan required that the school’s stakeholders come to an agreement on the goals of the new facilities. MKThink, in collaboration with SCB Architects, facilitated the stakeholder engagement process. In a series of workshops, the project team guided the stakeholders through a group decision-making process–to set priorities, identify opportunities, and discuss options and tradeoffs. The workshops presented games designed to engage participants in working through the challenges collaboratively.


The “Design Your Own Apartment” game was created specifically for UCSC’s housing challenge. The game presented “Amenity Cards”- each represented an amenity option that has been pre-assigned a value (correlated to cost) in a fictional currency, dubbed “slugs” for the UCSC mascot. Working in teams of four, participants were charged with designing their ideal residential unit. They started by selecting a base use–two bedrooms or four–and then trading slugs for different features. The goal of the game was to reach a group consensus on how to budget their slugs. These small group negotiations forced participants to consider the amenities they valued most and to realize the need for tradeoffs.


Groups used their slugs to trade for the amenities and sustainability upgrades above.

The results were revealing. Most stakeholders chose to invest points in high levels of sustainability. Fewer stakeholders than expected chose the highest levels of sustainability, opting to budget their slugs to other amenities.


The planning team had assumed that students would prefer two-bedroom units over four. That proved not to be the case. The preference for four-bedroom units allowed for higher density

housing, which reduced the built area by 75,000 square feet and reduced construction costs by $30,000,000.



#stakeholderengagement #community #learningoutcomes

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