New book provides roadmap for introducing system dynamics into community building

‘Community Based System Dynamics’ by Brown School’s Hovmand introduces concept of group model building to communities

A village in India. A Baptist church in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood. A high school in an underserved, aging St. Louis suburb.

Three distinct and diverse communities; three settings that served as living laboratories for Peter Hovmand, PhD, associate professor of practice in the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis and founding director of the Brown School’s Social System Design Lab. It’s work that takes concepts of system dynamics — the concept of understanding how a system works and changes over time — and applies them to community building.

Hovmand has written a book that provides a roadmap on the work the lab is doing. Published in November, “Community Based System Dynamics” (Springer 2013) is for anyone interested in making communities around the world better places using system dynamics.

“Historically, system dynamics is something that had been done in the corporate world to address problems in business, including manufacturing, supply chains, project management and quality control, and government, to manage health-care systems, natural resources, energy policy and defense,” Hovmand said, “but not really something you would do directly with communities.


“This is a methods book that bridges community-based participatory research methods and rigorous computational modeling approaches to understand communities as complex systems,” he said. “It works because it emphasizes the importance of community involvement both to understand the underlying system and to aid in implementation of changing that system through group model building.”

At Ritenour High School in Overland, Mo., for example, the students were led through a sequence of group model-building exercises focusing on fights in schools, and through the process not only developed insights about how “boyfriend-girlfriend drama, fights, teen pregnancy and school participation were related, and how they could change the system,” Hovmand said, but also, importantly, gave them the system-thinking tools to persuade their peers to do something different.

The results, Hovmand said, are great insights into how communities work and capacity within the community to apply systems thinking to mobilize others and learn. It’s the work that Hovmand and colleagues did at Ritenour, in the village of Andra Pradesh in India, and later at the West End Mount Carmel Full Gospel Baptist Church in St. Louis, that served as the basis for “Community Based System Dynamics.”

“There are other books on community-based participatory research,” Hovmand said. “This is guided more toward practice, and more of ‘here’s what works’ and ‘here’s what hasn’t worked’ and ‘here are the mistakes that happened.

“So part of this is making it accessible and get it so that people are comfortable engaging and using the methods — and don’t have the expectation that it has to be or needs to be perfect,” Hovmand said.

Comprehensive in its scope, the volume includes topics that span the entire process of participatory systems modeling, from the initial engagement and conceptualization of community issues to group model building, analysis and project evaluation.

“You can use these methods with communities at all educational levels, abilities and cross-languages,” Hovmand said. “It’s not doing that by dumbing it down. It’s doing that by understanding the importance of educating before organizing and problem-solving — and how systems work — in a fundamentally different way.”

To learn more about “Community Based System Dynamics,” visit here.

To learn more about WUSTL’s Social System Design Lab, visit here.