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In my last blog post on food systems thinking, I highlighted three challenges that appear when we try to think about or address problems in food systems: incomplete knowledge, the limitations of human cognition, and our limited capacity to intervene.  In this article, I’ll address some of the ways in which we can direct our thinking to engage more effectively in situations where our knowledge might be lacking.

When trying to consider the global food system, we’re bound to run into the issue of incomplete knowledge. As systems get larger, more complicated and complex, the less we can understand them.  Moreover, what we do know is subject to greater uncertainty as we try to generalise and overextend our limited contextual knowledge into situations where it does not fit.

It’s natural to feel disheartened by this, especially given the scope and importance of problems that emerge from the different processes occurring across food systems, such as food insecurity, biodiversity loss, and all the different forms of malnutrition.  However, by becoming aware of our thinking and combining this with appropriate strategies, we are able to become more effective at analysing and intervening in the types of complex problems mentioned above.


Wake up! Becoming Aware of our Metacognition

Meta-cognition is the awareness and understanding of our own thought processes –in other terms, thinking about our thinking.  Cultivating it is an important first step to systems thinking, because once we realise that we don’t fully understand a situation, we can actively look to see what we know, what we don’t know, and whether our knowledge is correct or not.  Without it, we are trapped in habitual and reactive thinking patterns and unable to consider the bigger picture.

An important aspect of metacognition is ‘epistemic awareness’ [1], that is, being aware that our knowledge of a situation is only ever an internal representation of what we think we’re observing externally.  It is a product of both the external data we receive through our senses and how we process it. Our observations are therefore selective, partial and error prone, and often differ from those of other people.  This points to the importance of cultivating an attitude of mindfulness [2], enquiry, and flexibility regarding the accuracy of our own and others’ beliefs and worldviews.

But to begin with, it can be helpful to think about metacognition by visualising the knowledge we might have of a situation and our thinking in the following way:

Source: Armson, R. (2011). Growing Wings on the Way: Systems Thinking for Messy Situations. P. 19


The two uppermost quadrants are relatively simple to deal with.  You either have knowledge about a situation, or you know where to find it.  The bottom two are more problematic – how do you deal with the things that you don’t know, or the tacit knowledge that you don’t know you have?  Dealing with the lower two quadrants often requires a change of perspective, which suggests a first strategy for dealing with incomplete knowledge: involving other people!


Sharing Perceptions: collaborations as a means for critical knowledge creation [3]

In the diagram above, we can see two ways in which people can help us to understand a problem situation, in this case, the relationship between drivers affecting obesity.  The green person has some knowledge of food consumption and food production, but green will benefit from Blue’s understanding of physical activity.  Green will also benefit from Orange’s knowledge on food production.  Although Green knows a little about food production, Orange knows more, and can therefore provide useful information.  Dialogue between Green and Orange can also help gauge their shared understanding of food production systems and whether they see this topic differently.  Collectively they can see more of the situation than if they were just by themselves.

Collaborative working helps us validate what we know, and provides us with new information and things to consider – it can help to expand the boundaries of our understanding.


Going Beyond! Exploring the Boundaries of Our Thinking


Boundaries represent distinctions we make when we think about a situation [4]

Boundaries are a concept that is central to systems thinking.  They can be thought of demarcating a system, or problem situation, from things that we think of as less relevant.  In the diagram above, the lady Is considering the pond as a system.  Anything beyond the pond system, such as the surrounding land, is termed the wider environment, and is not the subject of her focus.

The boundaries that we create ourselves, or adopt from others, are important because they represent the conscious and unconscious decisions we make about what to focus on.  We can reflect on system boundaries as a means of seeing how incomplete our knowledge of a situation is. For example, we might ask ourselves what relevant phenomena we are not including in our system that might have important effects on the activities within.

Conflict can also arise out of how we structure our boundaries. This occurs when two people, using different value judgements, create boundaries that do not align with each other’s view of the system [4].  Since each person will see the same aspect of the system or problem differently, this can be a source for frustration and miscommunication.  Systems thinking methodologies will often include some aspect of collaborative work and make explicit peoples’ collective understandings of relevant boundaries to create effective intervention strategies.

Ultimately, there are many ways to address incomplete knowledge.  Acknowledging that it is a problem is a first step, since it allows you to adopt metacognitive approaches to reflect on the boundaries of your knowledge.  From there you can reflect on the personal metacognitive strategies that you might use along with useful collaboration to build up a richer picture of the food system challenge you are thinking about.

In my next blog I will look at some of the challenges thrown up by the limitations of human cognition when considering food systems, as well as some strategies we can use to overcome them.


[1] For more on epistemic awareness, see:–epistemic-awareness.html
and Ison, R. (2008). Systems Thinking and Practice for Action Research. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), The Sage Handbook if Action Research Participative Inquiry and Practice (2nd ed., p. 21). SAGE Publishing.

[2] There is much information available on mindfulness, but the following resources are a good place to start:
Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N. D., Carmody, J., … Devins, G. (2004). Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11(3), 230–241.
Yates, J., Immergut, M., & Graves, J. (2015). The mind illuminated. A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom And Brain Science. USA: Dharma Treasure.

[3] Adapted from: Finegood, D. T., Merth, T. D., & Rutter, H. (2010). Implications of the foresight obesity system map for solutions to childhood obesity. Obesity, 18(S1).

[4] Midgley, G. (2008). Systemic Intervention. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Action Research Participative Inquiry and Practice (pp. 156–165). SAGE Publishing.



Blog by Harley Pope, Education Coordinator, University of Reading

[ Modified: Monday, 21 September 2020, 2:23 PM ]
Picture of Erin Wallace
by Erin Wallace - Friday, 18 September 2020, 12:41 PM
Anyone in the world

Blog by Dr Harley Pope, IFSTAL Education Coordinator, University of Reading

As a concept, food systems are currently in vogue. The complexity and unintended consequences of our global supply chains are undeniable. Hardly a week goes by when there isn’t a news story about some unsavoury aspect of the food system that has been uncovered. Recently, there has been the deliberate mislabelling of food safety dates on chicken[1]. Despite these stories pointing to problems in the food system, many shoppers remain blithely unaware that items in their shopping basket may be a product of slavery, depress living standards, or contribute to habitat destruction and global warming. Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. Globally food is produced in sufficient quantities and variety to sustain 7.6 billion people[2] and their livestock. The system seems to work, at least for some, and for the time being.

If we try to wrap our heads around the concept of the global food system with its myriad inputs and outputs, people and organisations, it becomes clear that it’s a confounding landscape to navigate – hence the attraction to the idea of a food system – that there might be some way of mapping out, ordering and dealing with this complexity. But what does the term food system actually mean, and how can we make it useful for addressing some of the problems mentioned above?  This is where systems thinking can help.

At a very simple level, a system can be thought of as a collection of parts, and the relationships between these parts. It must also have at least one function or purpose, i.e. it must do something. This distinguishes a system from just a collection of parts.

parts + relationships + function(s) = system

When beginning to think about a food system we might start intuitively with the idea of supply chains. Food travels from farm to fork, and changes many hands along the way. If we pay greater attention to this process we might be able to improve some food system outcomes, for example reducing food waste, improving food safety, affordability, or worker livelihoods. However, food system activities such as food production, processing, transport and consumption have effects that range far wider than the supply chain. Collectively, producing and consuming food affects habitats, our atmosphere, our oceans, other species, our health, economies and culture. As the diagram below shows, if we try to think about all the different parts, relationships and functions of a food system, even generically, it quickly becomes challenging.

A representation of the global food system[4].


There are essentially three challenges that can be distilled from trying to map or act on the food system:

  1. Incomplete knowledge
  2. The limitations of human cognition
  3. Limited capacity to act

Firstly, the global food system is so vast that it is impossible for any one person or organisation to understand it in its totality. It is not just a question of information. There are numerous disciplines and specialist knowledges beyond the understanding of any one person. Since we can’t know everything, incomplete knowledge is a risk to appropriate action. What aspect of the system are we oblivious to, and what should we be focusing on?

Secondly, as humans we are only able to keep a limited number of objects in mind in any moment[5]. Moreover, we are often far from rational in how we process and use information. Even if we were to have perfect knowledge of a situation, would we be able to use it in an optimum way, and who decides what is optimum?

Thirdly, as an individual we may have many roles in the food system. We are all consumers, and some of us are producers too. The power of our individual voices, the organisations that we’re employed with, or campaign groups that we’re members of, all affect our relative agency and ability to intervene in the food system. While we may have some power to intervene in certain contexts, there are many barriers to our engagement in others.

System thinking consists of a range of methodologies that have been developed to address these three challenges in different ways. In the Innovative Food Systems Teaching and Learning Programme (IFSTAL) we aim to help address some of these challenges by equipping the next generation of food sector professionals with these necessary food systems thinking skills and knowledge. In my next post I will discuss some general strategies that different systems thinking approaches use that can be of help in intervening in food systems.


Dr Harley Pope is the IFSTAL Education Coordinator for the University of Reading. He has research interests in science and technology studies, governance, agriculture, international development and the environment. He also lectures on food security and development.




[3] Image source:

[4] Source:
Produced by shiftN for the Future of Food and Farming project, UK Government Office for Science (2011).

[5] Miller, G. A. (1956). “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information”. Psychological Review. 63 (2): 81–97.

Header image credit:Oregon Department of Transportation on Flickr by CC 2.0

[ Modified: Friday, 18 September 2020, 12:41 PM ]
Picture of Dinesh Marimuthu
by Dinesh Marimuthu - Sunday, 24 November 2019, 8:57 AM
Anyone in the world
The Rich picture exercise during the first workshop was remarkable because it showed to us working in groups how a system which is not centrally coordinated can result in produces which are not very efficient. This is true about the real world too. For example the total refining capacity in India exceeds the local demand for the products that a significant percentage of it is sold as exports. The bottlenecks in the system are not necessarily limits on production but could be insufficient consumers. This creates an impetus for having a more profitable export based economy which in time alters the traditional occupations. In the absence of proper governance and scientific management the gains of the new order can soon be lost as the victims in the new order will soon exceed the beneficiaries. 
The rich picture we drew to illustrate the consequences of releasing untreated discharge from a plant directly into a river showed us how an opportunity to create cheerleaders for industries was lost as more and more people and their livelihood  were affected by contamination of a water bodies that was being used by all. On extrapolation we saw that people robbed of their livelihood could be resorting to spending their time to activities like holding demonstrations and protests instead of being in gainful occupations. 
The rich picture showed that interconnected nature of even the seemingly uncoordinated systems to affect parts physically separated in ways which were not obvious in the beginning. The interdisciplinary-intercultural nature of the teams was useful in bringing more perspectives to the table which translated to more viable solutions. It was a useful tool to look at a system from different perspectives to ensure that the solutions are robust and address all the critical areas that require improvement.