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Approximately 10 hours to complete

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Long-form content + video format

Course Introduction


Emergency management and homeland security professionals are continually faced with complex challenges, problems, and events. In his 1999 book Disasters by Design, Dennis Miletti writes that “the world is increasingly complex and interconnected … characterized by growing sets of interrelated problems and change can occur quickly. And in nonlinear ways.” 

Photograph by Nate Isaac

Emergency management and homeland security professionals faced with interrelated, wicked problems may be helped by the development of an ability to recognize, describe, understand, and work with their entangled and complex nature. This is precisely the focus of systems thinking and many adjoining narratives. 

Systems thinking is becoming an increasingly popular perspective and practice with the capacity to reveal the inner critic, connectedness, and interdependencies encountered often unknowingly throughout everyday life. 

At the same time, systems thinking also provides a wealth of tools, understanding, and language for constructively approaching and functioning within complex and entangled surroundings. The capacity of systems thinking to change perspective and inform practice is in part located in the scientific discoveries leading to its arrival. 

Photograph by Dan Meyers

Scientific discoveries in the natural sciences during the twentieth century suggested an interconnected world arranged in a network of interacting systems. This course provides a thorough introduction to systems thinking, beginning with a brief account of its history before moving into a practical and detailed exploration of core concepts and characteristics. 

The content of Module 1 is foundational to Module 2’s presentation of systems thinking and the discussion of how it may be leveraged to benefit practice in emergency management and homeland security. Module 3 furthers the discussion of practical applications through the use of visualization, a key aspect of systems thinking derived from the field of system dynamics. 

Following an in-depth exploration of systems thinking is visualization. The focus turns toward narratives that neighbor and add value to systems thinking. Finally, the attention of the core shifts to a collection of tools found throughout systems literature, capable of informing emergency management and homeland security practice. 

To provide a rich perspective, an unmediated introduction to systems thinking via direct quotes is used to maintain their original meaning and provide course takers with a direct connection to the literature. 

Course Modules


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Introduction to Systems Thinking

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Applying Systems Thinking to Risk

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Unintended Consequences and Nonlinearity

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Adjoining Narratives, Contemporary Thinkers & Theories

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Internal & External Tools for Application

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System-Based Approach that Integrates Multiple Perspectives

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About the Authors


Course originally developed by Gregory Vigneaux in 2018

Gregory Vigneaux began his career as a wildland firefighter for National Park Service and United States Forest Service Hotshot Crews. He has a bachelor’s in Wildland Fire Management and a master’s in Emergency Services Administration. Gregory leverages his ongoing research at the intersection of risk, organizational design, and human dimensions, toward developing methods for integrating the Core Competencies in professional settings. At the 2018 Colorado Wildland Fire Conference, Gregory delivered a talk titled “Wildfire Risk Adaptation as Worldmaking: A Look at Human Dimensions,” presenting his work on making sense of and designing for human complexity. 

Course amended by Tom Makin in 2021

Tom Mackin is Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo California, Adjunct Professor in the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Post Graduate School, former Chief Science Officer at Synbotics, Inc., and founding member of the Board at Mission Street Manufacturing. He earned his Ph.D. in Engineering Science and Mechanics from Penn State in 1991, where he developed a fractal geometric theory for the failure of ceramic materials. From 1991 to 1993 he worked as a research engineer in the Materials Department at UC Santa Barbara developing micro-mechanical models and test methods for high temperature composite materials. In 1993 he joined the faculty in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Illinois where he conducted fundamental research in composite materials, polymers, and MEMS.  From 2002-2003 he served as an ASME Executive Office Fellow in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where he served as a technology policy analyst and White House Liaison to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, White House Liaison to the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development program, and as a member of the transition planning team for the Department of Homeland Security. In 2004 he became the Founding Director of the Illinois Homeland Security Research Center, and joined the faculty member at the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Post Graduate School.  In 2005 joined Cal Poly as Chair of the Mechanical Engineering Department where he co-founded the Center for Collaborative Engineering Research and Education (CCERE) with UCSB, and the Center for Renewable Energy and Alternative Transportation Technologies at Cal Poly.  He was product development lead and project manager on four start-ups, served as on-screen and technical expert for the Discovery Channel’s “The Colony”, and served as engineering consultant for the Small Business Development Center and the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in San Luis Obispo.

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