Systemic Idealism


Now that you have a concept of thinking systemically, we can turn the corner toward actually solving the problems we face.

We tend to see social problems as everlasting partners in our lives.  They are familiar, entrenched, and unstoppable.  I propose we have been wrong.

Social problems are our creation.  We construct them and we can stop them.

The key to solving social problems is envisioning them in an entirely different way.  Rather than focusing on the problem, we focus on the solution.

I want to introduce you to a problem-solving framework I call Systemic Idealism.

There are four basic tenets to this framework:

  1. All social problems have ideal solutions.
  2. History illuminates the path to change.
  3. All social problems are systemic and socially constructed.
  4. Anything socially constructed can be socially reconstructed.

Solutions Imagined

I previously mentioned I used to practice as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.  My training taught me to use a number of different approaches with clients to help them through challenging times.

One approach I learned and practiced is brief solution-focused therapy.  In this approach, you address the challenges in a person’s life by helping them focus on the future.

The hallmark of this mode of therapy is a tool called “the miracle question.”  This tactic helps people see past all of the challenges in their lives.  Instead, they focus on what could bring them the greatest improvement.

After you hear the client’s list of problems, you ask a specific question.  That question is, “If you woke up tomorrow morning and everything in your life was suddenly better, what would have changed?”

I cannot overstate the impact this question can have on people.  I recall countless clients regaling me with a protracted list of all the terrible things in their lives.

Each of these problems was a legitimate issue.  However, they were so oppressive in the person’s life she or he could not see past them.

Photo by Veronika Balasyuk

It was as if they were standing with their face in the corner, unable to see in any direction.  They could not even see the possibility that things could be better.

That was until they heard the miracle question.  Suddenly, they had an opportunity to look at their life in an entirely different light.  They had to imagine the change they wanted to see.  This can instill a tremendous sense of hope and energy, and begin to uncover a path toward solutions.

When it comes to fighting social problems, we are no different.  We are stuck with our noses in the corner.  It does not have to be this way.

The Real Ideal

It is time to ask ourselves the miracle question.  If we woke up tomorrow and suddenly a specific social problem was gone, what will have changed?

The key to unraveling the solution is to focus on what we wish to see.  We cannot create solutions if we are not audacious enough to imagine them.

We imagine solutions by working backward from our ideal goal.

The word “ideal” is a bit tricky here.  Ideal for whom?  There is no way to ask this question without making some sort of value judgment.  One person’s ideal could easily be another person’s problem.

I argue there is a way to identify the most ideal outcome for the most possible people.  We can do this by studying the history of the problem.

The Map of History

Wander down the path of history of any social problem, and you will find it systemiclittered with the choices we have made.

Most of the time, people choosing laws and rules in society don’t choose these solely for the purpose of causing trouble for another group.  Most of the time, we choose laws and rules based on some sort of benefit we expect to receive from them.

Something always motivates our choices.  Sometimes that motivation is money, sometimes it is fear, and every so often, it is actual scientific evidence.  No matter the motivation, there is always a reason.

A social problem forms when the laws or rules we choose manufacture some sort of adversity in people’s lives.  Sometimes this means all people, and sometimes just a select group.

In these cases, history provides the map to lead us to solutions.  The history of a social problem tells us what we have chosen to cause the problem, where those choices have taken us, who has been helped or harmed by these choices, and even why we chose what we did.

Armed with this information, we begin to see how we could choose differently.  We now have the knowledge to shape solutions into our ideal outcome.

Systemic and Socially Constructed

My last post introduced the idea of thinking in systems.  All social problems are systemic.  They involve a number of different social systems all working together.

Photo by Stephen Crowley

The choices we make create the systems that keep social problems in place.  Any systems we create are under our control.  If we construct them to cause a problem, we can reconstruct them solve that problem.



For example, we could decide to end poverty in the United States.  This would shape the way in which we look at all other systems that contribute to poverty.

We would choose to create an economic system built to keep people from falling into poverty.  At the same time, we would build an education system that ensures opportunities for all citizens.

We could change all aspects of our healthcare system that can lead to poverty.  We would make sure everyone has access to healthy food in a land of plenty.  Likewise, it would be obvious homelessness and housing insecurity have no place in a society where poverty is not welcome.

An ideal solution to ending poverty forces us to see poverty as a systemic problem.  We have to identify the layers keeping that problem in place, and then identify ways to change those layers.

What Do We Choose?

Systemic Idealism is a game changer for social problems.  Within this view, social problems are no longer permanent or impossible to change.  They are simply puzzles.

We can take any social problem and see it through a brand new lens.  Suddenly, everything comes down to a simple choice.

Do we want to solve the problem or not?