All Papers

Papers in Progress

Please note these are preprints for discussion purposes. The final published versions will have evolved due to feedback.



Cutting through the complexity of the democratic backsliding problem with root cause analysis

Here is the paper. PDF And here is the appendix. PDF Here is the Vension system dynamics simulation model. The paper is currently undergoing a long submission process to appropriate journals.

This paper is a revised version of a previous paper, The detrimental effect of low political truth literacy on democratic systems.

The paper is the first of a two-part series of papers. The second paper is below.

A precipitous backward slide from democracy to authoritarianism is underway. Despite decades of scholarly effort, political science lacks a comprehensive theory explaining why the problem occurs, why past solution strategies have failed, and why different future solution strategies would have a high probability of success. We argue this is because of the extreme complexity of the problem. Fortunately, problems of high complexity have long been analytical-ly solved by the powerful tool of root cause analysis (RCA). RCA offers considerably more ana-lytical power for complex problems than statistical analysis and experimentation, the current leading tools of political scientists. The article reviews RCA methodology, applies RCA to the backsliding problem, and offers conclusions and suggestions for further research.



Truth Literacy Training: The core solution element for resolving the main root cause of democratic backsliding

This paper PDF is the second of a pair of two papers. The first paper, above, analyzes the democratic backsliding problem. The second paper presents the controlled experiment for testing the key assumption of the analysis, that the main root cause exists and can be resolved.

A precipitous backward slide from democracy to authoritarianism/autocracy is underway. Root cause analysis and a system dynamics simulation model were used to analyze why this occurred and how the backward slide can be reversed. The main root cause was found to be low political truth literacy. As long as this is low, democracy cannot function as intended because citizens are too easily deceived into voting against their own best interests. The paper reports on an empirical study of what appears to be the core solution element for raising political truth literacy: Truth Literacy Training. Results indicate average political truth literacy is currently low (the root cause exists) and can be raised to high with a surprisingly small amount of carefully designed training (the root cause can be resolved).



Adding a change resistance layer to integrated system models using root cause analysis and problem decomposition

This paper PDF was originally for the 2021 System Dynamics Conference. It extends a previous paper, Change Resistance as the Crux, which found that systemic change resistance is the crux of the environmental sustainability problem and must be solved first, by resolving the root causes of that resistance. Here is the Vensim model used in the paper.

Inspired by the iconic World2 and World3 system dynamics models, why has a long series of increasingly sophisticated integrated system models (ISMs), such as Threshold21, DICE, and iSDG, failed to lead to successful solution of the environmental sustainability problem? The paper proposes the main reason is these models suffer from a boundary problem, by excluding the critical component of political system change resistance. To begin the conversation for filling this gap, the paper presents a submodel to demonstrate how a change resistance layer can be added to an ISM, using World3 as an example. Scenario policy changes now go through the layer, which provides the necessary resistance. The use of root cause analysis and problem decomposition to create an effective layer is described.



The process must fit the problem: Integrating root cause analysis with the system dynamics modeling process for difficult problems

This paper PDF deals with the method used in system dynamics modeling. Tampering with this is contentious, as we have found. Yet improvement is needed.

The "RCA-based system dynamics modeling process for difficult problems" presented late in the paper is here. This is the highlight of the paper. Supplementary Materials sections for the paper are here.

The first version of the paper for discussion on the SDS forum is here. In the first version only the first eight pages were complete.

System dynamics has the theoretical potential to productively model any dynamic problem where entity flow can be aggregated without significant loss of information and to offer practical solution strategies based on the model. However, in practice, as Jay Forrester observed, the field is presently stagnated “on a rather aimless plateau… there is very little penetration into the big issues.” We argue the central reason is that for the more difficult problems, the present modeling process does not fit the problem because it lacks root cause analysis. This too often results in models that omit a problem’s root causes and therefore the correct high leverage points. The paper begins the conversation for filling this gap by presenting an educational example of a comprehensive process for integrating root cause analysis into the system dynamics modeling process.



Journal Papers

2015 - Solving "Locked into a System" Problems with Root Cause Analysis

This invited paper PDF was published in the Spanda Journal in a special issue on "Systemic Change" in June 2015.

Presently civilization finds itself “locked into a system” and unable to solve difficult large-scale social problems like over-population, environmental sustainability, recurring wars, and excessive concentration of wealth. Problem solvers, whether they are in NGOs, academia, or government, are unable to reliably effect systemic change on problems of this class. Why is this?

We know from Newton’s third law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Every effect has a cause and every cause has an effect. From this arises the Law of Root Causes: All problems arise from their root causes. Therefore the reason problem solvers are unable to solve problems of this class is that popular solutions do not resolve root causes. They instead attempt to resolve intuitively attractive intermediate causes, which guarantees solution failure. Unless the laws of physics change there can be no other explanation.

To rectify this situation a comprehensive standard approach to solving problems of this class is proposed. This consists of three tools borrowed from the business world: root cause analysis, process driven problem solving, and model based analysis. The article presents the principles behind the tools and the tools themselves, followed by a sample application of the tools to the most pressing problem of our time: the environmental sustainability problem.



2010 - Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem

This paper PDF was published in the System Dynamics Review in January 2010.

The paper attempts to explain why conventional approaches to solving the sustainability problem aren't working. The conventional approach is Classic Activism. The paper describes how the problem solving process of Classic Activism works, where its fatal flaws are, and how that could be easily fixed. How? By switching to Root Cause Analysis.

Why, despite over 30 years of prodigious effort, has the human system failed to solve the environmental sustainability problem? Decomposing the problem into two sequential subproblems, (1) How to overcome change resistance and (2) How to achieve proper coupling, opens up a fresh line of attack.

A simulation model shows that in problems of this type the social forces favoring resistance will adapt to the forces favoring change. If change resistance is high this adaptation response either prevents proper coupling from ever being achieved or delays it for a long time. From this we conclude that systemic change resistance is the crux of the problem and must be solved first. An example of how this might be done is presented.



Conference Papers

2019 - Process-driven Problem Solving with Root Cause Analysis: Adapting powerful business tools to fit the sustainability problem

This paper PDF was prepared for the Earth System Governance conference in Oaxaca, Mexico on November 6 to 8, 2019 and presented at the conference by Montserrat Koloffon. The paper reports on Thwink's research in general, including the Truth Literacy Training study, which has favorable results. The report closes with a proposal to add a sixth research lens, Problem Solving Processes.

Two of the most powerful problem-solving tools in the business world are process-driven problem solving and root cause analysis. These tools are routinely used to solve difficult problems of any type, with a track record of astounding success. However, there’s a catch. The tools have only been applied to business and technical problems. They have never been applied to social problems, such as sustainability.

This paper serves as a progress report on the research results of, which has been attempting since 2001 to adapt these tools to fit social problems. The result is the System Improvement Process (SIP), a generic process designed from scratch to solve difficult large-scale social problems of any type.

At the heart of SIP lies a systematic approach for using root cause analysis to find the main root causes of a problem and the high leverage points for resolving those root causes, using subproblem decomposition, social force diagrams, and system dynamics feedback loop simulation modeling. Solution elements are then designed to push on the high leverage points. The effect is fairly predictable, since the simulation models can roughly predict, on a qualitative or quantitative bases, how the system will respond to focused efforts to push on the high leverage points.

Research results consist of SIP, a preliminary analysis, a large body of descriptive material, a paper on Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem, and just this year, preliminary studies on the effectiveness of a solution element called Truth Literacy Training.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this body of work is it represents a new paradigm for achieving successful earth system governance. This new way of thinking begins with the premise that “All causal problems arise from their root causes.” Current problem-solving approaches contain no concept of finding and resolving root causes, which appears to explain the poor results to date on solving difficult systemic problems like climate change and achieving the UN SDGs.



2012 - Solving the Sustainability Problem with Root Cause Analysis

This paper. PDF is jargon free and an easy read since its target audience is all serious environmentalists. Scott Durlacher presented the paper at the Ecosystem Services Partnership Conference in Portland, Oregon, US on August 1, 2012.

Countless solutions to the sustainability problem have been tried over the last forty years. While there have been some small successes, the overall problem remains unsolved. The global ecological footprint is at 50% overshoot and rising, with no credible solution in sight. Why is this?

Because popular solutions do not resolve root causes. Root cause analysis has worked spectacularly well for business problems. So why can’t it work for public interest problems?

All problems arise from their root causes. For example, consider the autocratic ruler problem. The root cause of despicable autocratic rulers like kings, warlords, and dictators was that there was no easy way for an oppressed population to replace a bad ruler with a good one. Democracy resolved the root cause with addition of the voter feedback loop. If you’ve spent decades trying to solve a problem and have failed, then the only possible reason is failure to resolve root causes.

This paper presents the results of a seven year root cause analysis of the complete sustainability problem. A formal problem solving process was developed specifically for this problem. Process execution identified four main subproblems. This is critical. The right decomposition can change a problem from insolvable to solvable, because you’re no longer trying to solve multiple subproblems simultaneously without realizing it.

For each subproblem the analysis found a main root cause, a high leverage point for resolving the root cause, and one or more solution elements for pushing on the high leverage point.

The key solution element is Common Property Rights. This is a systemic approach to sustainable management of ecosystem services in a generic, efficient, self-replicating manner. Common Property Rights are the mirror image of Private Property Rights, so they promise to be just as generic, efficient, and self-replicating.



Unpublished papers for reference

(Replaced by another paper) The detrimental effect of low political truth literacy on democratic systems

Here is the paper. PDF And here is the appendix. PDF As of October 2, 2022, the paper is in submission to Democratization. To keep the paper down to a normal length, much material was moved to the appendix. The paper is the first of a two-part series of papers. The second paper is below.

Update - As of November 17, 2022 we are in the revise and resubmit stage. The main problems identified by the referees were the paper tries to cover too much and needs a more carefully developed and supported theoretical argument. From our viewpoint, they were also having trouble grasping what root causes and root cause analysis (RCA) are, and why RCA is essential for this class of problems.

Update - As of February 25, 2023 this paper has been replaced by a heavily revised paper. It now has a new title. See Managing the complexity of the democratic backsliding problem with root cause analysis and feedback loop modeling.

After a steady transition to more and stronger democracies, a precipitous backward slide to authoritarianism/autocracy has begun. The paper explores why this has occurred and how the backward slide can be reversed. A system dynamics model was developed to forge a path beyond existing theories of “why democracies break down.” Results indicate the main root cause is low political truth literacy. As long as this is low democracy cannot function as intended because citizens are too easily deceived into voting against their own best interests. A sample solution element for raising political truth literacy, Truth Literacy Training, was empirically tested. Study results indicate average political truth literacy is currently low and can be raised to high with a surprisingly small amount of carefully designed training, though a collection of solution elements is likely required for optimal root cause resolution.



2020 - (Rejected) Root cause analysis as a foundational tool for sustainability science

This paper PDF was submitted to the Sustainability Science journal on October 8, 2020. It was rejected. Using their feedback we have revised it and resubmitted on December 13, 2020. Two days later it was rejected.

The interesting aspects of this paper are the nine laws of root cause analysis, comparison of a project that extracted "lean production" from The Toyota Production System to the System Improvement Process (SIP), an introducti0n to social force diagrams, and the Broken Political System Problem. The paper also covers topics many of our papers have covered, like the need to use root cause analysis to analyze the sustainability problem and SIP.

Despite immense attention from scholars and others, solution strategies have failed to address the sustainability challenge, particularly the environmental pillar. We propose the central reason is that due to the extreme dynamic complexity of the problem it cannot be solved without root cause analysis (RCA), which was not used to develop past solutions. While RCA has long been a core tool for solving difficult business/engineering problems, application to social problems remains hindered because no suitable version of the tool exists for difficult social system problems, which differ radically from non-social problems.

How then can RCA be adapted to solve difficult social problems, particularly environmental sustainability? To address that question our research iteratively developed an RCA-based process for difficult social problems, while simultaneously applying the process to the environmental sustainability problem and developing what we found to be the fundamental laws of RCA. We conclude this adaption can be accomplished by any RCA-based process incorporating these laws in a tightly integrated manner and offer suggestions for further research.



2020 - (Rejected) A Gentle Inquiry on How to Elevate the Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan to High Process Maturity

This paper PDF was submitted to the Earth System Governance journal on February 6, 2020. It was rejected but is retained on this page because it contains interesting material. The PDF includes small improvement made since submission.

The paper is based on an earlier paper presented at the annual Earth System Governance conference in November 2019. The conference paper presented a novel approach to solving the sustainability problem (using the three tools of process-driven problem solving, root cause analysis, and model driven analysis) as well as a study that offers early empirical evidence the approach can work. The approach differs radically from traditional approaches and is based on adapting well-known, powerful business/engineering tools to fit social problems, for the first time. This generated strong interest at the conference, which led to the journal version of the paper.

The business/engineering world routinely solves hugely difficult large-scale system problems, while social scientists struggle to do the same. Why the difference? Starting from that interdisciplinary perspective, this article explores why successful Earth System Governance (ESG) has been so impossibly hard to achieve, and concludes that if we have an open mind and are willing to borrow and adapt, then achieving successful ESG is realistically possible.

The article explains why the difference, identifies the gap to fill to close the difference, fills the gap with an innovative problem-solving process, and applies the process. Two notable process outputs, low political truth literacy as the main root cause of systemic change resistance and the Truth Literacy Training solution element, are presented. The article ends with a proposal, a look at a similar core process change, thoughts on governance, and suggestions for further research.

On May 13, 2020 the paper was rejected. From our point of view, the single referee could not understand the many new concepts, and so mentally rejected the new paradigm the paper represented, listed over ten problems with the paper based on assumptions that were not true, strongly denounced the paper, and listed no positive qualities. The associate editor handling the submission concluded that the paper cannot be reworked for resubmission.

This is a form of new paradigm change resistance, and is a completely different reaction to this research from what we got at the November 2019 conference, so we are confident we are going in the right direction. Plus we showed the paper to a different associate editor at the journal before submitting and he strongly liked it, especially the study results. As he said about the rejection, perhaps we were unlucky with the choice of reviewer and editor.

Apparently not all "gentle inquiries" work! Smile

Now we face the task of rewriting the paper with the proposal and Earth System Governance material removed, and submitting to another journal. We are leaving the paper available on this page for the time being, since it's the most current complete summary of the Thwink research and we have referred many people to it.


Thwink Website Papers

2005 - The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace

This paper PDF was written in a paper style format due to its use of a simulation model. It was never met to be published in a peer reviewed journal. Instead, it was designed to be easily read by the non-specialist.

Over the years this has been the most influential single publication on the entire website, by far. The paper, using a simple simulation model that most readers can follow, lifts the veil on how the world's democratic political systems really work. They don't. They are too easily exploited by powerful special interests, notably large for-profit corporations. How do they do it? Why do the exploiters have an inherent advantage that those working for the common good have been unable to counter? What can be done to solve this rather important problem? How does the Dueling Loops model explain the left/right political spectrum, the one that appears in all democracies?

The answers are all there in the paper.

Most effort on solving the sustainability problem focuses on its technical side: the proper practices that must be followed to be sustainable. But surprisingly little effort addresses why most of society is so strenuously resisting adopting those practices, which is the change resistance or social side of the problem.

This paper presents a root cause analysis of the change resistance part of the problem using a simulation model. The model shows the main source of change resistance lies in a fundamental structure called The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace. This consists of a race to the bottom among politicians battling against a race to the top. Due to the inherent (and well hidden) advantage of the race to the bottom, it is the dominant loop most of the time, as it is now. As long as it remains dominant, resistance to solving sustainability problems will remain so high they are insolvable.

The analysis has, however, uncovered a tantalizing nugget of good news. There is a promising high leverage point in this structure that has never been tried. If problem solvers could unite and push there with the proper solutions, it appears the change resistance side of the problem would be solved in short order and the Sustainability Revolution would begin.