Why Models

Evidence shows that people who think with models consistently outperform those who don't.   
And, moreover people who think with lots of models outperform people who use only one.  (Scott E. Page)

Why are Models Important?

Stella Jul14

Here we use 'model' in the sense of 'scientific model'.   

Models are not reality in the same way as (we more often say) a map is not the territory.   But whereas a map simply describes the appearance of a landscape, a model also describes how something works.  Models are useful to the extent they help us predict outcomes in new situations, or 'get a grip' on reality so we can better design with it.   

This is why as designers we need to be 'model-literate': to be as conscious as possible about the mental models we're working with (all the assumptions we're making) so that we can actually notice when we're receiving information that clashes with them, and look for another model that works better.   And we especially always have to remember that our models are not reality: they are just how our minds 'grab hold' of reality, how we make sense of it. 

Eg. the (current) popular model of the atom says it is composed of a nucleus + electrons whizzing around.  It doesn't just describe it but says how it works, how it's put together: it's mechanics.   
But nuclear scientists work with a wave / probability model of the atom which is quite different, and a lot more useful for them to do their work.  
So which one is 'more real'?  
Neither are 'reality', they are just mental models we use to manipulate reality with.  And if we know that we can switch models according to what we need to do.  It's very useful, it makes us more effective when we know that.

It's crucially important for designers, like for scientists,  to remember that models are always just the best simplified version of reality as we understand it, AT THIS TIME, because as soon as we confuse it with reality (& it's very easy to do that), we get stuck in our thinking.  We start operating on beliefs (which are very difficult to change) rather than our best critical thinking.

And our imagination gets massively limited as a result.    Simply in order to learn, to evolve our thinking, we need to be able to hold that space in our awareness where we can allow a BETTER model to come in, at any time that someone suggests one that more usefully interprets what we see happening around us.  And we can make sure we keep that space if we remember to hold models lightly, and be aware we are just always playing with models.    

Otherwise we become what we call 'stuck in our ideas', 'rigid' or 'close-minded', 'dogmatic', etc.     The reality is that models are constantly changing, even as reality (probably...) doesn't change.  

Eg. we've had lots of models of how (we thought) ecosystems work, and most have been proven 'wrong' - which simply means they weren't useful in stopping us destroying them.  Yet in all that time ecosystems have gone on working in the same way they have worked for billenia.  It's just our understanding that has changed.  

But in our arrogance (or ignorance) we think that for example the ecosystem models we learn in a permaculture course are somehow 'right'.   It's very easy to do so if we make permaculture our religion.

Which is why we emphasize permaculture as a science - a set of models we subject to the recursive design (scientific) process: observe, design, experiment, observe, re-design ... 

You can enrol on the "Model Thinking" course 
with Scott E. Page at  www.coursera.org

The intro to the course says:

We live in a complex world with diverse people, firms, and governments whose behaviors aggregate to produce novel, unexpected phenomena. 
We see political uprisings, market crashes, and a never ending array of social trends. 
How do we make sense of it? 

Evidence shows that people who think with models consistently outperform those who don't.   And, moreover people who think with lots of models outperform people who use only one.  

Why do models make us better thinkers? 
Models help us to better organize information - to make sense of that fire hose or hairball of data (choose your metaphor) available on the Internet. 
Models improve our abilities to make accurate forecasts. 
They help us make better decisions and adopt more effective strategies. 
They even can improve our ability to design institutions and procedures.