Law #1: Today’s Problems Come From Yesterday’s Solutions

When you begin to wonder, where did today’s persistent problems come from, what has you noticed?

Well, according to this law, they come from yesterday’s solution to the same or a different problem.  Yesterday, it had been a great solution to the problem. And in fact, you actually see the solution begin to reverse the problem at first. The key is, ‘at first’. Over time, however, the solution has re-created the problem today.

Let us take a look at an example.



The police investigation superintendent notices the number of files that has remained in backlog and therefore unsolved in his department, has grown with time.  He is seeking to be promoted  this year and do not wish to see this matter become an issue that gets in the way of his goal.  He calls a meeting and orders the setup of a task team to act on and reduce the pile of backlog files immediately.   However, in order to resolve the backlog cases, the task team resorts to putting their ongoing active investigation files on hold, so as to use the time to clear the backlog files on an urgent basis.


A few weeks later, with the men hard at work, the pile of backlog cases begin to reduce.  Everyone is happy and rejoices.  A few days on, the complainants of the current active files notice their files are placed on the backlog instead, and begin to make enquiries on the investigation status of their files.  They are unhappy with the response that the office shall get back to them shortly.  They decide to take matters into their hands, and raise their concerns to the police superintendent and state categorically that they want to see their files treated with a matter of urgency.  If they do not see a change in prioritizing their files, they would take the matter up with his supervisor.  He now fears for his promotion prospects and accepts the new files and marks them as ‘URGENT’ to his investigators and places them in his out-tray.

The moral of the story:  The more we set aside current files to work on urgent files (yesterday’s solution), the more urgent files we create (today’s problem).  The workload doubles as each file has increased number of times it goes on to the production line.

Can you see the vicious circle of causality at play?

UrgentFile Story


Here’s another example of a young country learning to understand the impact of controlling its population except it is doing so, from its future.

A young country, as in Singapore in its 1960s, was struggling to stand up on its feet.  It had just gained independence from its colonial masters and also separated recently from its neighbour, Malaya with whom it had shared its people, history and resources from time back.

  • It lacked its own natural resources including water and sufficient farmland (it relies for its raw materials and food sources on Malaya).
  • Although, it now has a land size of 722 sq km it has a density of 7,900 persons per sq km with a population of 5.6 million to 2.3 million for Botswana (this compares at 4 persons per sq km for Botswana on a land size of 600,370 sq km or 800+ times the land size of Singapore).
  • Its indigenous races, the Chinese, Malays and Indians, are primarily rooted in agrarian societies and so their cultures tend to promote large families.
  • This  was the setting against which Singapore intended to industrialize to absorb a burgeoning population on a tiny island and the highly strategic position it holds on the international waterways with its shipping port.

Back then, it soon realized that if it did not do enough to reign in the population growth, it will not have enough resources (schools, hospital, housing, etc.) to provide for itself.  And so, very early on in its new found independence, it passed a law that all families will bear no more than two children.

Over time, the population listened and obeyed.  With each generation every decade, they began to produce fewer offsprings from five to three and two and eventually one and sometimes none :

  • The birth rate dropped from 5.45 births per woman in 1960 to 1.20 in 2016).  With rising costs of living and little personal times left, often led families to delay procreation or individuals choosing not to marry at all.
  • With one child to replace every two adults, that would mean Singapore could not essentially replace itself.  And so while its economy began to expand and now the private sector was investing in its infrastructure, it was finding it hard to fill the positions.  It had a new problem in its hand.

And so, to correct the new problem, Singapore had to learn quickly how to open its door wide to foreigners or face failure.

Today, a large percentage of its population are non-residents; of its total population of 5.47 million in 2014, 3.87 million were residents (citizens plus permanent residents), 1.6 million non-residents.   In June 2016, Singapore’s population hit 5.61 million in June 2016. The not so good news?  The number of foreigners (non-residents + permanent residents) now make up a whopping 64 percent of the population.

Singapore-labour indicators
Singapore’s general economic indicators
Ratio of male Chinese (red), Malay (orange) and Indian (blue) to females, 1960-2016  A high ratio suggests an influx of male migrants.

[Note:  We shall present here data that shows the proportion of contribution to  the population by citizens and residents when it becomes available.]


  • So, where did today’s problems come from?  Yesterday’s solution.  Right!
  • How long ago was yesterday’s solution?  Sixty years ago.  Right!
  • Would that mean, that we would need to wait 60 years from today’s solutions to learn the consequence on tomorrow’s problems?  What could have happened to see sooner that this was coming?

To do this, let us put two figures side by side.  One where the population was controlled and the other that was not.

The population of United States 1790-2000
The population of Singapore (after increasing the proportion of foreigners to 64%)1960-2016

What do you notice?

What is the inherent nature of behaviour over time of an uncontrolled population?  Did you say it behaves more like a reinforcing loop?  What does the behaviour of Singapore’s population look like instead?

Well, right now, it is hard to tell.  But should we remove the resident and naturalized citizens from the population graph, it is possible that we may be looking at a negative reinforcing loop.

All natural systems are reinforcing loops.  They either reinforce positively or negatively.  Human populations are natural systems.  When left uncontrolled, it reinforces positively just as in the behaviour of the population of the US.  However, when we attempt to control what was essentially a reinforcing loop, it does not steady and behave consistent with a balancing (or goal-seeking) loop, but instead, begins to reinforce negatively.  The causal structure either reinforces positively or negatively.

When we understand this salient aspect of systems thinking, it is possible then, that we can predict the behaviour of any decisions we take today and their impact in the future.  This is key.

Knowing this now, what could we have done differently?

Did you say, we would take the knowledge of the systemic structures and the current data to the population masses and let them decide?  You have got it right!

Should the population understand what is a reinforcing loop and its behaviour over time, it becomes now better placed to know what it needs to do (remember populations creates population) and to monitor the changes more carefully, even so by themselves.  Now, what could have been more democratic than that?!

All that the leader would have to do is to make the data and choices clear for all to see.  Over time, we create a population that can learn to think and act together (rather than cast their votes, silently).

It now leaves for us to conclude, that if today’s problem come from yesterday’s solution, then, it really goes without saying that if we choose not to watch the systemic nature of the solutions we make today, then today’s solutions could become tomorrow’s problems. Yesterday’s solution create today’s problems. Today’s solution create tomorrow’s. Often, it is in the nature of the structure of the systemic interrelations that leads us into finding solutions that feed the persistent nature of these problems.

It is no one person’s fault. There is no blame. It is everyone’s fault for not seeing together how we are a part of the interrelations that exists and therefore letting these structures lead us into trapping us into further problems.