Systems Thinking (Law 808B)

Virtually every public policy has causes and consequences beyond those that are intended or immediately visible. This is true of criminal law policies that use algorithmic predictions of flight before trial; environmental policies involving greenhouse gas emissions and conventional pollutants; and social and health policies that address homelessness, institutional racism, and the distribution of Covid vaccines, to name just a few examples. The causes of the problems that these policies seek to address are complex. As a result, these policies often fail and sometimes have unintended adverse consequences. “Systems thinking” is a framework that describes the web of associations in which such policies reside, with the goals of understanding the multiple causes of problems and designing policies that lead to stable, positive changes.¬†Understanding systems thinking and systems change is a core skill for policy makers.

This course continues the work of a similar Policy Lab practicum in spring 2021 in helping create an online course for use by future students that illustrates the main concepts of systems thinking (including stocks and flows, balancing and reinforcing loops, and systems archetypes) and systems change using real-world case studies. After several introductory classes devoted to learning these concepts and learning how to use the web-based systems mapping tool, Kumu, students will work on systems design projects for eventual inclusion in the online course. There are no prerequisites for enrollment in the Policy Lab, and students in any academic program with knowledge or strong interests in legal, environmental, social, and health policies are welcome.

Course Catalog

Consent of Instructor – Application Portal


Paul Brest

Paul Brest

  • Interim Dean
  • Professor of Law, Emeritus
  • Director of Law and Policy Lab
  • Interim Executive Director, Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance


Clients & Deliverables

Client: Stanford Law School
Deliverables: Systems maps; policy memos; teaching modules; class presentations