ThinkWater: Better Thinking to Sustain Our Waters

Guest post by Jeremy Solin

Water is important to our daily lives and well-being. But, often our need for and use of water creates complex, or “wicked,” problems with multiple interrelated causes and no clear solutions. Consider, for example, the complexity of California’s drought. Wicked water problems aren’t unique to water-poor places like the US West, however. They happen here in water-rich communities across Wisconsin too.

Education, research and outreach are important strategies in addressing these challenges. We need to develop a culture of water thinkers who can think deeply and long term about water.

This is where ThinkWater comes in.

ThinkWater is a movement to develop this culture. ThinkWater supports systems thinking in water education, research and outreach to develop a nation of water thinkers. We believe that future water sustainability starts with deeper learning, understanding and caring, and that true understanding and behavior change requires more than new information. It requires systems thinking.


What Is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is a complex discipline based on 4 simple rules: making Distinctions and recognizing Systems, Relationships and Perspectives (DSRP).

The first rule is making Distinctions. It is innate for humans to distinguish one thing from another. It’s important to note that once a thing is distinguished, it implies an “other”—something that is not the “thing.”

The second rule is recognizing Systems, meaning we learn to see systems and to identify their parts and wholes. The third rule, identifying Relationships, includes understanding the relationship between what is being distinguished and the other parts of the system, as well as among the wholes and parts of other systems.

The final rule is taking of Perspectives. Perspectives entail a point, or that which is being focused upon or seen, and a view, that which is doing the seeing or focusing. It is the understanding that every Distinction, System and Relationship is viewed from a particular point, and there are multiple perspectives possible.

These rules are useful for everyone, from curious citizens to the advanced water scientist, to understand and solve complex water problems involving environmental, economic, social and political aspects. Applying the four simple rules helps us to identify the long-term impacts of our decisions and actions.

ThinkWater contributes this unifying theory of systems thinking based on the work of Drs. Derek and Laura Cabrera of the Cornell University-affiliated Cabrera Research Lab ( Even for those familiar and experienced with systems thinking, DSRP provides a framework for integrating systems thinking into water education.

To learn more about systems thinking, check out these recent blog posts: A Primer on the Four Simple Rules of Systems Thinking and Top 10 Things Systems Thinkers Do.

What Do Water Thinkers Do?

Being a Water Thinker involves a continuing process of learning and applying systems thinking to better address our critical water problems—whether you’re interested in how to conserve water at home, want to use water thinking in your education curriculum or program, or conduct research on complex water issues.

ThinkWater supports this learning process by developing tools, resources and networks to help researchers, educators and outreach specialists foster a culture of water thinkers, both within their own professions and in the broader public.

  • ThinkWater researchers apply systems thinking to their cutting-edge, water-related research topics to produce higher quality, more interdisciplinary science.
  • ThinkWater educators integrate systems thinking into existing water-related content, which they enhance by creating deeper understanding and caring about water on the part of students of all ages.
  • ThinkWater extension and outreach staff apply systems thinking principles to deepen their fieldwork and outreach efforts.


Get Involved!

ThinkWater offers online and in-person training, the Systems Thinking Made Simple book, systems thinking modeling software, support and a community network—and many other resources—to integrate systems thinking into water education, research and outreach programs.

For presentations, workshops, to join the Wisconsin Water Thinkers Network, or to discuss potential partnerships, contact Jeremy Solin, Wisconsin ThinkWater Coordinator, at

Visit to learn more and access an ever-expanding array of resources.  And check out this short, 2-minute video for an overview of ThinkWater.

Jeremy Solin is the Wisconsin ThinkWater Coordinator with UW Extension-Cooperative Extension. He has a PhD in sustainability education and has over 15 years of experience developing and delivering sustainability and environmental education programs.


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