The Iceberg Model


One model that is helpful for understanding global issues is the iceberg model often used in systems thinking.  We know that an iceberg has only 10 percent of its total mass above the water while 90 percent of it is underwater.  But that 90 percent is what the ocean currents act on and what creates the iceberg’s behavior at its tip.  Global issues can be looked at in this same way.  If we apply the iceberg model to global issues, we could say that at the tip, above the water, are events, or thing that we see or hear about happening in the world, such as a bomb blast in Iraq, a catastrophic flood in China, a terrorist attack in Spain, or an oil spill in Alaska.  The events that we hear about in the news represent the iceberg tip.


If we look just below the water line, we often start to see patterns, or the recurrence of events.  This might be multiple terrorist attacks around the world or recurring oil spills.  Patterns are important to identify because they indicate that an event is not an isolated incident.


Like the different levels of an iceberg, deep beneath the patterns are the underlying structures or root causes that create or drive those patterns.  For example the underlying structure of problem such as recurring oil spills might be our dependence on fossil fuels.  If you looked only at the event, you might think that we should just build stronger tankers and better pipelines.  But if you look at the root cause of such spills, you can start to understand and address long-term, sustainable solutions such as developing energy sources that do not rely on oil transportation.


Finally, at the very base of the iceberg are the assumptions and worldviews that have created or sustained the structures that are in place.  The important thing to understand is that in solving problems, the greatest leverage is in changing the structure – applying deep ocean currents to move the iceberg, which will change the events at its tip.


An example of the iceberg model can be seen in our own health.  Catching a cold is an event, and catching colds more often when we are tired is a pattern.  The systemic structures or causes for getting tired might include overwork, unhealthy diet, or insufficient rest.  We tend to get lost in the immediate event of suffering from a cold, forgetting that it is part of a pattern of events that is caused by the underlying structures of our lifestyle.  If we take a systems thinking approach to solving the problem of frequent colds, we would try to find ways to make ourselves less overtired, rather than just focusing on the immediate relief (in the form of aspirin or other medicine) that solves the problem of the current cold. 


From; It’s All Connected: A Comprehensive Guide to Global Issues and Sustainable Solutions by Benjamin Wheeler, Gilda Wheeler and Wendy Church.