Tools of the Trade: Systems Thinking (In 5 easy steps)

Development is all about understanding and responding to big messy problems. There are several skills and strategies whose usefulness has bled over into my everyday life. That’s what this series is all about.

Imagine yourself for a moment, a freshly minted development practitioner, walking into this village. What might your conversations with the locals entail?

“Our crops fail for lack of water”
“Our children cannot go to school”
“Every month, someone succumbs to AIDS”
“The government never listens”

What do you do with this? The prospect of implementing solutions to hunger, illiteracy, environmental degradation, pollution and poor governance is dizzying. You would have to build schools, buy fertilizer, hire doctors, train farmers, empower women and dig wells. But are these just symptoms? How do you get to the root of the issue?

It is precisely these kinds of messy, complicated problems that were behind the development of systems thinking, a problem understanding/solving framework. In the 1950s, a group of researchers at MIT began to apply this lens of thinking to environmental issues, and it is also a powerful tool in development. The premise is that when faced with a problem, you break it into individual components, and then identify the linkages between them.

Here’s a real life example of a system from a group of researchers who spent a week listening to people in Malawi. Notice how issues like HIV, lack of clean water and low income pale against the subtler problems of weak farmer organisations and poor transport infrastructure. It reveals a lot about what will create lasting change:

So how does this work? Last year I designed a system around the effects of oil sands mining on the Athabasca river basin. To understand how to “think in systems”, I’ll walk you through my process in five steps:

Ask Why: When I first started learning about systems thinking, there was a constant allusion to a magical set of “5 Why’s” I was miffed when they told me that the 5 why’s are actually just: why, why, why, why and why. Like a hyperactive 3rd grader, you have to question the reason behind everything. For me, it was initially “river water levels are decreasing” then, “increasing numbers of oil refineries along the river” because of “increased industrial development in northern Alberta” because of “increased global demand for petroleum”.

Set Boundaries: Yes, the circle of life moves us all, but without boundaries, a system will get too big to be of any analytical use. Our project focussed on the Athabasca river basin over a 10 year time period. We couldn’t solve a global energy crisis, and while cognisant that the river was embedded within a larger system, we limited our analysis to a scope where we could actually intervene.

Draw a map: Sit down and do it! You can just start writing, or check out a more comprehensive walkthrough.The figure below is the final product of several pages of scribbles and a lot of erasing. I found bouncing my ideas off other people was really helpful in exposing my bias and blindspots.
athabasca system

Discover system dynamics: Every system operates to produce a certain set of results, and these patterns are called dynamics. In the Athabasca system, water extraction fueled oil sands improvement, which in turn required more water. We marked the reinforcing feedback loop with little “R” so you know. Here’s another example for the tragedy of the commons.

Utilise leverage points: Leverage points are areas where an intervention will have a disproportionately large impact on the system on the whole. Instead of conserving wetlands or trying to adjust local weather patterns, we decided to target extraction levels, mostly by setting up a monitoring system along the river and publicizing the results through a provincial education campaign (No, we didn’t actually get to do this, but the idea was cool). The key is to use your understanding of how a system works to embed the change you want to see.

So, there’s systems thinking! The exciting part is that this isn’t just for villages in Africa, you could even use it to try to figure out why the dishes never get done in your house (Hint: tragedy of the commons). Would you ever use this? What are the limitations of this framework? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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