Systems’ thinking integrates all the causal factors within an environment such as a human community or a mangrove swamp. This means that previously fragmented, thought-to-be unrelated elements must be treated as one. The era of the specialist is over and the era of the generalist has begun. Similarly, what may solve a problem in the mind of some specialists may easily turn out to make things worse unless the entire system is considered. The methods of yesterday’s solutions are what caused the problems of today. We must make sure that they do not cause the problems of tomorrow as well. A holistic approach that considers the many connections of individual elements in taking on a particular problem is crucial to developing new solutions.
With the foregoing in mind, one of the central challenges of the 21st century is how to achieve a more sustainable relationship between people and the environment in human community settings. To accomplish this objective means training professionals working with communities to think systemically so they can assist those communities to view, understand, anticipate, prevent, and correct the causes of social-environmental degradation instead of insisting on the limitations of symptomatic thinking and short-term action.
A system is made up of many different parts, all working together and all sharing a similar design criterion. A system is a whole, which consists of interdependent and interacting parts with a common purpose. Systems’ thinking is a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system’s constituent parts interrelate and how elements work over time and within the context of larger systems. The contribution of a system is greater than the contribution of the sum of its parts. More exactly a system is not the sum of its contributing parts – it is the product of their interactions. This implies that, the performance of the system depends on how well the parts fit together, not how well they perform individually. Thus, the best parts do not necessarily make the best whole; they have to fit together (for example the best players or smartest people brought together to form a team).
This recognition contrasts with traditional analysis, which studies systems by breaking them down into their separate elements and usually examining them in isolation from one another. The conventional study of systems has been characterized by rational-positivistic thinking; it has been mechanistic where man is thought to dominate nature, assessment is performed through the five senses, there is a seemingly random evolution of events, and the system itself is characterized by parts-to-whole. In contrast, the new approach to systems is distinguished by quantum, holistic thinking where humans are thought to co-exist with nature, system evaluation is done with the use of expanded senses such as fields and intuition, there is a conscious evolution (by choice) and the system is considered first as the whole before the parts. Systems’ thinking is a way of understanding reality that emphasizes the relationships among a system’s parts, rather than the parts themselves.
Why is system’s thinking valuable? Because it can help you design smart, enduring solutions to problems. In its simplest sense, system’s thinking gives you a more accurate picture of reality, so that you can work with a system’s natural forces in order to achieve the results you desire. It also encourages you to think about problems and solutions with an eye toward the long view – for example, how might a particular solution you’re considering play out over the long run? And what unintended consequences might it have? Finally, system’s thinking is founded on some basic, universal principles that you will begin to detect in all arenas of life once you learn to recognize them.
Systems thinking is a set of tools that helps us make sense of chronic, complex problems, including a better understanding of not only what is happening, but also why. Bringing a systems thinking lens to sustainability analysis can increase its impact because:
- Individuals become more aware of how they contribute to their problems and are thus more motivated to change.
- Diverse stakeholders recognize their interdependence, increasing their desire to collaborate.
- People learn to focus limited resources on identified high-leverage interventions.
- It fosters a learning environment.
One of the advantages of system’s thinking is to better identify real leverage points that can effectively lead to the solution of problems. Leverage points are where small changes can produce big results – places within a complex system (corporation, economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything – but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.
For example, consider a lake or reservoir which contains a certain amount of water. The inflows are the amount of water coming into the lake from rivers, rainfall, drainage and wastewater from a local industrial plant. The outflows might be the amount of water used up for irrigation of a nearby cornfield, water taken by the local plant and water evaporating into the atmosphere. Locals complain about the water level getting low, and pollution getting higher. This is the difference between the perceived state (pollution or low water level) and the goal (a non-polluted full bodied lake). So, where do we intervene to most effectively leverage change? Improvement of the upper river stream to channel incoming water will not necessarily solve the issue of low water levels over the long term (treating symptoms, not causes). The leverage point might be to better understand the system limitations (e.g., drought and overconsumption) and bottlenecks and to work on fluctuations.
As for the pollution levels of the lake, one way to avoid the lake getting more and more polluted might be through the setting up of an additional tax, relative to the amount and degree of the water released by the industrial plant that might lead industry to reduce releases. A strengthening of the law related to chemicals release limits, or an increase of the tax amount of any water containing a given pollutant, will have a very strong effect on the lake water quality. And consider the action of a monthly public report of water pollution level, especially near the industrial plant release. This could have a lot of effect on people’s opinions regarding the industry and lead to changes in the waste water level of pollution. These are certainly leverage points for problem-solving that might not normally occur to people and yet become possible because of the system’s thinking approach to the problem-solving.
System’s thinking is not a new idea because our ancestors understood it very well. In the story of “Salmon Nation” first written about by the organization EcoTrust (Portland, OR), we learn that many different species of salmon are extremely important to the native cultures and economies of communities from California to Alaska and all the way around the Pacific to Japan. The native population’s translated song for the salmon suggests that salmon feed the streams, the streams feed the land, the land feeds the plants and animals, the plants and animals feed humans, and humans have the greatest impact on salmon. Things come full-circle-around. The foundation of this place, the glue that holds it together, is its salmon. Not only do they feed us and support a centuries-old commercial fishery, but they feed the land as well. Trees in the forest depend on the nitrogen that salmon carry back to land from their ocean journey to upland streams for spawning. Animals benefit, too: scientists have found that at least 137 species rely on salmon as part of their diet.
In order to function effectively, a system’s parts must all be present for optimal performance. The parts must be arranged in a certain fashion to carry out the system’s purpose. Systems have specific purposes within the larger systems and they maintain their stability through fluctuations and adjustments. That is systems have feedbacks. To better understand these characteristics, the field of system’s thinking has generated a broad array of tools that let you (1) graphically depict your understanding of a particular system’s structure and behavior, (2) communicate with others about your understandings, and (3) design high-leverage interventions for problematic system behavior.
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Industry and a Cemetery