How can we harness systems thinking?

Like co-design and nudging, systems thinking is certainly one of the buzz words of our time. At the recent Australian Evaluation Society Conference, Michael Quinn Patton challenged evaluators to move beyond programs to systems, think globally, track interconnections, crack silos and understand interdependence; while Social Design Sydney’s September event centred on how systems thinking can enable designers to identify innovative interventions to address complex social problems.

Clearly, if we’re designing or evaluating interventions to tackle complex issues like homelessness or family violence, it would help to think in terms of systems – to consider the way in which the behaviour of the elements within system and their effects are interdependent.

Patton has given evaluators developmental evaluation to use when they encounter interventions in complex systems. Developmental evaluators facilitate a continuous development loop of framing concepts, testing quick iterations, monitoring developments, and using data and discussion to surface issues. More recently, Patton has also given us principles-focused evaluation.

But where do designers start with systems thinking? As Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer outlined in her presentation at Social Design Sydney, there are so many systems theories, including system dynamics, system layers, complex adaptive systems, complexity theory, organisational systems, actor network theory, ecological systems theory, evolutionary theory, game theory, social systems theory, and theory U, integral model. One could be forgiven for struggling to find a foothold.

But van der Bijl-Brouwer and, co-presenter, Tim Tompson opened up some pathways.

Van der Bijl-Brouwer described systems thinking as the bringing together of analysis and synthesis. She then highlighted two means of thinking about intervening in systems. Firstly, Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, which identifies different approaches to use with simple, complicated, complex and chaotic systems. Secondly, the Iceberg Model along with Donella Meadows concept of leverage points, which identifies increasing leverage as you move towards addressing the mental models that underly structures, patterns of behaviours and events (the happenings we see on the surface). Finally, van der Bijl-Brouwer outlined several principles for systemic design:

  • opening up – unpacking the assumptions behind a brief, seeking varied perspectives, and developing a broader understanding of the problem to be addressed
  • evolving the framing – how we name and understand the problem to be addressed, drawing on a portfolio of interventions and prototypes
  • strengthening relationships – understanding end users and making use of social architecture.

Tompson told us that our tradition tools for describing the world are ill-fitted to our times. We need to move beyond dichotomies like ‘mind over body’ and ‘theory over practice’. But how? He suggested philosophical pragmatism, a recognition that everything is in the making, and use of theories like Actor Network Theory to understand how systems evolve and change. He used this kind of thinking in mapping two transport projects – recognising that while humans see ourselves as the masters of technology, we are also shaped by technology, and giving voice to the non-human actors within the network. He emphasised the value of drawing pictures to understand a problem, including our relation to it.

My key take-outs were the importance of recognising the type of system in which you’re operating, ensuring you open up the problem before you lock down an approach, and bringing together multiple perspectives through well-thought out workshops when designing interventions for complex social problems.

A recent AES regional network also tackled the topic of systems thinking in evaluation. You can read more about our take-aways from Michael Reid’s presentation here.

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