Systems Thinking: the ripples we can create

Social IssuesThought-provoking

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Juliette Flach recommends a more holistic approach in our efforts to make the world a better place.

Everyone has that one topic they could talk about for hours, and for me that is ‘Systems Thinking’. This is a potentially life-changing concept I think everyone should know about and has the potential to be applied to every situation.

So what is Systems Thinking? 

Systems Thinking is a method of seeing the world as interconnected. Rather than looking at every part separately, this worldview encourages holistic thinking, noting that a change to one element can have knock-on effects far beyond our level of understanding. 

Although this is a huge mind puzzle, you can understand the premise by taking any task you do or decision you make and considering the impact this has. 

Take the example of phoning a friend while walking to the shops. This has the obvious impact of enabling a conversation with the friend to take place with the relevant exchange of information/emotion. But it can also alter the life of the call’s recipient, affecting their mood and thus the way they interact with others (note the ripple effect?) during the rest of their day. 

Yet this action could also affect others: by walking while on the phone someone may have to dodge around you to maintain social distance, leading them to change their course of direction, knock a man off a bike while doing so, and so on …

Any action in any single part of the system we live in can have an influence on other parts.

To help humans comprehend this complexity, Systems Thinking practitioners have developed a range of tools to help visually explore these connections. 

So why do we need to boggle our minds in this way?

Because developing our capacity to consider knock-on effects can better help us reach our desired goals. For a business this may be to map customers’ behaviour and use this to develop their marketing and business strategy so as to influence consumers to choose their brand. 

But for me, I try to use the concept in a more altruistic way, considering how Systems Thinking could be applied to both the humanitarian sector and to our personal lives. 

The humanitarian sector is beginning to consider Systems Thinking with charities such as Oxfam leading the way in analysing the complexity of the challenges they are facing. 

Previously unquestioned phrases such as ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’ are being re-examined with this concept in mind. 

The scenario of ‘teaching a man to fish’ can easily be affected by a whole series of factors including a decline in fish stock numbers due to water pollution, climate change and overfishing, or societal changes such as the fish market crashing.

So the initial intention to ‘teach a man to fish’ may work in theory, but in practice, the situation is far more complex. 

The concept of the interconnected world was beautifully, yet tragically represented in David Attenborough’s latest documentary ‘Extinction’ (well worth a watch!) which highlighted the knock-on effects actions can have on a global scale.

With this realisation comes a challenge: how do you even begin to solve a problem when in essence every problem is affected by so many factors that it can’t be solved with a single solution? 

This is where the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can come in, highlighting the importance of responding with a collaborative effort. It addresses 17 goals which encompass everything from quality education to climate action under one umbrella. 

Yes, one could critique the sustainable development goals, but at least they’re a step in the right direction, acknowledging that we need to consider everything simultaneously. We cannot isolate each problem and attempt to solve it in a vacuum. 

By embracing a holistic attitude, some charities have begun to view problems within their context, working with local communities to support them with the variety of challenges they are facing, rather than looking at each problem in isolation. 

By using a nexus attitude, the connections are embraced rather than dismissed. People are not just being ‘taught how to fish’ and then left to struggle through issues that arrive further down the line, but instead charities such as Oxfam, Save The Children and CAFOD are shifting to provide support to the community and environment as a whole. 

Although this growing shift away from providing just a ‘fish’ or ‘fishing rod’ can help support sustainable development, there is a cost to this method, and the cost comes mainly in the form of funding. There is a tendency for people to expect a tangible result from their donation to a charity: donors want to know ‘the number of people fed’, or ‘the number of fishing rods provided’, but although such practical actions are sometimes what is needed, often the situation is not that easy.

So one takeaway is to look beyond the tangible results when donating to charity, and instead consider how long-term change does not always come in the form of a quantifiable instant fix.

But how can Systems Thinking be applied to our own lives? 

When we make any decision, it is good to pause and consider the impacts our decision will have on others and the world we live in. By taking some time to think beyond the spur of the moment impulse, we can appreciate that our actions, even if they seem insignificant at the time, can have a big effect on others. 

By supporting a friend through a phone call or simply sending a message to ask how they are getting on; by smiling at someone you walk past in the street; by holding back that sharp comment or angry text; by offering to help … In ways like these, we can all influence the world around us. 

Everything is part of the system. We might feel only a small part of it but we all have a part to play and big changes can come about through small actions. It is up to us to decide what ripples of change we want to make with every action we carry out.



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