Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Best Case of Systems Thinking for Sustainable Communities

In any system, the whole is different than the sum of the individual parts. As such, systems thinking recognizes that each element of a system can only be fully understood in the context of the system as a whole. This holistic approach can be used in any area of inquiry to examine the networks of relationships and connections between the elements that comprise both individual and nested systems. According to Barlow and Stone (2011), systems thinking requires many critical shifts in perception: changing the focus from parts to the whole, from objects to relationships, from objective to contextual knowledge, from quantity to quality, from structure to process, and from contents to patterns.  
As Albert Einstein so wisely said, “we can’t solve our problems with the same way of thinking we used when we created them.”   The mechanistic, positivist and reductionist approach that has dominated western society, and increasingly the world, for the past several hundred years is understood to have resulted in a way of thinking that separates people from the world.  Widespread environmental degradation is a direct result of this disconnect.  Systems thinking places people and their many systems back within the fundamental natural support system on which we depend, creating a needed perspective change.  As a result, systems thinking offers a productive framework for making holistic decisions about the interacting requirements for a sustainable human society that recognizes how each decision may impact the broader human and ecological systems (Morris, 2010).  
According to living systems theory, as described by Fritjof Capra (2002), “nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities” for the purpose of meeting collective needs. Human communities of all scales are complex systems of systems that are nested in regional, national and global systems, all of which are interdependent. Therefore, global sustainability cannot be achieved without local sustainability.  It becomes of utmost importance to develop sustainable human communities at the local level because these efforts both resolve local challenges and contribute to solving the same issues globally.  Jamie Cloud  (2011) calls this type of full spectrum systems thinking “prescinding”, which means to look with a “zoom lens at our local systems while, at the same time, using a wide lens to keep our eyes on the big picture.” 
There are a variety of ways to categorize the multitude of sub-systems within a local community. One approach used successfully by the EarthCAT Guide to Community Development, is to organize them into five broad classes of interacting sub-systems (Hallsmith, Layke, Everett, 2005):
  1. Social system (addresses needs for culture, values, care, and education)
  2. Governance system (addresses needs for order, justice, security, and collective decision-making)
  3. Economic system (addresses needs for monetary income and productive employment)
  4. Services and infrastructure system (addresses needs for material goods and services)
  5. Environmental system (addresses needs for healthy ecosystems and natural spaces)
Each of these systems as well as the whole communities that they comprise change dynamically over time, are driven by feedback loops, and exhibit the property of emergence.   The creation of sustainable communities requires exploring how each of these complex systems interacts with each other in daily life.    
In 2005, the city of Calgary in Canada began an eighteen month process of creating a long range urban sustainability plan.  This “city led and community owned” ImagineCALGARY initiative began a vast dialogue in which the city was viewed as a whole system for the purpose of achieving balance between  economic, social, governance and environmental needs, an equitable distribution of both resources and opportunities and a balance between the needs of current generations and those of the future (ImagineCALGARY, 2006).    
An understanding of systems and the ability to think systematically were recognized as key components of the ImagineCALGARY project.   All the primary participants in this process including the Mayor’s Panel on Urban Sustainability, the ImagineCALGARY round table, working groups, advisors, and the project team were trained on systems thinking and design.   Using this systems approach, a framework was developed that integrated the ten Melbourne Principles (which comprise the only internationally ratified set of sustainability principles for cities) with the EarthCAT process of identifying human needs (within the five key community sub-systems described and illustrated above).   Because community assets provide the means by which human needs are met, ImagineCALGARY used an asset/needs approach (instead of a problem solving approach) to engage the community in developing a vision, goals, targets and strategies.   Ultimately over 18,000 people participated in the development of a 100 year vision that includes specific goals, targets and strategies for creating a sustainable Calgary, making it one of the largest citizen involvements in a visioning process in the world.  
The Calgary example is an excellent application of systems thinking to the process of creating a sustainable community.  The focus on key strengths of the community allowed the community to tap into a powerful leverage point for change and develop strategies that not only resolved current challenges but will strengthen the resiliency of the community over time (Hallsmith et al., 2005).

1 comment:

  1. Hi
    I hope you're familiar with my cousins work in this space
    Richard J Jackson MD MPH Professor/Chair, Envl Health Sci UCLA SPH 56-070 CHS
    650 Charles E Young Drive South Los Angeles, California 90095-1772
    ph 310 206 8522 dickjackson@ph.ucla.edu
    Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-being and Sustainability. Dannenberg, Frumkin, Jackson; Island Press www.makinghealthyplaces.org Published Aug 2011
    Designing Healthy Communities Richard J Jackson with Stacy Sinclair. www.josseybass.com/go/jackson Oct 2011
    Designing Healthy Communities 4hr public tv series www.designinghealthycommunities.org Jan 2012