Places are complex systems that can be nurtured to thrive through sensitive and wise custodianship. The future of places will be about building positive relationships, sharing responsibilities and enabling action.
Last week, we posted on why we believe Places Are Not Machines. This week we’ll explain why systems thinking can help leaders, community groups and governments deliver better outcomes for places and communities.
Ecosystems are Complex Systems
Ecosystems such as rainforests and coral reefs are complex. There are many different species of plants, animals, fish, bacteria, fungi and more in a small area. Sometimes they form symbiotic relationships (bees and flowering plants), sometimes they consume each other. A complex ecosystem can’t be properly understood using linear thinking and processes.
Places are just as complex. Just think of all the people involved, the buildings, the history, cultures, climate, the economic, social and environmental factors. And the rules, governance frameworks and relationships. Every place is different. It is not possible to understand the system just by knowing about the parts.
Complicated and Complex are Not the Same
We never understood the difference between complicated and complex. But, it turns out they are very different. We’ll need to understand the very basics of systems theory and the differences between complicated and complex to pick up on why places are better thought of as systems rather than machines. Here goes!
Simple problems (such as following a recipe or a protocol), may encompass some basic issues of technique and terminology, but once these are mastered, following the ‘recipe’ carries with it a very high assurance of success.
Complicated problems (like sending a rocket to the moon), are different. Their complicated nature is often related not only to the scale of the problem, but also to their increased requirements around coordination or specialized expertise. However, rockets are similar to each other and because of this, following one success there can be a relatively high degree of certainty of outcome repetition.
Complex systems are based on relationships, and their properties of self-organisation, interconnections and evolution. Research into complex systems demonstrates that they cannot be understood solely by simple or complicated approaches to evidence, policy, planning and management.Source and read more at learningforsustainability.net
Governments have spent decades creating structures and processes to manage complicated problems (such as building infrastructure, enforcing regulation, creating departments and taskforces), but now find themselves facing complex problems, such a loneliness, loss of trust in institutions, social isolation, public health, climate change, terrorism and economic disruption.
Traditional management approaches have limited effectiveness when faced with complex problems. Conventional approaches simplify complex problems into what are considered to be their constituent parts and manage them through often piecemeal interventions, layered one on top of another (Working with Change Systems: approaches to public sector challenges: OECD 2017). A reductionist, linear approach cannot hope to adequately address these issues. It sometimes makes problems even worse.
People don’t become systems thinkers because systems thinking is so cool; they do so because they discover that linear thinking won’t answer their questions.
Linear thinking is cause and effect thinking: One cause has one effect. Sometimes it works adequately, as when you run out of gas and your car stops. Your car stopped (effect) because it had no gas (cause). If you put gas in again, your car will run. Linear thinking is quite effective in solving this kind of problem.
However, our world is made of many complex relationships and interrelationships. Systems thinking provides a perspective that, most of the time, various components affect each other in various, and often unexpected, ways.Making the Jump to Systems Thinking by Jim Ollhoff and Michael Walcheski
Visual Analogy to Show Places as Systems
In the previous blog post, we represented the Place as a Machine approach by using a factory production line. A factory requires expert knowledge to design, build and operate and then produces relatively consistent, standardised outputs based on raw materials or unprocessed inputs. It is complicated, but also logical, linear and generally predictable. A key aim of a factory is to maximise efficiency through process optimisation, which is often the goal of bureaucracies as well.
How could we visually represent the Place as a System model? The first idea was to represent it by illustrating it as a rainforest. But, a rainforest in its natural state, basically looks after itself with no obvious conscious custodianship. The analogy doesn’t work in human settings, where governments and other actors can (and should) play an obvious role in maintaining and improving the system.
We therefore chose to represent the Place as a System model by representing it visually as a garden.
Rather than focusing on improving services directly, this approach aims to cultivate the conditions from which good solutions are more likely to emerge. The emphasis is on enablement rather than delivery.‘Enablement: how governments can achieve more by letting go’, by Adrian Brown – https://bit.ly/2Ykwkjf
The Role of Government in the Systems Approach
The role of governments in this approach is similar to a sensitive and experienced gardener. This is a vital role and what is not done can be just as significant as what is done. Who does what and how it is done are also important.
The garden analogy has been used by various thinkers and writers. Michael Barber wrote an instructive book titled ‘How To Run a Government So That Citizens Benefits and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy’. The book discusses how government can succeed in the making real improvements to the lives of their citizens. In his view, the role of governments should move from prescribing and justifying in the “Awful to Adequate” phase of governance to regulating and building capacity in the “Adequate to Good” phase and finally enabling and incentivising in the “Good to Great” phase, which aims for world-class performance and continuous learning (see pages 94-96).
Governments can be thought of as having three critical roles in managing change:
- Make change
- Prevent change
- Allow or enable change
The systems approach encourages governments to allow and enable change more often, and do less of the making and preventing change.
The gardener should curate and nurture the right conditions to allow many types of plants, animals and fungi to thrive and collaborate. As a long-term thinker, the gardener seeks to sustain and regenerate her organic garden. Sometimes a gardener’s role is to stand back and watch the garden grow, intervening at the right time and season to enable her plants to grow. Doing less can enable more growth in the right situations.
The Role of Businesses and the Community in the Systems Approach
Communities where all citizens can act on their desire to create, build, to organise and experiment are healthy, resilient and constructive ones. People need to be able to shape the communities that they live in by what they do and not just by what they spend.Marcus Westbury, founder of Renew Newcastle and author of Creating Cities
Creating great places and communities is everyone’s responsibility.
The Place as a System model encourages businesses and the community to build cooperative relationships (wherever possible), take on more responsibilities and be active and positive contributors to society.
A passive or negative role reduces, whereas positive contributions create and build social, economic and environmental capital.
That doesn’t mean that every person must or should contribute an equal amount. The role of the sensitive gardener is to enable each actor to contribute to the best of their ability and opportunity (or as close as possible to).
The divergences between the Places as Machines (Service Delivery Mindset) and Places as Systems (Enabling Mindset) models are striking.
So What? Why Does This Matter?
Our current government, regulatory and corporate structures have been set up to respond to complicated problems. But now we have complex problems, as we have explained above.
Pressures are building around the world – climate change, social breakdown, ageing populations, a growing mountain of debt, economic disruption, loss of trust in the system and conflict.
A business as usual approach based on a complicated problem diagnosis will not only not address the issues, it may exacerbate the challenges to be met. We need to adapt and change.
This has profound implications for those politicians and public servants sitting at the top of hierarchies with a mandate to improve outcomes. It could really be true that the less they control, manage and measure, the better the outcomes will be …
The enabling mindset represents a radical shift in authority, accountability and agency from those at the top to those lower down the system. It argues for humility about what can be achieved when power is aggregated, and challenges us to raise our expectations about what can be achieved through collaboration and cooperation. It suggests that systems can become self-improving rather than relying on top-down management and control.‘Enablement: how governments can achieve more by letting go’, by Adrian Brown – https://bit.ly/2Ykwkjf
For places, it means that:
- Simple answers (or silver bullet solutions) like “free parking!” are bound to fail
- The expectation that governments can or should “fix the problem” won’t work. Governments should do less and enable more
- We need to think of places as complex systems
- Prioritise actions and “quick failures” rather than preparing static masterplans or expecting “someone else” to do it all
- Empowering people to act and have a go should be the new norm
- Place is a key organising principle and a place-led approach is a pragmatic method to improve the system
- Placemaking as both an ethos and a practical, quick and relatively cheap means of creating change should be ‘core business’
Local Government Leading the Discussion
The local government sector is leading the way. The Future of Local Government Declaration states that:
Australia’s system of government must continue to evolve to meet the challenges of the 21st Century, and it must evolve more quickly. This requires action by all levels of government. Federal and State governments need to rethink their roles, but they cannot and should not try to solve all the problems facing our country on their own.
Many of the solutions can only be found within communities, and central governments must respect and leave space for local action and innovation.
Local government has made a good start in addressing these issues, but must work hard to build on its achievements. Councils have a unique mandate to support, represent and give voice to ‘communities of place’. They can provide an ideal platform for governments at all levels to strengthen their engagement with communities – and there is also a real opportunity to bring about a renaissance in local government itself. But the world is changing fast: democratic legitimacy and trust must be earned.https://www.mav.asn.au/what-we-do/sector-development/future-of-local-government
Healthy, resilient and connected communities are common goals. A systems approach has a much better chance of delivering on these objectives.