Viable System Model: A theory for designing more responsive organisations

By Angela Espinosa

angela-espinosa
Angela Espinosa (biography)

How can communities, businesses, regions, and nations – which can all be thought of as organisations – be designed to be capable of dealing quickly and effectively with environmental fluidity and complexity?

The Viable System Model, often referred to as VSM, is a theory that posits that a complex organisation is more capable of responding to a changing and unpredictable environment, if it is:

  • composed of autonomous, effective, and agile subsidiary organisations,
  • highly connected to each other, and
  • cohesively operating with shared ethos, purpose, processes, and technologies

A complex organisation therefore has multiple levels of nested organisations, each adhering to these principles.

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Managing complexity with human learning systems

By Toby Lowe

toby-lowe
Toby Lowe (biography)

How can those in public service – be they researchers, policy makers or workers in government agencies, private businesses managers, or voluntary and community organisation leaders – think more effectively about improving people’s lives, when they understand that each person’s life is a unique complex system?

A good starting point is understanding that real outcomes in people’s lives aren’t “delivered” by organisations (or by projects, partnerships or programmes, etc). Outcomes are created by the hundreds of different factors in the unique complex system that is each person’s life.

In other words, an outcome is the product of hundreds of different people, organisations, and factors in the world all coming together in a unique and ever-changing combination in a particular person’s life. Very little of what influences the outcome is under the control or influence of those who undertake public service.

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A responsible approach to intersectionality

By Ellen Lewis and Anne Stephens

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1. Ellen Lewis (biography)
2. Anne Stephens (biography)

What is intersectionality? How can it be used systemically and responsibly?

When you google the term over 66,400,000 results are returned. It is a term used by government and businesses, as well as change agents. But is it helpful and are there ways that we should be thinking about intersectionality and its inclusion in our everyday lives?

After describing intersectionality, we introduce a framework for systemic intersectionality that brings together issues that arise within three social dimensions: gender equality, environments and marginalised voices. We refer to this as the GEMs framework.

What is Intersectionality?

Intersectionality is a term first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. It is a prevalent way to understand the effect of more than one type of discrimination.

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Extending the DPSIR (Driving forces, Pressures, States, Impacts, Responses) framework

By Will Allen

will-allen
Will Allen (biography)

What is the DPSIR framework? How can it be extended to improve the ability to describe the interactions between society and the environment?

DPSIR (Driving forces, Pressures, States, Impacts, Responses) is a framework for describing and analysing the important and interlinked relationships between social and environmental factors (see the first figure below).

Different groups use these terms in slightly different ways, dependent on their disciplinary backgrounds – and given the diverse range of uses that the framework is put to, it probably does not make sense to attempt to create rigid definitions.

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Systems thinking in public policy: Making space to think differently

By Catherine Hobbs

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Catherine Hobbs (biography)

Why does public policy go wrong? How can researchers who are systems thinkers begin to create the conditions in which those involved in public policy may flourish within their possible spheres of ‘horizontal’ influence?

The public policy context and why it goes wrong

Jake Chapman’s System Failure: Why Governments Must Learn to Think Differently (2002; 2004) remains a much-quoted report. In his second (2004) edition, however, Chapman reflects that, despite an enthusiastic reception, there had been “very little substantive shift in either policy or management styles within government” (2004: p.10).

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Assessing assumptions about boundaries with critical systems heuristics

By Werner Ulrich

werner-ulrich
Werner Ulrich (biography)

How can those participating in research effectively reflect on their own assumptions about where they set boundaries around: problems, solutions, measures of success, knowledge claims and other aspects of research? These aspects are inevitably partial in the dual sense of representing a part rather than the whole of the total universe of conceivable considerations, and of serving some parties better than others.

How can examination of assumptions about boundaries be employed as an emancipatory practice to assess the assumptions of others and to point to better ways of serving the disenfranchised and marginalised?

I developed critical systems heuristics in the 1980s to support such boundary critique.

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Four building blocks of systems thinking

By Derek Cabrera and Laura Cabrera

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1. Derek Cabrera (biography)
2. Laura Cabrera (biography)

Systems thinking itself is a complex adaptive system. Supported by empirical evidence, DSRP theory describes 4 simple rules that dynamically combine to explain the complexity of physical, natural, and social systems. Awareness of these patterns can help us to solve many societal and environmental problems.

We briefly present DSRP theory which describes four universal patterns and their underlying elements—identity (i) and other (o) for Distinctions (D), part (p) and whole (w) for Systems (S), action (a) and reaction (r) for Relationships (R), and point (ρ) and view (v) for Perspectives (P).

We describe these four building blocks and show how they can be mixed and matched. We conclude with some additional key aspects of the theory.

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A quick guide to post-normal science

By Silvio Funtowicz

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Silvio Funtowicz (biography)

Post-normal science comes into play for decision-making on policy issues where facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent.

A good example of a problem requiring post-normal science is the actions that need to be taken to mitigate the effects of sea level rise consequent on global climate change. All the causal elements are uncertain in the extreme, at stake is much of the built environment and the settlement patterns of people, what to save and what to sacrifice is in dispute, and the window for decision-making is shrinking. The COVID-19 pandemic is another instance of a post-normal science problem. The behaviour of the current and emerging variants of the virus is uncertain, the values of socially intrusive remedies are in dispute, and obviously stakes are high and decisions urgent.

In such contexts of policy making, normal science (in the Kuhnian sense, see Kuhn 1962) is still necessary, but no longer sufficient.

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System redesign toward creating shared value

By Moein Khazaei, Mohammad Ramezani, Amin Padash and Dorien DeTombe

authors_moein-khazaei_mohammad-ramezani_amin-padash_dorien-detombe
1. Moein Khazaei (biography)
2. Mohammad Ramezani (biography)
3. Amin Padash (biography)
4. Dorien DeTombe (biography)

How can services that are provided to citizens be overhauled so that they will survive, be competitive and be fair (eg., accessible to all)? Is there a systematic way in which shared value can be created? By shared value we mean combining social and environmental interests with corporate interests.

We have developed a methodology that we call “System redesign toward creating shared value” or SYRCS. It comprises 4 stages, shown in the figure below. They are:

  1. emancipation and critical thinking
  2. problem structuring
  3. multi-criteria and quantitative decision-making
  4. creating shared value.

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Six ways to see systems leadership

By Benjamin Taylor

benjamin-taylor
Benjamin Taylor (biography)

What do we mean by systems leadership? And how does it relate to systems change?

Ideas about both systems thinking and systems change have become prominent over the last few years, but the terms are often poorly defined and used with a range of meanings.

I suggest that there are broadly six types or flavours of systems leadership, all of which have key implications for systems change. And, of course, they can overlap.

1. Systems leadership as a form of better leadership

This is inclusive, mobilising, and systems aware leadership.

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Why awareness raising campaigns cannot fix structural problems

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Pei Shan Loo (biography)

By Pei Shan Loo

Why are awareness raising campaigns popular? Why can’t they fix structural problems? And how can system dynamics help?

Large amounts of funding for health, societal, environmental and other complex problems are channelled into “awareness raising” to build public recognition of the problem in the hope that understanding will lead to change and a lasting solution.

Why awareness raising campaigns are popular

There are at least four reasons why funding is spent on awareness raising campaigns:

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How systems thinking enhances systems leadership

By Catherine Hobbs and Gerald Midgley

authors_catherine-hobbs_gerald-midgley
1. Catherine Hobbs (biography)
2. Gerald Midgley (biography)

Systems leadership involves organisations, including governments, collaborating to address complex issues and achieve necessary systemic transformations. So, if this is the case, how can systems leadership be helped by systems thinking?

Systems leadership is concerned with facilitating innovation by bringing together a network of organisations. These then collaborate between themselves and with other stakeholders to deliver some kind of service, influence a policy outcome or develop a product that couldn’t have been achieved by any one of the organisations working alone.

Recognising that a network of organisations can achieve something that emerges from their interactions involves a certain amount of implicit systems thinking.

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