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.

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Assessing assumptions about boundaries with critical systems heuristics

By Werner Ulrich

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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

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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

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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

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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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Can foresight and complexity play together?

By James E. Burke

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James E. Burke (biography)

What is foresight and how does it differ from prediction? What role can complexity play in foresight? Does Cynefin® offer a possible framework to begin integrating foresight and complexity?

In this blog post, I describe how:

  • Foresight identifies clues for the future and integrates them into forecasts
  • Complexity theory offers ways to understand how the future emerges
  • Cynefin® gives us a framework of domains that allows us to better understand trends and forecasts.

What is foresight?

Foresight starts from a place of humility—we cannot predict the future—and an acceptance of ambiguity.

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Three complexity principles for convergence research

By Gemma Jiang

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Gemma Jiang (biography)

How can principles adapted from complexity thinking be applied to convergence research? How can such principles help integrate knowledge, methods, and expertise from different disciplines to form novel frameworks that catalyze scientific discovery and innovation?

I present three principles from the complexity paradigm that are highly relevant to convergence research. I then describe three types of transformative containers that I have developed to create enabling conditions for applying complexity principles to convergence.

1. Ecosystem consciousness: An inversion of perspectives

Ecosystem consciousness is necessary because in complex systems the whole (ecosystem) is bigger than the sum of its parts; the wellbeing of the whole and the parts are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

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Choosing a suitable transdisciplinary research framework

By Gabriele Bammer

Author - Gabriele Bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What are some of the key frameworks that can be used for transdisciplinary research? What are their particular strengths? How can you choose one that’s most suitable for your transdisciplinary project?

The nine frameworks described here were highlighted in a series for which I was the commissioning editor. The series was published in the scientific journal GAIA: Ecological Perspectives in Science and Society between mid-2017 and end-2019.

Choosing among them is not a matter of right or wrong, but of each being more or less helpful for a particular problem in a particular context.

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Three principles for co-designing intervention strategies

By David Lam

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David Lam (biography)

What processes are involved when researchers and local actors co-design context-specific intervention strategies? This ‘how to’ knowledge is outlined in the three principles described below. Local actors can include non-governmental organisations, local leaders, community groups and individual activists.

Principle 1. Explore existing and envisioned initiatives fostering change towards the desired future 

This has 3 key steps:

  1. Identifying existing initiatives and knowledge working towards the desired future
  2. Identifying who is involved and leading different existing initiatives
  3. Analysing how existing and possible future initiatives from local actors contribute to changing the state of system elements that need to change for reaching the desired vision or up to an intermediate state.

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