Systems Thinking & Sustainable Development

I have recently finished the book Systems Thinking: A Primer, by Donella Meadows. If you have ever wondered to yourself how the world works, or how certain things about how we run the world don’t seem to work at all, this book is essential reading. Meadows writes, “Every thing we think we know about the world is a model. However and conversely, our models fall short of representing the world fully. That is why we makes mistakes and why we are regularly surprised.” Breaking down what a model is and what a system is and all the inputs and outputs and flows into and out of systems that makes them whole, she allows us to break down our own models, views, lifestyles, businesses, and problems to take them apart and piece them back together in a way that is more useful.

Because development work is essentially trying to understand and recreate a system we are unfamiliar with, I found this book particularly pertinent in reshaping how I see sustainable development and how to approach it most effectively. I want to share with you some of her notions and the final lessons she leaves us with in the book and how they are applicable to the work we are doing in Uganda.

To shift attention from the abundant factors to the next potential limiting factor is to gain real understanding of, and control over, the growth process. 

Working in development I go through waves and troughs of possibilities and limiting factors. I see the abundance of women willing to learn and change and then I wonder if there is an abundance of a market to support them. I see the abundance of possibility in the center but then remember that it is limited by how much money we can raise. It is not a fine line to walk on, because this kind of work requires a certain amount of faith. So we are leaping, and halting, and walking and sidestepping and jumping backwards and forward through hoops. But we need to always be considering these limiting factors so we can choose the wisest path. Where do we want to take risks and where don’t we? If I understand the difficulties that lie ahead i can better predict the trajectory and the rate of growth. I often get caught up in wanting everything to happen right now, but that isn’t how growth works. One thing needs to build upon the other or you create weak links. This isn’t about being pessimistic, it’s about using your abundance wisely.

Rich countries transfer capital or technology to poor ones and wonder why the economies of the receiving countries still don’t develop, never thinking that capital or technology may not be the most limiting factors. 

Evaluating these limiting factors allows us to transfer the right things. We can’t change government corruption overnight, a huge limiting factor in developing nations, but we might be able to change how people see relationships and treat the other people in their lives locally. Why are women less empowered? Is it lack of resources? Or lack of emotional intelligence? In our case we believe that transferring capital means nothing without transferring capacity building and self confidence.

Resilience, self-organization, and hierarchy are three of the reasons dynamic systems can work so well. Promoting or managing for these properties of a system can improve its ability to function well over the long term – to be sustainable. Hierarchical systems evolve from the bottom up. The purpose of the upper layers of the hierarchy is to serve the purposes of the lower layers. Self organization is often sacrificed for purposes of short term productivity or stability.

This is of course the concept behind grass roots organizations. To endure the long term, the change has to start from the bottom. This allows for the knowledge and history of resilience to prevail when there are difficulties and for the structure to build on top of it. Our model at The Glow Effect Centre is based on this concept, having been initially envisioned by the local women here who self organized to create the Association of Rural Women Professionals. Our goal is to create an entity that is in the end self-reliant and invests in itself to be sustainable. It is crucial for us as we continue to develop to remember the importance of the local knowledge and the ability of our women to self organize and to encourage these capabilities rather than diminish them with over governance.
Awareness of resilience enables one to see many ways to preserve or enhance a system’s own restorative powers. It is this resilience that is behind aid programs that do more than give food or money- they try to change the circumstances that obstruct people’s ability to provide their own food or money. 

Circumstances that obstruct women to provide their own food or money are due to cultural and economic restrictions. We are first focusing on the cultural aspect which is at the bottom of the hierarchy. By breaking down cultural barriers of what and what is not expected of women is the first step to helping them and others realize they are capable of and how they can change what is holding them back from the inside out. Economically speaking we are trying to breakthrough potential markets first locally and as our products are established to provide access to fair trade international markets. We must always be considering the resilience of our system and how to change or improve it as we change dynamically.

We can’t control systems or figure them out, but we can dance with them… stay wide awake, pay close attention, participate flat out, and respond to feedback. 

Perhaps the most holistic piece of advice for development work. We are strangers in this system and we must move with it, learn its moves and how to work within those moves. We can’t participate partially, we must be in it 100% or none of our efforts will work. We can’t bang our head against a wall either, if something isn’t working we must look at why and change our movements to go around or above the wall or through it another way. I have learned this in the last couple of weeks reaching out to potential partners. I thought the e-mail i was sending out was great. It was informative, it was heartwarming, it was a plea to collaborate. But that wasn’t working. So i changed the way I approached it. Instead of thinking I could just jump in and join a polo match without knowing how to swim, I altered my words and my goal to simply wanting to learn more about how what they do works, and I have gotten positive feedback. Once I learn the dance I can join the contra line.

GET THE BEAT OF THE SYSTEM: start analyzing the behavior and the history of the behavior of the system, this gets you to focus on facts not theories. It keeps you from falling too quickly into your own beliefs or misconceptions and those of others. It discourages the common and distracting tendency we all have to define a problem not by the system’s actual behavior, but by the lack of our favorite solution.

We only know what we know, but we have to open to the idea that perhaps what we know doesn’t work in every situation. Histories are different, behaviors are different, and the results are different because of that. How do I break down my own cultural expectations enough to seeing new solutions that perhaps I never allowed myself to see before?

EXPOSE YOUR MENTAL MODEL TO THE LIGHT OF DAY: Instead of becoming a champion for one possible explanation or hypothesis or model, collect as many as possible. Consider all of them to be plausible until you find some evidence that causes you to rule one out. That way you will be emotionally able to see the evidence that rules out an assumption that may become entangled with your identity. 

We started with an idea, but again, we have to be open to possibilities. Disappointment is expectations not being met. As a very emotional and passionate person I am often let down by lack of results I wanted to see. It is a life long struggle to be able to separate oneself from being attached to results. Only from the outside can we see how things are functioning and why something might not have happened the way we want it, and how to change what we are doing to obtain the results we want, or change the result we want to fit into what we are doing.

PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT IS IMPORTANT NOT JUST QUANTIFIABLE: Our culture, obsessed with numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important that what we can’t measure. It means we make quantity more important that quality. No one can define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth or love. No one can define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist.

Investors love numbers. Look at any aid agency and their impact page in a list of icons next to statistics. 75% increase in income. 400,000 jobs created. 15% less children born. 25 wells drilled. Being at the beginning of our program, we don’t have these statistics yet. And are they important to us? We know that domestic violence and sexual abuse have decreased. We know that women are earning more of an income. But how do you quantify the feeling of confidence? How do you weigh the importance of self expression in a statistic? These unquantifiable changes are the ones that are the longest lasting and they are the ones that allow for all the other things we are working toward to happen. We want people to make more money, we want more children to stay in school. But we also want our women to have a voice and to be comfortable with making difficult decisions, and that doesn’t fit into a statistic, and we are ok with that, because that is where we see the impact.

And lastly some other tenets of Systems Thinking to follow:

GO FOR THE GOOD OF THE WHOLE: Don’t maximize parts of systems or subsystems while ignoring the whole. 

LISTEN TO THE WISDOM OF THE SYSTEM: Aid and encourage the forces and structure that help the system run itself. Don’t be an unthinking intervenor and destroy the system’s own self maintenance capacities. Before you care in to make things better, pay attention to the value of what’s already there. 

STAY HUMBLE- STAY A LEARNER: What’s appropriate when you’re learning is small steps, constant monitoring, and a willingness to change course as you find out more about where its leading. Embrace your errors as a condition of learning.

CELEBRATE COMPLEXITY: The universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent and dynamic. It self organizes and evolves. It creates diversity and uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful and that’s what makes it work. 

EXPAND TIME HORIZONS: Phenomena at different time scales are nested within each other. Actions taken now have some immediate effects and some that radiate out for decades to come. 

DEFY THE DISCIPLINES: In spite of your expertise and knowledge, follow a system wherever it leads. It will be sure to lead across traditional disciplinary lines. 

EXPAND THE BOUNDARY OF CARING: The systems are interconnected. 

DON’T ERODE THE GOAL OF GOODNESS: Avoid the drift to low performance. Don’t weigh the bad news more heavily than the good. Keep standards absolute. 

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Hernán says:

    Excellent post about an excellent book. Thanks for the write up!


  2. momluvzsumr says:

    VERY informative. Thank you for breaking this down as it certainly helps me to understand more of the challenges and rewards you face with this project.


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