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Knowledge - Systems Thinking

Abstract: A structured approach to describing and analysing the system in which interventions are being considered, helps to create a clear and understandable development program.

Technology Readiness Level: 9 (way of working successfully applied)

Environment: any
Keywords: system, engineering, nature, society, mapping, cause-effect

This knowledge page presents experiences with the use of system thinking and system diagramming in the Building with Nature programme. The construction of a jointly agreed system representation helps to cross discipline boundaries and to see the big picture. Also, such a system representation facilitates sharing and comparing differences in opinions, values, histories, interests, etc. in relation to the design requirements. Moreover, learning is facilitated by monitoring changes in real life and adapting the representation of the system to the monitoring results. The aim of this knowledge information is to discuss the contribution of systems thinking to Building with Nature-design processes.

The Building with Nature innovation programme uses a triangle to depict the relationship between three components that are relevant in BwN-design of water-related infrastructures: nature, society and engineering. 

Nature encompasses hydro-morphological processes (wind, waves and currents, sedimentation and erosion, water- and wind-induced sediment transport) and ecological processes (food webs, ecosystem engineers, the influence of bioengineering). Engineering represents all human interventions to the natural system (dams, dikes, canals, reclamation projects, etc.). Governance and society represents the institutional system, both formal (laws, regulations, standards, decision-making structures, contracts) and informal (political power, networks, negotiations, established practices, stakeholder involvement). An ecodynamic design is the result of interactions between these three components.

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Systems thinking

A system is often defined as a group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent components that form a complex and unified whole. These components interact through processes, policies or information flows (Anderson and Johnson 1997). Different types of systems can be distinguished; ranging from cities to sports teams, from classrooms to ecosystems and from conceptual systems of understanding to systems of human activities. Although these systems differ in many ways, they have some basic characteristics in common:

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In literature (see soft systems methodology and Bosch et al. 2006, Capra, 1996) a distinction is made between hard and soft system thinking. Hard system thinkers’ attempt to represent reality in an objective way, whereas ‘soft system thinkers’ recognize that representations of reality are constructs made by the person describing them and are influenced by histories, world views, and values of that person.

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System representations

There is a large collection of methods and tools to represent systems. Senge (1990) for instance proposed a typology of archetypes of systems to be used in strategy formation. A nice overview is to be found in the periodic table of visualization methods


Case study: The use of system representations in the IJssel-lake region 

After a government decision to cancel the construction of a new polder in a closed part the IJssel-lake the existing, degraded lake system had to be revitalised. 'Systems Thinking' has been applied to determine best ways to restore and enhance sustainable development.

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Co-construction of system knowledge

The overall objective of the IJsselmeer case study is to develop a coherent understanding of the complex relations between the physical, ecological and governance systems amongst stakeholders at a regional and national level. The initial plan was to combine two methods in the case study:

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Lesson Learned

Lessons have been learned on:

  • Really 'understanding the system' is not an easy task.
  • 'Representations of sub-systems' can be helpful but do require a good deal of system knowledge.
  • Cause-effect diagrams are effective tools
  • For external communications other tools are needed.

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