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)
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.
As described in the general section of this Guideline the first of five steps in designing Building with Nature approaches is to understand the system in question (figure 2). This seemingly straightforward and obvious step has proven a difficult hurdle to take. The concept of systems thinking may be a useful tool to get a full comprehension of the system from all three perspectives.
This knowledge information presents experiences with the use of systems thinking and system diagramming in the Building with Nature programme. It will not replicate existing information on systems thinking which can be found in great wealth on the internet. Whenever necessary, sources of information on the internet are mentioned. After a short framing of the understanding of systems, experiences with the application of systems thinking and system diagramming in a case study are presented. The aim is to discuss the potential contribution of systems thinking to ecodynamic design processes.
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:
- A system is an assembly of components connected together in an organized way;
- The components are affected by being in the system and are changed if they leave.
- The assembly of components does something;
- The assembly has been identified by someone as being of interest
(adapted from Postgraduate Diploma in Systems Thinking in Practice)
Figure shows important elements of a physical system. The blue dotted line indicates the system boundaries, through which the system interacts with its environment. Within the system, there are subsystems and even sub-subsystems with complex dynamic interactions.
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.
A hard system representation of a Building with Nature project attempts to show causal relations between ecosystem processes, hydromorphology and human-induced processes, without considering differences in perspectives of actors involved in the project. A soft system approach starts with exploring perspectives of actors on the socio-ecological system of interest (see Ostrom, 2009).
Bosch et al. (2006) describe three functions of systems thinking. All three are potentially helpful in Building with Nature contexts.
- Getting the big picture. Understanding a complex system asks for expertise from different fields of knowledge. Communication in such multidisciplinary settings is often difficult. The construction of one system representation helps to cross discipline boundaries and to see the big picture.
- Aligning different perspectives. Building with Nature designs need to consider differences in perspectives of the actors involved. Translation of these perspectives into multi-functional designs is part of the Building with Nature practice. The use of system representations facilitates sharing and comparing differences in opinions, values, histories, interests, etc. in relation to the design.
- Learning. Representations of systems show the state of such systems under certain conditions. Facilitation of learning is possible by monitoring changes in reality and adapting the system representation to the monitoring results.
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.
The IJsselmeer region is one of the largest freshwater lake systems in Europe (Figure 4). Before the ‘Afsluitdijk’ (Figure 4) was completed in 1932, it was a brackish inland sea. The damming created flood safety and a freshwater reservoir, both indispensable conditions to reclaim large new polders (the green areas in the map). Reclamation of one of the designated polder areas, the Markermeer (the southwesterly part of the lake), was cancelled after the dike had been built. Thus the Markermeer is separated from the rest of the IJsselmeer.
Definitions of the IJsselmeer and Markermeer socio-ecological system depend on the perspective taken.
- A hydrological delineation will deal with the linkages with other lakes and catchments which discharge water into the lake (in winter) or receive water from the lake (in summer).
- The ecology is characterized by migratory birds and fish and must therefore include connections with faraway areas, like Greenland and Siberia.
- The management of the lakes is distributed over a variety of governments and institutions, some local, others provincial or national. Competences overlap and no clearly defined coordination mechanism exists.
Notwithstanding these definition problems, the lakes are usually referred to as being one system, probably because of its national history and because it is considered as a coherent set of water bodies in the European Water Framework Directive, which is the European basic planning framework for water quality. Also the sharp physical separation between the water body and the surrounding lands due to the dikes helps to create an image of a well-defined domain.
Figures present examples of representations of parts of the socio-ecological system. It is an attempt to capture ecological issues from a Natura 2000 perspective (Natura 2000 is European legislation to protect species and habitats). The system representation identifies some protected species and connects these with components which threaten to cause reductions in number of the species (water temperature, reduction in light entrance, declining quality of mussels, etc.). The picture gives an overview of the main policy issues on nature protection in the lake.
Figure presents a historic overview of policies and discussions on the lakes ecology from a governance perspective.
The time line starts with the decision of the national government to stop plans to reclaim Markermeer. This ‘lift of polder reservation’ initiated discussions on developing the ecological potential of Markermeer. The Wetland Foundation was a first NGO initiative, followed in 2007 by an inter-governmental platform (TMIJ - Toekomst Markeermeer-IJmeer) in charge of devising a future perspective. The resulting report (in 2009) was followed by a new inter-governmental initiative to formulate implementation strategies. During policy formation research was conducted by Building with Nature (see mindmap), NMIJ (Natuurlijker Markermeer-IJmeer) and ANT (Autonome Neerwaartse Trend).
To support policy formation system representation methods have been applied as shown in the table.
The use of mindmaps allows to structure and link relevant knowledge from a specific topic. Mindmaps show the user a network of connected and related concepts. Because all concepts can be linked together it is a form of knowledge mapping. There are for example no rules that imply that certain connections between concepts cannot be made. Free-form, spontaneous thinking is required when creating a mindmap, because the aim of mindmapping is to find creative associations between ideas. These techniques involve using line thicknesses, colors, pictures and diagrams to aid knowledge recollection (Davies 2010). In contrast to cause-effect or causal loop diagram the relationships and interactions are not specified. Figure gives insight into the different aspects of the building with nature approach applied to the southern part of IJsselmeer region.
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:
- a Community of Practice (CoP), in which members share and compare knowledge and experiences and jointly develop a coherent system understanding (see figure 8)
- the development of an easy-to-access and easy-to-use set of causal loop diagrams and models.
The CoP consists of people from different organisations (public, private, civil society) with a professional interest in the overall subject eco-engineering in the IJsselmeer region as a common denominator. In addition to the members of the CoP, experts, stakeholders or policy makers can be invited to the meetings to share their experiences. The CoP-members formulate the agenda of the different meetings themselves. The Focal points of the agenda are questions or issues arising from the members’ daily professional experience. Examples of topics on the CoP-agenda are:
- Sand mining for commercial purposes in combination with wetland development (sediment and ecology)
- Development of urban areas on islands in the lake in relation to ecological development
- Ecodynamic designs for flood protection systems
- Small scale sand engine experiments Oude Mirdumerklif and Hindeloopen and Workumerwaard
There were two main reasons to apply and further develop systems thinking in relation to the IJsselmeer case. The first reason was that co-construction of causal loops would help the CoP-members in developing knowledge relevant to decision making (‘getting the big picture’). The second one was that a disciplined use of system representations during discussions would facilitate learning about the behaviour of this complex socio-ecological system.
Experiments were made with different methods of systems thinking during the CoP-meetings, starting with an observational approach and moving towards more interactive methods. In the former case CoP-members discussed the topic with the help of discussion techniques (e.g. interview) and observers reported the contents of the discussions. In the latter case, not only the observers but also CoP-members reported on their own subgroup discussions with the help of mindmap techniques.
After every meeting, observers translated the discussions into a cause-effect system representation. The diagram showed variables and cause-effect relations of the issues discussed in the CoP. The feeling among the CoP-team was that these ‘cause–effect representations’ did not capture the richness of the discussions, so it was decided to extend the cause effect representation with the following mindmap-elements:
- main issues
- key solutions
- main reasoning routes
In figure 9, elements connected with arrows represent cause-effect relations with negative or positive feedbacks onto social and physical processes. The brown, blue and green lines represent components of the natural system, the yellow areas depict processes in the governance system. The lightning bolts and clouds address priority issues (conflicts, uncertainties, obstacles, opportunities) and the key symbols indicate possible strategies. In essence this case map is a causal loop – mindmap hybrid giving an overview of the system and its dynamics.
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.
- Understanding the bigger picture and having tools to learn how to capture differences in knowledge and diversity in perspectives of actors in BwN-designs is a crucial element of Building with Nature. In literature (and on the internet) there is a wealth of information on system representation methods and tools. Yet, the practical application of systems thinking in the IJsselmeer case proved more difficult than anticipated.
- Translation of disciplinary knowledge (like in figures 5 and 6) into representations of (sub)systems did help to get the bigger picture. Representations are characterized by a focus on a specific element of the system, without explicit reference to assumptions or perspectives of other people. Attempts to cross boundaries between social and natural systems, however, gave some difficulties. The mindmap in figure 7 is such an attempt. The result is not easy to read, and one must have a certain level of system knowledge to benefit from it.
- The ambition to co-construct cause-effect diagrams in the community of practice resulted in hybrids like in figure 9. The system representations were made after the CoP-meetings (based on drafts produced by CoP-members) and difficulties were encountered to design a coherent representation that was recognized by all CoP-members. Still the resulting diagrams convey a rich and comprehensive summary of a multidisciplinary analysis.
- The final diagrams have value, but mainly as a reporting tool for the overall discussions, as a communication tool within the CoP and as a structuring principle for CoP-members. For communication purposes outside the CoP simpler representations are needed.
- Anderson, V. and Johnson, L. (1997) ‘Systems thinking basics, from concepts to causal loops’ Waltham: Pegasus communications. ISBN 1-883823-12-9.
- Bosch, O. J. H., King C. A., Herbohn J. L., Russell I.W., & Smith C.S. (2007). Getting the big picture in natural resource management – systems thinking as ‘method’ for scientists, policy makers and other stakeholders. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 24(2): 217-232.
- Capra, F. (1996). The web of life. New York: Anchor Books. ISBN13 978-0385476768.
- Davies, M. (2010) 'Concept mapping, mind mapping, and argument mapping: What are the differences and do they matter?' Higher Education, 62: 279-301.
- Ostrom, E., (2009). A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science 325 (5939): 419-422.
- Senge, P. M. (1990) ‘The Fifth Discipline’ New York: Doubleday. ISBN13 978-1905211203.
- Sterman, J. D. (2006) 'Learning from Evidence in a Complex World' American Journal of Public Health, 96: 505-514.
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