Systems thinking in a chaotic world: accessing wisdom and insights

14 Aug 2019

A blog by Deborah Long, LINK Chief Officer.

The challenges that we face as a planet are significant right now: natural challenges of climate change and biodiversity, and human made challenges of democracy, including Brexit and the aftermath of the American presidential election. If there is ever a time for sophisticated and methodical thinking, that time is now. With the complexity of natural systems, feedback loops and tipping points, the potential opportunities of a systems approach to these challenges become clear.

A systems thinking approach is not a new concept: it’s not even a human concept. Ecosystems operate in a systems approach. Systems thinking has become a vital tool for business and brings a more robust approach to decision making and action delivery.

However, a systems thinking approach is not yet being used effectively in national policy making. A systems approach to land management for example, would see stakeholder engagement being used to produce a national strategic plan, implemented by key stakeholders according to agreed and specific principles, supported by government and relevant legislation to deliver an overall clear and measurable objective with feedback loops and regular analysis to correct direction if needed. This should be how Scotland’s Land Use Strategy works: its issue is that it lacks specific principles and spatial tools that are consistently applied to land use decisions. The net result is that planning and development decisions are not being made strategically, and this is making the fragmentation of habitats, cost of national infrastructures and efficiency of spend even worse.

If we were to use systems thinking to address Scotland’s planning and land use dilemmas, it may look something like this:

What are our priorities to achieve from Scotland’s land?

  1. Increased renewable energy
  2. Healthy food accessible by all communities
  3. Efficient infrastructures including IT, transport and energy transmission
  4. Intelligently planned communities with full access to a healthy environment and the services they require, including schools, doctors, access to shops

What is the context of that?

  1. A country of just over 80,000 km2 of land
  2. A climate emergency that requires us to increase carbon sequestration and decrease the amount of energy we use
  3. A biodiversity emergency that is losing species through pressures of land use practices and climate change
  4. A country that is home to nearly 5 million people who all require a safe and healthy environment, access to healthy food, a living income and access to key services
  5. A country with the potential to be world leading in terms of environment, civic society and planetary responsibility.

How do we reconcile these needs?

Mapping: what resource do we have, where is it, where are the suppliers and where are the consumers?

Identifying and managing needs: how much of each do we need to function? How can we manage that level of need? How do we meet that need given the constraints identified in 1?

Who meets these needs? Who has these needs?

How do we make decisions?

Agreeing that these priorities must come first: every decision needs to be cross checked against each priority and scored: a negative impact on one of the priorities is marked down and a positive impact is marked up. For any decision to be carried, a significant contribution to at least one priority must be made and no negative impacts can be made. Conflicts will inevitably arise in this system: which is why communities need to be engaged – and independent experts need to be engaged. Both groups of stakeholders would be required to offer evidence of the impact of each decision and offer mitigation solutions.

Could we adopt system approach in Scottish policy making?

In theory we could. It requires the maturity of approach to involve a diversity of stakeholders: from local to national levels. We can only achieve this if stakeholders can engage and want to engage. They need access to decision making processes and accessible processes in terms of language and finances. Above all, however, this approach requires buy in and support from government and politicians. That level of support is not clear: is Scotland’s policy making process mature enough to be able to put this in place and achieve our priorities? The languishing status of the Land Use Strategy suggests not.


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