Ecosystems Thinking for Social Change

Ecosystem, or “system” thinking is not necessarily about ecology, but uses an ecological metaphor to explore the interconnectedness of various aspects of any system (Mars, Bronstein, & Lusch, 2014).  This is a critical skill for business organizations to aid strategy and innovation.  It is also an area where versatilists often shine, because versatilists are uniquely adept at taking deep knowledge from one system and applying it to their understanding of new systems, often leading to unique insights.  However, that is not what this blog is about.  This is about how a lack of systems thinking is trapping our society into repeating the same issues repeatedly.  This is about how electing people who comprehend systems thinking might be a better means of bringing about social change.

The Heart of Systems Thinking

At the heart of systems thinking is to keep in mind that no problem, no solution, no individual exists in a vacuum.  The whole world is a set of interrelated systems that influence and affect those around it; changes in one system ripple throughout our entire society.  Systems thinking involves attempting to understand and evaluate any problem or solution within the context of the bigger picture.

For instance, take constraint theory (Tulasi & Rao, 2012).  Constraint theory suggests that any system or process is constrained by the least capable or least efficient step in the system; this is often equated with the “weakest link” idea that a chain is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain.  The idea behind constraint theory, however, suggests that if you fortify the weakest link (solving that problem), you have simultaneously created a new “weakest link” (formerly, the next-to-weakest link).  In addition, the newer, stronger link may also have other unintended consequences (maybe by making it stronger, you have also made it bigger, which affects some other function).  In essence, the process to creating a stronger chain is a never-ending task as each solution has ramifications.

In systems thinking, you must evaluate how a solution to one problem may create a new problem or change the dynamics of another system.  This potential new problem must also be evaluated to determine if it is a bigger problem than the one you are attempting to solve, or makes the solution you have proposed untenable.  Problem solving, like creating a stronger chain, is a never-ending process.  However, the intended result is improving the overall whole, ensuring one solution doesn’t create a bigger problem somewhere else.

Unfortunately, without systems thinking, we are failing to create an overall better society, but are remaining mostly stationary.  Solutions examined and evaluated within a vacuum, create ripples that, instead of moving us forward, keep us in a constant state.

Examples of Non-Systems Thinking Challenges

The worst part of failing to apply systems thinking to the problems of our society, is when the same groups of people argue for two independent solutions, which are counterproductive; i.e., when the same group argues for one solution that aggravates another problem they are trying to solve and vice-versa.  It is important to understand that, in and of themselves, the proposed solutions may be perfectly good solutions; it is only when you combine the system effects that issue become apparent.  It is also important to note that this is not an analysis of the merits of any particular solution or point of view.  There is no intent to endorse or oppose any of the individual solutions, simply to illustrate the systems effects of those solutions.

Immigration Reform and Free Trade Agreements

By itself, building a border wall, while economically questionable, is a perfectly legitimate solution to preventing illegal immigration via our southern US borer.  It is not the only solution of course, but it is a possible solution.  We can debate this one way or the other, but even opponents must admit that it is a solution whether they agree it is the right one or not.

Similarly, eliminating or significantly reducing free trade, particularly with low-cost labor countries like Mexico is a legitimate solution to reducing job-loss in the US via off-shore outsourcing by US companies and keeping US investment in the US.  Again, not the only solution, but certainly one way to address the issue.  We can once again debate this, but it must be accepted that it is a solution.

However, when put together, these solutions are counter-productive.  By eliminating the ability for Mexico to continue to develop and build their economic capability (by granting them easy access to US markets and US investment), their standard of living will likely decline.  A decline in standard of living (loss of jobs and the income from it) only perpetuates the growth of illicit enterprises (e.g. drugs) as well as makes illegally emigrating to the US more attractive.  As such, from a systems perspective, reversing free trade agreements will likely compound the issue of illegal immigration, as well as drug smuggling and other issues.  This places even bigger demands on the needs of border protection and immigration control.  These are misaligned solutions from a systems perspective.

Welfare Reform and Birth Control

Another counterproductive combination of arguments is simultaneously arguing for reducing the US welfare system, while simultaneously arguing to eliminate birth control options, including sex education and access to safe abortions.  Again, in and of their own, each of these arguments are perfectly reasonable and can be understood.   Without applying personal judgements on them, they are reasonable goals and can be respected.  From a systems perspective however, these are not isolated issues or goals, they have complex interactions which makes arguing for both less reasonable.   The only logical result of limiting sex education and access to birth control measures is an increase in women and children within the welfare system.  It is illogical to argue for both actions, even if either one of them in isolation can at least be recognized as reasonable.

Cyber Security and Encryption Strength

Just this last week, there were two articles published.  The first one detailed how Russian hackers have been targeting the personal (non-government) cell phones of NATO soldiers to track, intimidate, and spy on them.  The second one detailed the Department of Justice (DoJ) pushing for US technology firms to make it easier for law enforcement to access the encrypted (personal) devices of accused criminals.  Again, arguing for improved safety and security of our personal information, particularly through strong encryption is a reasonable solution to rampant cyber crime.  It is also reasonable to argue that law enforcement should be able to access the information they need to convict criminals for breaking the law.  Unfortunately, you cannot reasonably argue for both as the one comes at the cost of the other.  Arguing that we need to better protect our personal information from thieves, while simultaneously arguing to hobble encryption for government access are mutually exclusive goals.

Understanding the Bigger Picture is Essential

Systems thinking requires us to look at the proposed solutions and understand their ultimate effects.  It asks us to better understand how seemingly separate systems interact and how changes in one creates ripple effects in others.  Besides allowing us to mediate between counter-productive arguments, systems thinking also provides an opportunity to discover new solutions.

By broadening our thinking, systems thinking allows us to uncover new solutions to old problems.  If we see how changes in one system can ripple into others, we can harness these ripples for positive change in our society.  It asks us to look at why things happen, at root causes, rather than addressing the ramifications or symptoms of those problems.  It allows us to explore how numerous problems in our society may be linked by ripple effects of similar issues we haven’t imagined.  For instance, could the rising costs of US health care (and its effects on treatment of mental health issues) be a progenitor of the rising threats of violence and recruitment of disaffected youth by terrorist organizations?   Could the antiquated US tax system be a progenitor of immigration challenges, job-loss through outsourcing, and increased income divisions?  Could US foreign policy be a bigger source of terrorist threats than religious extremism?  Systems thinking helps us see how solving one challenge may also have positive benefits on others.

Unfortunately, we do not look at problems as components in a unified system of systems, we tend to look at individual problems and argue solutions without thinking about the ramifications of those arguments.  We frequently miss the forest for the trees.  The effect is to leave us in a perpetual state of uncertainty, never moving society fully forward no matter how many problems we try to solve.  We never address the true source of the problem, only applying patches that don’t align and don’t solve the underlying problem.  We would all do better if we took a more holistic view of the problems we face, rather than reactively addressing symptoms.

 

References

Mars, M., Bronstein, J., & Lusch, R. (2014). Organizations as ecosystems: Probing the value of a metaphor. Rotman Management, 73–77.

Tulasi, C. L., & Rao, A. R. (2012). Review on theory of constraints. International Journal of Advances in Engineering & Technology, 3(1), 334–344. http://doi.org/10.2307/25148735

 

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