Should ‘Systems Thinking’ be the way governments create policies?

We literally stand on the precipice of a new epoch: the age of the anthropocene. The earth has had a fairly steady climate for many centuries while we were in the geographical age of the Holocene, but more recently climate change, species extinction, rising carbon emissions, soil depletion are all significant factors as science predicts we have possibly already entered the age of the anthropocene.  The anthropocene is the new geological age where human activity is having a significant influence on the earth’s climate and environment, leaving a trail of consequences as we move into its unchartered waters. 

As we contemplate the events of 2020, we begin to realise that the human disregard for the environment and the animal kingdom may have contributed to the global pandemic. Are we finally beginning to understand that our lives do indeed have an impact and in a small but significant way, we are all responsible for the onset of Covid19.

I was introduced to the idea of ‘Systems Thinking’ while studying for a post grad in Social Innovation. What struck me about the approach for systems thinking is that it is so simple. We’re all so used to systems that we don’t even think about them anymore. We just know when we interact with a system, it does what we want it to do and we only really take notice when it doesn’t work.

Systems thinking is a way of looking at the world and understanding that things don’t happen in isolation, they happen as part of a larger system. And often symptoms are indicators that something is going or has gone wrong with the system at some stage. To understand how to affect a part of the system, we must firstly understand what it is, who is involved and the relationships between the interconnecting parts. 

If we take the human body and think of it as a system, we have the heart, the brain, the lungs, the blood flow, the skeletal frame etc. We understand that in order for the human body to work, it needs all of its parts to be functioning. The body will not function well with a missing organ or no blood. We can repeat this process with any system. We can map the interconnecting parts and we can see where the system is failing or malfunctioning. 

Let’s consider systems that don’t work. In the book by Peter Stroh, ‘Systems Thinking For Social Change’ we learn:

Food Aid increases starvation

Homeless shelters perpetuate homelessness

Job training programmes increase unemployment

Stroh comments, ‘what is going on here? Why do seemingly well-intentioned policies produce the opposite of what they are supposed to accomplish?’ Stroh goes on to describe problem solving that addresses symptoms rather than tacking the underlying problems. ‘Often the solutions are geared towards short- term results that can be undermined by the long- term gains. Problems produce unintentional consequences and we can be lead to think someone else is responsible for their reoccurrence’. 

Thinking in systems is not a new phenomenon and it is believed dates back to Vedic philosophy in ancient India, some 10,000 years ago.Since the industrial revolution, post-modern society has evolved to rely heavily on mechanised production methods. The work of man is to know one thing very well but rarely does he/she get to see the whole of the system. Karl Marx argued that workers were required to give less and less of themselves in the workplace with assembly line production, thus losing the satisfaction gained by creating a whole. The work of humans has been commoditised and is reflected in so many ways especially within big corporations and the emergence of the gig economy, which Marx predicted some 150 years ago.                       

Societies complex problems

Homelessness is a persistent societal issue that has proven difficult to solve. In a report by Shelter, an estimated 280,000 people in the UK in 2019 were homeless, with the majority living in temporary accommodation.  More than 60% of these people were in London with 1 in every 52 were sleeping on the streets.  The increase in figures is largely associated with the introduction of universal credit, lack of available social housing, spiralling housing costs and austerity measures. If a person/family presents as homeless in the UK, the local authority will most likely recommend temporary accommodation, night shelters or hostels. But often there is little beyond this, with social housing already in high demand, what was meant to be a short-term solution has the potential to turn in a long-term nightmare.  Families and individuals can end up stuck in temporary accommodation for years.  

Can a systems thinking approach help solve homelessness? 

Finland is the only country in the EU where homelessness is falling. Its approach is simple: give homeless people homes as soon as they need them without conditions.  The local government in Helsinki worked with a housing charity to take a new approach to tackling the cities growing homelessness problem. The approach was simple: provide people with secure homes, thus making it easier for them to integrate back into society with additional support provided. So far the initiative has been a success.  There are outlay costs which involve building more houses and hiring support workers, but what the city of Helsinki has found is that for every homeless person now housed, the city saves around £15,000 on average per year per person. By giving homeless people homes, the city has cut down on costs associated with their long-term issues that range from mental and physical health, drug abuse and crime. The cities approach to homelessness is being piloted by a number of other European cities including Manchester in the UK. 

The approach Helsinki has taken is a systems thinking approach to homelessness. The intervention point has come at the point of someone needing a home, being given a secure home and thus providing support to help the person/family integrate back into society.  What the approach has done is mitigate additional costs associated with long-term homelessness, which are often multi layered. 

Lord John Bird, elected member of the House of Lords and founder of The Big Issue, in a recent interview relayed insights into the government policy of austerity, following the 2008 economic collapse. He stated, after 8 years of austerity and cuts to public funding, the actual savings made by the government were less than 2%.  Austerity was a factor in increasing homelessness, poverty, teenage pregnancies, crime, domestic abuse and household debt. 

All of this has a knock on effect felt within the health care, social care, policing, school systems and additional pressure on local authorities. 

We must ask ourselves, if the polices government think are right for ‘cutting back’, do these policies actually work?  And are they government looking at policy making in the right way? If the gain is short term, who loses out eventually?

Systems thinking offers a framework for which problem solving can be achieved through mapping stakeholders and seeing the wider perspective. This means that when we take a systems perspective on problems we see: 

– The bigger picture

– We learn of multiple perspectives 

– We try to understand how things are related

– We look for root causes

We challenge current thinking on the same subject or problem 

Why does systems thinking work?

A systems thinking approach to problem solving lets us see if the solution is actually in the right place.  Once a policy is implemented, we need to look at the unintended consequences. We need to test and reiterating the policy, creating intervention points for feedback and testing again. Overall, the approach has the ability to save time, save money, save energy, save resources and save lives. Isn’t it about time we start to question polices and demand more from our policy makers?