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We need more system practice

We all live in a complex world and are attached to so many things at the same time, let alone social issues. A problem is caused not only by a single reason, but it also mingled with so many aspects from the inside to outside, from the width to length. So we have to embrace the complexity and bear it in mind that we need to tackle it wisely, otherwise, one system may affect others and the whole thing could even make the issue worse than it was before.

Let’s go back to the island of Kiribati, in the middle of the Pacific. For generations, the people of Kiribati survived by harvesting coconuts and fishing in the coastal waters. However, in 2004, government officials and aid workers began to realize that the tropical reefs of the island were become severely overfished. In an effort to stave off this overfishing, an aid agency teamed up with the local government and designed a seemingly creative and logical program. They hypothesized that if they used international aid dollars to subsidize coconut farming then local people would be incentivized to farm coconuts instead of fish and this would preserve the fish population and increase the incomes of the islanders leading them to have more stable and prosperous lives. It seemed like a win-win situation! More income for local people and less fishing! Yet, within a few years, fishing increased by 33% and the fish population had declined by 17%. It turned out that when people could make more money from coconut farming, they also had more leisure time. And because they found fishing an enjoyable pastime, they spent more time casting their nets. They even bought more sophisticated fishing equipment with their newfound prosperity, increasing their daily catches and depleting the local ecosystem. Inadvertently, the aid agency and the government had actually deepened the crisis instead of resolving it.- Story extracted from Acumen.

Credit to Acumen

Things could happen anywhere like what happened for Kiribati local people, at one time, you intended to solve problem A, but it turns out that A is failed while B or C and D problems come out at the end. So how to prevent similar things happened in the field and what is the system? In a nutshell, the system combined with several focal elements, while elements tangled with sub-elements in a different relationship, and all live in one bigger system. Complex systems are characterized by nonlinearity, that’s why it makes them so beautiful and attractive, while difficult to solve.

“The problems facing today’s world—
global poverty, disease, climate change
– are more complex than ever before
and solutions require interdisciplinary
thinking and cross-sector
collaboration.”

-Bret Anders,
Brown University

The system practice is a way to face complexity, it helps you to predict and act more strategically. Nevertheless, the system is always changing, so it is not realistic to think that you will ever reach the point, we could only try to understand and predict it. In the system, the problem is not the only thing we need to see but also patterns, cause patterns help you to find the regulation. Last but not least, the best practice is to make the system change itself by any efforts instead of forcing it.

As mentioned above that system has so many elements, so how to define it? Some experts classified them into 1. Structural: refers to the physical and social environment where people live; 2. Attitudinal: refers to widely held beliefs, values, norms and intergroup relations that affect how large groups of people think and behave; 3. Transactional: refers to the processes used by and interactions among key people (leaders at all levels) as they deal with important social, political and economic issues (important negotiations, violence, problem-solving, influence, leadership). A hint that all those elements you find need strong or at least looks strong evidence to support it. I strongly support evidence-based practice, evidence leads to the fact. Once you find those important elements in the system, then the next thing is to find where you could act to make things change, but please remember that we could not create leverage ourselves. However, we can find areas of leverage that exist in the system and use it to nudge the system to ultimately help it change itself.

Example of system analysis

No one could avoid problems in life, especially social problems. It involved the population, the policy, the economy, the environment, the private sectors and etc, we need to bear the system practice in mind, in order us to think in a way that nature does rather than linearly and find the final place where you could leverage the system and make it forward to change.

This article was edited by the original author without their consent, and should not be reproduced.

By Social Innovation Insight

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