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Why Systems Thinking is a Vital Pillar of Development Education.

by Paul Crewe on the 20/12/2018

In late November, I had the pleasure of representing Development Perspectives on a training course in Florence, Italy as part of a project which explored global education in the context of European youth work known as ‘Youth of the World’. During this project, I facilitated a workshop on ‘Systems Thinking’ to 25 energetic and inspirational young people from Ireland, Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria and Portugal. The following article is inspired by this workshop and serves to explain systems thinking in basic terms and its implications for development.

What is Systems Thinking?

I remember my first experience of being introduced to the idea of systems thinking. Some of the advanced theory on it was head-exploding stuff and even now I usually revert to the same distant look on my face when trying to grasp it.

However, at its essence lies a very simple message in the context of development and development education. That is, we live in a world which is made up of many systems which are complex in nature and that these systems are interdependent and interconnected. Examples of systems include eco-systems, political systems, mechanical systems, and health systems. Specifically these systems include the Irish education system, an airplane, the internet, your family unit and the human body. The planet we live on is bigger than all of the aforementioned ones as it contains these complex systems within its boundaries.

Systems thinking theory suggests that all of the parts within a system are connected which means that when one part changes (or moves), other parts compensate for this change in a variety of ways. For the sake of this particular example, I will use the human body (because apparently we all have one). If a person were to have Alzheimer’s disease, the disease itself will cause degeneration of brain tissue and nerve cells which means that it will not send messages to other parts of the body as efficiently. This change will be compensated for by other parts of the body with results which include reduced cognitive function, decreased mobility and poorer short-term memory.

The above example is, perhaps, an obvious one. However, within many complex systems, the change and following compensation are not so easy to identify. Despite threatening to hang my boots up a long time ago, I still try to play GAA with my local club now and again. Anyone who has played will know that injuries and subsequent trips to the physiotherapist are inevitable. My last visit demonstrates a situation where the change and compensation in a system were not so easy to identify (well, at least not for my untrained eye). I had spent 4 weeks dealing with intense ankle pain after all training sessions and games. It had gotten to the point that after games it was difficult to walk or even drive my car home. I visited the club physio with the expectation that I would face some time on the sidelines or be prescribed some activities to strengthen the area around my ankle. I was wrong. The physio told me that the problem began at my lower torso and suggested core strengthening exercises to relieve the ankle pain. Thankfully, the diagnosis was correct and the ankle problems soon disappeared. This was a clear experience for me where basic cause and effect principles had made me think that the solution was simple -


However, the system in which the problem occurred was complex and required deeper analysis. Thankfully, an expert eye was able to identify a connection between parts of the body that was not obvious to untrained eyes.

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Implications of Systems Thinking for Development Education:

On Development Perspectives’ SDG Advocate Programme, when introducing development education to our participants, we mention 4 key pillars. As mentioned previously, systems thinking is one of these pillars along with critical thinking, problem-solving and active citizenship. It is my belief that systems thinking has strong implications for the other three pillars.

Let us look at critical thinking for example. Remembering the basic principles of systems thinking will assist critical examination of issues in development. Migration is perhaps one of the defining issues of our times. Much of the commentary on this issue is fundamentally flawed and lacks a critical eye because it does not look at its complexities. How many commentators mention global power structures? How many mention climate change? Once again, these ideas may not immediately seem to be linked to mass migration. But, upon critical examination, they are often the root cause of the problem.

And, the implications of systems thinking on problem-solving are just as significant. During my systems thinking workshop in Florence, I facilitated an experiential activity which firstly, attempted to solve a problem using a traditional linear problem-solving approach and, secondly, using a systems thinking approach. The systems thinking approach proved a lot more successful in a number of ways. The end result was slightly better but, crucially the time taken to complete the task was significantly improved (almost ten times faster). Maybe the most important feature of all was that each member of the group was actively involved in the solution to the problem using the systems thinking approach. In the traditional approach, the group elected the three best problem solvers to solve the problem.

This leads on nicely to the final pillar of active citizenship and probably the key reflection after the workshop in Florence. In Ireland, we are luckier than most states in regards to the rights we are allowed. We are quite aware of these rights and we exercise them on a regular basis. However, we maybe are less aware of our responsibilities as citizens. This is forgivable. After all, there is no UN Declaration of Human Responsibilities for us to use as a guideline. Exercising these responsibilities is of equal importance. What are these responsibilities? I will leave that up to each individual reader to decide. However, I will say that it goes far beyond casting a vote in an election. The basic message that systems thinking delivers in relation to addressing complex development issues is that we can’t just leave the solution to a small number of elected officials, policy makers or NGO workers. Everyone has the potential to contribute positively and negatively to addressing these problems. Most people feel so overwhelmed that they do not bother trying because in their eyes they wonder “What possible difference can one person make?” If you are feeling similarly as you read this my response is: “What made more of a difference to improving civil rights in the United States during the struggle in the 50s and 60s, the US government or a small, African American lady who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama?”

Systems thinking is a big deal, not only in development education but in all of our lived lives. This article only provides a taste of the concept so I encourage you to take the responsibility of finding out more about it for yourself.

More info:
Systems Thinking:
Systems Thinking For Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results by David Peter Stroh
The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi

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