Everything you wanted to know about systems thinking, but were too afraid to ask!

by | Feb 18, 2019 | Harold Lockwood, Knowledge communication, Latest

Maybe you’ve heard about ‘systems thinking’ or taking a ‘systems-based approach’, but don’t really know what to make of it? March is almost here and the IRC 50th anniversary symposium is almost upon us, putting systems thinking front and center of the conversation for WASH practitioners and policy makers, but what does it all really mean?

You can read about the theory and where systems-based approaches originated, and you can get caught up in all the software and programmes that can produce amazing and groovy maps of the organisations and relationships that make up a system, but I like to try and see this all from a lay-person’s perspective.

Which is say that life is complicated and that we probably only really think about a system when it doesn’t work – like, say when the lights go off at home or the train is cancelled and you can’t travel when you wanted to. Most people’s reaction – myself included – is to get irritated and complain. We don’t generally think about the series of events, decisions and things that need to be in place and be working properly that sit behind the supply of electricity to our house or the train appearing at our station. But of course, those systems do exist – they are made up of power plants and transmission lines, of tracks and rolling stock, that in turn need technical experts and drivers and managers to keep them running; these people also require constant training and oversight. The trains and power plants need constant up-grading and innovation in technology, which relies on research and development. In turn the companies that run the utilities and railways, be they private or public, also require things like access to financing and investors; they rely on laws and legislation that tells them what they can and can’t do, and they have to be regulated to provide the right services, to protect the rights of their customers and to not damage the environment. This in turn requires well-functioning government ministries who can write clear policies and parliaments that can pass acts that sets the rules of the game for the operators and to establish independent regulators. As well as all of this, there are private investors who are looking to make money from buying shares in the companies that provide the services and are looking to profit from the income, regardless of the need to keep re-investing in new stock and infrastructure and equipment. Unless there are rules in place to stop them, most investors will look to extract short-term profit for the benefit of their shareholders, rather than plough it back into the businesses they may own a stake in. Sometimes, the people that own the shares, also know the people in parliament, and sometimes they have a quiet word about changing the rules of the game.

All of this – all of the above – is the system.

So, this is a round-about way to say, just take a moment to think about all of the people and things that need to be in place and working together to keep the lights on …… and the water flowing and the human waste being carried away and treated safely.

And back to WASH systems thinking and the All Systems Go symposium. I keep asking myself what will this mean for people who actually live and work in these WASH systems day in and day out? People who I know in different countries around the world – in technical ministries, regulators, in local government, in universities, in NGOs, in the private sector and all those end users. How will they benefit from these discussions about systems and what will this symposium do for them? Don’t they know life is complicated enough? Or is this all just a new paradigm, the next development solution for the WASH sector, the latest in a long line of new approaches that have been tried down the years? An alphabet soup of VLOM, PHAST, DRAs, CBMs, CLST, SDA and SWAps?

To be honest, I don’t know the answer to these questions, but in the end I think that probably we – that is the international WASH development community – will be the main consumers of the symposium, at least in the first instance. But the one thing I have learned down the years, is that if we think that by providing a one-off input, or a study or a programme design or a one-time investment, that we are going to somehow ’solve the problem’ we are sadly misguided and certainly blind to the complexity and the need to stick at a process. At the heart of much of this complexity are people. And full disclosure here – as co-author of the background paper for the All Systems Go symposium – I do think that accepting this messiness, this complexity and trying to work within it is the only starting point in making a meaningful contribution to ‘changing the system’ for the better. In the end, of course we will see that such systems change is in fact endless, so if through this symposium we can all do our part to shine a light on the need to understand WASH systems, we will have done something to help push the sector forward.

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