Ison, R., Grant, A., Iaquinto, B., Floyd, J., Sposito, V., & Faggian, R., 2010, Conceptual and methodological opportunities for the Victorian DPI with systems thinking and practice, Final Report (Phase One). Monash Sustainability Institute Report 10/5, Melbourne.


Executive Summary

“Systems thinking by itself cannot bridge that gap (between understanding and action), but it can lead us to the edge of what analysis can do and then point beyond – to what can and must be done by the human spirit.” (Meadows, 2008)

Main findings and recommendations

1. DPI (FFSRD) is well positioned to provide much needed strategic and operational leadership in building systems thinking and practice capability within the public sector. This need is increasingly recognised particularly in the light of intractable public policy issues like climate change adaptation (CCA).

2. The greatest opportunities available to FFSRD based on Systems approaches are:

2.1. introducing appropriate Systems approaches into project development and management;

2.2. strengthening DPI’s commitment to developing and sustaining CoPs (communities of practice) as pivotal sites for knowledge brokering;

2.3. enabling work teams, including the senior management team, to engage in Systems capability building workshops in which real-time complex issues are worked with;

2.4. managing so as to avoid constraining Systems to “project silos” i.e. conceptualising Systems as a cross-cutting theme across all or many projects;

2.5. to experiment with different methods so that FFSRD can build better stakeholding amongst key constituencies and thus better secure its strategic objectives;

2.6. to recognise the changing political and practical needs of regional Australia and the systemic nature of these issues so as to further develop DPI‘s Systems science capabilities for dealing with local and regional CCA responses.

3. Systems approaches (e.g. causal loop mapping) were able to effectively demonstrate how some past DPI research objectives had led to unintended consequences for anticipated beneficiaries. The opportunity exists for using systems approaches ex poste and ex ante to reduce the risk of systemic failure or unintended, “surprise” outcomes as part of future project and program management;

4. The research established that there was limited conceptual integration of CCA research despite the good intentions of the researchers and directors:

4.1. It is recommended that DPI (FFSRD) pay more attention in program and project development to critically examining the “initial starting conditions,” frames used by different stakeholders and the potential unintended consequences of “pathway dependency.” These are all concepts of concern to systems theorists and practitioners and have been shown to impact on what DPI does.

4.2. In complex systems, the sensitivity of innovations to initial starting conditions is now well known. Path dependence explains how the set of decisions that are faced for any given circumstance is limited by the decisions made in the past, even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant. DPI needs to explore how “path dependence” constrains innovation and achieving joined-up government.

4.3. The research revealed no explicit understanding of what a future farming operation that was well adapted might actually look like. It was apparent that people were working within highly uncertain contexts and understanding of needed skills and capabilities was evolving out of the context in which the climate change issues were being framed (i.e., highly sensitive to initial framings).

5. The “problem of climate change” is perceived by interviewees (research managers) to be much bigger than research is able to address. There are issues in connecting up research activity to those with knowledge needs so as to increase the rate of knowledge exchange and expedite the processes of change required to accommodate anticipated changes in climate. Clearly Systems approaches offer potential advantages in such a situation.

6. DPI could benefit from adopting a set of systems practice guidelines in ongoing strategic management and especially project formulation and evaluation. Donella Meadows, of Club of Rome fame, an internationally recognised systems thinker and practitioner offered a useful starting set of nine key systemic concerns for managing in complex situations. This list, adapted to context, could be usefully applied to all projects and programs in both conception and evaluation phases:1

(9) Numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards)

(8) Material stocks and flows

(7) Regulating negative feedback loops

(6) Driving positive feedback loops.

(5) Information flows

(4) The rules of the system (incentives, punishment, constraints)

(3) The power of self-organization

(2) The goals (or purpose) of the system

(1) The mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise

7. Examples of how particular Systems approaches could be utilised in an everyday, practical manner within FFSRD are reported. However it will not be possible for DPI (FFSRD) to use such approaches without investment in capability building amongst the senior FFSRD team accompanied by high level championing of the initiative.

8. This synthesis report includes an extended Executive Summary and Chapters 1 and 7 from the final report. The remainder of the executive summary highlights the main elements of each chapter in the final report.

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