The Green Urbanist

#23: Systems Thinking - An Intro for Climate Action in Cities

June 16, 2021
The Green Urbanist
#23: Systems Thinking - An Intro for Climate Action in Cities
Show Notes Transcript

An introduction to the concept of Systems Thinking and how it is essential for understanding and taking action on climate change.  This episode is inspired by the book Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows. It covers:

  • What is Systems Thinking?
  • How to get started thinking in systems
  • System structure - stocks, flows and loops
  • Leverage points for changing systems

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A few months ago, my friend Adam in Dublin sent me a book. Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows. It's one of those few books you read throughout life that can totally change how you look at the world and how you think about things. I have since gotten really obsessed with the potential for systems thinking to provide clarity and direction for doing what this podcast is all about: fighting climate change and creating happier, healthier cities.

I'm still only at the beginning of my journey in Systems Thinking - it's a vast field. But it's something that I have already touched on in earlier episodes without necessarily having the vocabulary around it. And I will definitely be weaving it in to future podcast episodes, so I thought it would be a good idea to provide an introduction to Systems Thinking so you listening can get to grips with the basics and start using it in a practical way.

Reductionist vs Systems Thinking

To explain Systems Thinking it's useful to compare it to what you could call Reductionist Thinking. Reductionist Thinking is the bedrock of the western scientific method. It's about breaking things down into distinct elements and studying them in isolation. This approach is incredibly useful and has given us amazing advances in all scientific fields from physics to medicine to psychology.

However, for dealing with incredibly complex interconnected problems like climate change and urbanism, reductionist thinking will only get you so far. This is where Systems Thinking comes in.

A system is a set of things interacting in a way that produces something greater than the sum of its parts.

And so Systems Thinking is just a way of analysing the world around us, not as lots of isolated objects, but looking at how everything interacts together and affects each other.

All of you listening can probably identify lots of systems right now. Here are a few examples. All living organisms are systems.

A city is a very large system and it's made up of lots of other systems nested within it like a transport system, drainage system. Even individual buildings are systems.

Also consider non-physical systems like organisations of people, political systems, economic systems.

So is everything a system? Well not quite. Donella Meadows writes that a system requires three things: elements, interconnections and a function or purpose. For instance, a tree is made of individual elements like leaves, roots and bark, which are all interconnected to serve the purpose of growth and life. But some sand scattered on a road is not a system. It has elements - grains of sand - but no interconnections or purpose. You can add or take away sand and it's still just sand on a road, not a system.

Meadows uses the example of an old city neighbourhood where people know their neighbours and interact with each other being a social system. In contrast, a new apartment building where nobody knows or speaks to each other is not a social system. It's just a bunch of people living in close proximity. But it has potential to become a complex social system in time.

You might think this is pretty obvious. And actually it is common sense to an extent. But when you start analysing how systems work, you find that they are often surprising and don't behave how you expect them to initially. You would also be surprised how often people doggedly ignore the systems around them and carry on as if the world was simple.

As we are at this pivotal moment for taking action on climate change we can't afford to be side tracked by overly simplistic, poorly though through and reductionist solutions. We need to somehow get our heads around the vast complexity of the global climate system, how that interacts with our economic systems and cultural norms, our health and social equality. And then we need to figure out solutions. Not just one solution. We need hundreds of innovations and tweaks across multiple scales and industries. And very quickly.

That's why Systems Thinking is such an important skill for us to consider.

In fact, it is argued that a systems perspective is necessary to understand climate change and take it seriously. A 2018 study from Yale surveyed 1,058 US adults and found "that people who score higher on systems thinking are consistently more likely than those who score lower to understand global warming is happening and human-caused, and to worry about it, view it as a serious threat, value it as a personally important issue, and understand that most climate scientists think human-caused global warming is happening."

Get Started with Systems Thinking

I want to share some of the key lessons that I have learned about Systems Thinking as a starting point to help you use a systems perspective. This is kind of my top five tips for getting started in systems thinking.

1 Systems Transcend Boundaries

Number 1, Systems transcend boundaries. We all tend to work within geographical boundaries, political boundaries and professional boundaries. But systems don't care about that. Take for example a river. The river in your city is flooding. So you build a local flood defence. This keeps the water within its channel as it flows through your city. But that water gets pushed downstream into another settlement and causes even worse flooding there. That's why rivers are managed not on the local authority level, but on the catchment level, taking into account their whole length.

Often large cities are split up into many local government areas that are all managed separately. This can cause problems when one borough or precinct acts as if it is in competition with another or when they take very different approaches to the same challenge, like delivering housing or cycle lanes. That's why most large cities like London have another overarching authority like the Mayor, to ensure that there is at least some level of consistency and shared purpose across the many political boundaries. How successful that is in any given city is another question.

But systems also transcend our professional boundaries. The likelihood of flooding is affected by development patterns, drainage infrastructure, green space, urban design, architecture, and lots of other disciplines that don’t neatly fall into one profession’s remit.

2 Acknowledge your Limited Mindset

This ties into point two, which is to Acknowledge your limited mindset. We all view the world through a particular lens. We are not objective. And we have lots of blindspots and gaps in our knowledge. We can't be experts in everything. This makes analysing systems difficult because they are so interdisciplinary.

To address climate change in cities we need the perspectives and skill sets of architects, planners, ecologists, economists, entrepreneurs and lots of other people working together to find collaborative solutions. So if we can acknowledge where our limitations are, that can actually be a strength because we then know who we have to go to for help. Open collaboration, communication and a willingness to learn and change our minds are essential to thinking in systems.

3 Put Everything into Context

Often you will see people arguing over little bits of data like retrofitting a building is less carbon intensive than new build, so we should always retrofit, end of discussion. Or beef has a higher carbon footprint than lentils, so if you're not living on lentil soup, you're not a real environmentalist.

It's vital that we put these figures and assumptions into their real world context. So let's take the example of tree planting.

Everyone says that planting trees is one of the best things we can do to sequester carbon and fight climate change.

But the next question is - what tree and where are you planting it? Because that context is so important and makes the difference between a net positive or negative impact.

For instance, the Irish government, as part of their climate response, is planting thousands of sitka spruce trees in monoculture plantations. These trees grow well in Ireland and absorb a lot of carbon. But that's about it for good news. This is a North American tree that is not native to Ireland. It does not build biodiversity because none of the native wildlife is adapted to it and these are monocultures that are fragile to pests and storms. They also causes acidification of the soils and nearby watercourses. What's more it is facing huge local opposition because people do not feel that these are aesthetically or culturally appropriate for their local context.

Compare that to a mixed, native forest that you've been in. These are teeming with life and generally well loved and protected by local people.

So in this context, planting trees may be absorbing carbon but it is having lots of other negative impacts.

There are no one sized fits all solutions for climate change. Everything needs to be put into context. You can apply this principle to architecture, to food, to economics. Everything is context specific.

4 Consider System Behaviour

Systems can sometimes seem to have a mind of their own in that they exhibit behaviours that are a result of their structure. They do this even when we expect or wish them to would do something else.

Meadows says that understanding the historical behavior of a system is a good starting point for predicting future behavior. That's why when discussing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere or global temperatures, we always out it in context of the data from the last 100 years, or even the last 10,000 years. Without understanding the past behavior of the global climate, our current data points are meaningless.

But let's look at a more opaque example. For instance, we may wonder why is it that people still drive combustion engine vehicles so much even after years of information about how bad they are for the environment, even after incentives like discounting bus fares or bicycles, and even after disincentives like congestion charging or parking charges. People will still get in their car as a first option rather than take a more sustainable mode.

Perhaps the reason is because our cities and our transport systems incentivise the behaviour of driving. By providing lots of road space, direct routes, parking, cheap fossil fuels and a lack of attractive alternatives, the underlying system behaviour is to encourage people to drive their cars, so of course they do.

5 Three Pillars of Sustainability

The final point is specific to sustainability and is an addition of my own, rather than coming from Donella Meadows. You've all heard of the three pillars of sustainability, which is the environment, society and the economy. I've used this in previous episodes as a framing tool to structure my thinking and to remind us that sustainability is not just about greenhouse gas emissions. We also need to work towards a more equal society and ensure everyone can be healthy and fulfilled. And we need an economy that can be sustained into the future to support us. Whenever you are considering issues around climate change, remind yourself of the three pillars and it will instantly get you thinking bigger and in a more systematic way.

However, at this point, the notion of three pillars is actually quite old. It originated in the United Nations 1987 Brundtland Report and at this point it is starting to feel a bit dated. More recently, many people have been arguing that there is in fact a fourth pillar. The World Organisation of United Cities and Local Governments has put forward the idea that Culture is the fourth pillar, arguing that sustainability also means the preservation and celebration of local indigenous cultures, arts and creativity. They say,

'The world is not only facing economic, social, or environmental challenges. Creativity, knowledge, diversity, and beauty are the unavoidable bases for dialogue for peace and progress as these values are intrinsically connected to human development and freedoms.'

System Structure

We should take a moment here to think about how systems are structured. Systems Thinkers like Donella Meadows use lots of ways to visualise systems - and it's best done with a pen and paper. If you want to dive deeper into this topic, I recommend you pick up a book on the topic, which includes illustrations. There are also great web resources like climate interactive dot org.

But as a starting point, you can think about systems very simply as being a combination of stocks and flows. A stock is a store, a quantity, an accumulation of something, whatever is the subject of the System we are looking at. Then there are in-flows, which add to stocks and outflows, which reduce stocks. Let's put this into context of something we talk about a lot: global average temperature. In our simple systems model, the average temperature is the stock, which at the moment is about 1.3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels The main inflow of course is greenhouse gas released from burning fossil fuels. And the outflow is the amount of greenhouse gases that get reabsorbed into the Earth's soils, forests and oceans. The rate of inflow far exceeds the ability of the outflow to absorb greenhouse gases and so the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has increased year on year, leading to global temperate increase.

Now, let's make the system model a bit more complex and consider reinforcing and balancing loops. A reinforcing loops causes something to grow exponentially and a balancing loops, as the name suggests, keeps everything in balance. There are tons of examples of each, when it comes to climate change, many of which are still surprising us.

There's a great article on the website that explains examples of these loops. Here is one reinforcing loop they call:

"Arctic Methane and Carbon: The Time Bomb in the Soil

In the Arctic, methane and carbon can be found in permafrost, as well as in frozen peat bogs and under sediment on the sea floor. As these bogs and permafrost thaw thanks to climate change, the methane and carbon within are released into the atmosphere, adding yet more GHGs that can lead to further global warming. More warming results in more permafrost loss, adding yet more GHGs to the atmosphere to create even more warming and more melting permafrost, and on and on.

Given that frozen Arctic soil holds an estimated 1,460 to 1,600 billion tons of trapped carbon – almost twice the amount of GHGs currently in the atmosphere – scientists are deeply concerned about the unprecedented warming in the region and what it could mean for global efforts to halt rising temperatures."

There are many of these reinforcing loops in the climate system, which means that if we keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we run the risk of creating run away global heating, by kickstarting effects beyond our control.

Balancing loops on the other hand create a virtuous circle that keep emissions and global warming in check. We are all as a society going through a balancing loop right now. In the last few years, we have seen unprecedented wildfires, heatwaves, floods and hurricanes. Seeing and experiencing these climate change fueled natural disasters have caused people to demand action from governments and organisations on climate change. As we see more of the effects of climate change, we will see more public support and pressure for serious action to curtail it. That's a balancing loop. However, the question is, is it enough to save us? Likely we will have to step in to the system and create new balancing loops. For instance, many people believe that a carbon price, where polluters need to pay depending on how much they emit, could have a profound effect on reducing carbon emissions, by adding a balancing loop where currently there is none.

If you look at any kind of system, from a building, to an ecosystem, you will find stocks, flows, and feedback loops like these. They are the building blocks for creating mental models of systems and figuring out how they work and how we can successfully change systems when necessary.

Reinforcing and balancing feedback loops are powerful leverage points within systems for enacting change. But they are not the only ones.

In her book Thinking in Systems, Donella Meandows goes through a list of potential leverage points within systems, counting down from the least effective to the most effective. You might be surprised to learn that the flows, the quantity of the things moving through a system are the least effective points of leverage. In our climate system, that means the amount of greenhouse gas being emitted and reabsorbed. How can this be? Surely that's the most important thing? But actually, if you only focus on adjusting the flows, you are really making small changes without changing the underlying system. Yes, we can plant forests to absorb CO2, but that doesn't change the fact that our economic system is rewarding fossil fuel extraction. Carbon sequestration may slow the rate of climate change but it won't stop or reverse it, not without some other major interventions to the system structure.

So let's look further up Meadows' list of interventions to the really good ones. Number three on the list is Goals, the purpose or function of the system. The author says that changing the goals of a system can have profound effects on its behaviour. This is something that Kate Raworth explores in her book Doughnut Economics, which puts forward a new economic model for the 21st century. She says to make the economy work for us: "First, change the goal. For over 70 years economics has been fixated on GDP, or national output, as its primary measure of progress. That fixation has been used to justify extreme inequalities of income and wealth coupled with unprecedented destruction of the living world. For the twenty-first century a far bigger goal is needed: meeting the human rights of every person within the means of our life-giving planet"

She goes on to say, "Today we have economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive: what we need are economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow. That radical flip in perspective invites us to become agnostic about growth, and to explore how economies that are currently financially, politically and socially addicted to growth could learn to live with or without it."

The second highest leverage point on the list is Paradigms - the mindset out of which the system, its goals, structure, rules, delays, arises. Meadows writes: (insert quote)

One paradigm shift that has helped me is the idea that climate action is actually a huge opportunity to improve our health, wellbeing and quality of lives.

For decades, the mainstream paradigm around the climate crisis has been one of sacrifice. We've been telling people that it is their lifestyles, overconsumption, travel habits and diet that is the problem. And that to save ourselves from catastrophe, we all need to make sacrifices. We must drastically scale back all the enjoyable things in life in the name of reducing our carbon footprints.

There are two problems with this narrative. Firstly, it's not particularly motivating. It doesn't inspire people people to take action and clearly it has failed to enact real change over the years. Secondly, this perspective misses out on one simple but crucial fact - our modern, western lifestyles are actually not that great. In Britain, we are in the midst of several mental and physical health crises, and I'm not even talking about Covid-19 here, rising inequality, a housing shortage, failing town centres and an acknowledged lack of beauty in our built environments. We could in theory, reach carbon zero without solving any of these issues.

All of this is to say that taking action on climate change doesn't have to be a sacrifice, it can actually be a huge opportunity. An opportunity to address many of our other problems as well. That is now my paradigm. It won't change the world but if we can have these discussions and start questioning the paradigms we live in, then we may just achieve enough of a paradigm shift to realign our systems towards a better future.

The top intervention point on this list is a bit of a thought experiment - it is the ability to Transcend Paradigms. 

In the end, Meadows invites us to stay flexible with our approach and stay humble. Even those that have studied systems for decades can still make mistakes in identifying correct intervention points. Be open to trial and error. Be open to testing things and changing course when necessary.

What I've shared today is really just scratching the surface. If you want to learn more about Systems Thinking, there are links in the episode description for more resources.