All the one-pagers in this section are based on
Clayton AMH and Radcliffe NJ (1996)
Sustainability - a systems approach;
Earthscan: ISBN 1 85383 3193
It was common in the past that when development projects ended they also collapsed. It is not thus surprising to hear the call for development interventions to be sustainable.
Most development interventions are channelled through organisations within local social systems - mainly through government but increasingly through NGOs. This being the case it is useful to consider the nature of systems and the history of the systems thinking which, known to them or not, pervades the thinking of most development professionals.
This collection of one-pagers covers the main ideas inherent in the systems approach, differentiates between hard and soft systems, and suggests some strategies for building elements of sustainability into the latter.
In The Nature of Systems" we see that the systems approach deals not only with things and events but also with the relationships between them. The key concepts of emergence, hierarchical control and communication are briefly expounded.
In Defining Systems we note that there is no commonly accepted way of categorising the many different types of system which exist but the fundamental difference between natural, designed and human activity systems is noted.
The next two papers look in turn at the characteristics of hard and soft systems. The shrewd reader may reflect that most development project planning assumes that intervention in social systems is a hard process while it blatantly is not!
In Positional Analysis there is a brief sketch of a technique to bring transparency to decision making processes - such an important requirement when dealing with soft systems.
The last paper throws down the gauntlet by saying that Flexibility is necessary for Sustainability and that this can only be achieved through a paradigm shift in management style.
Note: You might find it useful to refer to two other collections of one-pagers which relate to this issue:
A systems approach involves placing as much emphasis on identifying and describing the connections between objects and events as on identifying and describing the objects and events themselves.
Systems are patterns of cause and effect relationships. These can be simple and unidirectional or they may be linked together in long chains. Any one factor can exert a control function (causing a change in another) and a dependent function (being changed by another) - this is called multi-factoriality.
Chains of cause and effect can be circular so that control function eventually becomes its own dependent function - this is called a feedback loop - and the influences can be either positive, when it causes an increase in the original effect, or negative, when it causes a decrease in the original effect.
Some of the more important defining characteristics of systems are emergence, hierarchical control and communication.
This means that at any given level of complexity, there are emergent properties that cannot readily be explained solely by reference to lower levels.
Hierarchies are levels of relative complexity within a system, and hierarchical control refers to the imposition of new functional relationships by each level on the detailed dynamics of the level below. Controls can be positive (where certain actions are promoted) or negative (where certain actions are constrained).
One of the challenges facing biological systems, in particular, is to optimize between excessive control (which gives little flexibility, a small behavioural repertoire and so a limited ability to respond to new circumstances) and insufficient control (which reduces the ability of the system to determine outcomes, and so incurs a higher risk that the internal processes themselves might drift beyond system limits and cause the system to disintegrate).
This refers to the transmission of information in some form to effect regulation and feedback. Information must flow from the regulator to the regulated in order for the regulator to exercise control. Information must also flow back from the regulated to the regulator if the regulator is to be able to monitor the compliance of the regulated and incorporate the information into its future programme. Positive and negative feedback loops are therefore the core of the process of communication.
The more recent extension of systems theory to include social and economic systems has required an evolution of the concept of communication, as it is the communication of meaning rather than information that is important in the world of human systems.
There are a number of steps to go through when building a model of a system.
There is no general agreement on how systems might be classified. Some general categories are
Other categories include basic, operational, purposive and controlling systems. The following groups have proved useful:
The systems in these classes are of quite different types. In particular, designed and activity systems are different from natural systems. This is because humans are self-aware, and monitor their own behaviour, and because of the self fulfilling prophecy problem, where the knowledge of the prediction itself can become an input to the system, and alter the likelihood of the possible outcomes.
Systems Theory has two main approaches - the original hard systems approach (more relevant to technical, engineered systems) and the more recent soft systems approach (more relevant to human and social systems). Here we look at two hard systems approaches.
The hard systems approach is essentially about defining the problem solving sequence.
Another version of this approach focuses on the costs and benefits of alternative programmes.
A number of problems arise when these hard systems approaches are applied to soft systems, especially those systems that involve humans.
The hard systems approach starts with a basic acceptance of the objectives, problem specification, and organizational needs. Hard systems engineering aims to provide a solution to a defined problem in the terms in which the problem is posed, so these factors are generally taken as given.
With soft systems, however, there are frequent disagreements as to what the goals and objectives should be. It is very important to recognise this issue, and deal with it so that the whole process does not degenerate into what has been called the quest for improved means to carelessly examined ends.
Systems Theory has two main approaches - the original hard systems approach (more relevant to technical, engineered systems) and the more recent soft systems approach (more relevant to human and social systems). Here we look at the soft systems approach.
With soft system applications, system thinking should be regarded as a contribution to problem-solving, rather than as a goal-directed methodology and this applies to all situations where the task itself cannot be entirely and objectively defined.
Factors to be considered:
This being the case, the stages of a soft system approach are more like the following:
Note: desirability can be decontextualised but feasibility cannot. What may be deemed highly desirable from some particular viewpoint may not be feasible in a given context because of a clash of meaning systems and/or the particular, informal intentionalities of key actors.
Positional analysis is a technique to illuminate and improve the decision making process within systems by making explicit all the choices being made. It uses multiple indices and accounting procedures to explicitly acknowledge the diversity of factors in complex issues and therefore make the decision making process more transparent.
When used effectively the decision maker can readily answer such questions as, Why was this approach chosen?, and Which other approaches were considered and why were they rejected?.
The specific functions of positional analysis are to:
Positional analysis consists of the following steps:
Note that the gathering of information is not enough. There is also a need for the will and a mechanism for incorporating the information into the decision making process and implementation plan. This may require modifications to the organisational structure.
If the provision of information is widely based and participatory this in itself may be an effective way of changing behaviour because:
It is said that the only constant thing is change. If a system is to sustain itself through time it must be able to adapt to changes in its external environment.
The key to the ability to adapt is flexibility which may be defined as follows:
flexibility = an uncommitted potentiality for change.
Any system operates according to rules, regulations and procedures. In soft, human and social systems these may be viewed as tradition and thus not open to change. We have always done it this way. Such systems are rigid and often resistant to change and will not thus be sustainable.
What is required in a sustainable system is a more scientific attitude towards rules, regulations and procedures. Science no longer talks of truth but rather of the best working hypothesis in the light of evidence presently available.
Operators in a sustainable system must be constantly scanning the external environment by way of noting changes that are taking place and relating the ongoing relevance of the existing rules, regulations and procedures. When a mismatch is found the operators must be able and willing to revise the way things are done and to establish new traditions.
In soft, human and social systems, however, there is always the danger that operators may become over enthusiastic and seek to change the rules, regulations and procedures when there is no real need to do so. This is change for changes sake and is as great a danger to the sustainability of the system as resistance to change.
Any solution to the problem of sustainability therefore has to solve two connected problems:
Effective scanning of the environment is best done when all the eyes and ears of the system are used as sensors and when channels of communication are created so that the ultimate decision makers can make use of the information so gathered.
In management terms this involves a move away from a top down to a bottom up ethos and from a Theory X to a Theory Y style of leadership.
The concepts of participation and empowerment are also relevant as aspects of a move towards a commitment to staff training and development which would be operationalised, at least in part, through increasing the transparency and collegiate nature of decision making processes.