Gwendolyn Hallsmith (Montpelier) and Linda Spencer (Calgary) from our PLUS Network member cities provided an online introduction to what systems thinking means for governance structures, community development and problem-solving. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Centre for Sustainable Community Development sponsored this webinar, describing ‘systems thinking’ as a powerful new approach to sustainable municipal development
What is Systems Thinking?
Systems thinking is a framework for analysis and management based on the assumption that each component of a system can be understood accurately only in the context of the system as a whole. Systems thinking focuses on root causes of undesirable situations rather than on problems which are merely symptoms, and directs resources towards addressing the root causes to bring about lasting, long-term improvement.
Below are highlights from the recorded presentations. Click on the links to view the slide presentations and listen to the speakers and discussion.
1 Gwendolyn Hallsmith: Systems Thinking and Sustainable Cities
Systems thinking is only one of the skills needed for sustainability planning, along with group process skills like leadership, teamwork, facilitation and conflict management, and methodologies including public participation.
The Brundtland definition of Sustainable Development works well for municipal operations as cities are in the needs satisfaction business - needs relating to: health and well-being, empowerment and responsibility, economic security, services and infrastructure, ecological integrity.
A system is an integrated set of elements which behave as a unit, such as an airplane or a hurricane. Cities are complex systems and exhibit the characteristics of systems, including emergence, dynamic change over time, and change driven by feedback loops.
Insights from system dynamics are applicable in thinking about our cities as systems: 1) It is easier to steer the system in a new direction than to fight it. 2) Feedback produces patterns of behaviour that reveal leverage points for change. 3) Often the simple, obvious solution is wrong, and will make the situation worse.
Systems thinking recognizes the power of asset-based planning that starts with identifying strengths and envisioning positive outcomes over the long term, and is more likely to avoid unintended negative consequences. Problem-based planning often fails because it ignores the core issues. Examples of feedback loops include the relationship between the quality of education and wages, and between the structure of power and decision-making in an organization and the quality of decisions and their consequences.
Fixes that fail are those that focus on the superficial aspects of a problem, such as the contracting out of housing repairs in a deteriorating neighbourhood. Instead, the training of residents and local people to carry out repairs led to employment benefits and local economic multipliers, as well as local investment in long-term improvements to the housing stock.
Systems thinking brings success by identifying leverage points lying below the water line in the iceberg model of intervention. System intervention points range from the less effective, such as controlling the numbers, to the powerful, such as shifting paradigms and mind sets. System interventions are often counter-intuitive.
Powerful community leverage points include: community spirit, prevention programs, early intervention, raising awareness and education, conflict management and forgiveness, non-violent direct action, community centres.
2 Linda Spencer, Systems Thinking in Calgary
Calgary applied the principles of systems thinking in developing the Imagine Calgary plan, taking a community needs and assets perspective and focusing on leverage points.
The project started with leadership at the political level recognizing the importance of a shared vision, particularly at a time when there was a clear understanding that business-as-usual would not work in the current period of growing complexity. It built on the experience of Vancouver's long-term planning process that led to the formation of the PLUS Network with Calgary as a founding member. Calgary's process was cutting-edge, with few models to follow. We applied the EarthCat methodology developed by Gwen Hallsmith, which was comprehensive enough to cover the complexity involved while being context-specific.
The Imagine Calgary plan was completed in June 2006, with participation from 18,000 residents, and 150 citizens helping to prepare the plan. The plan is a citizen mandate for the future of Calgary, with 100-year vision and goals, and a series of 10-30-year targets to get us there.
One outcome has been Imagine Calgary Partners - 50 organizations sharing in the work towards the goals. The project has shifted from a city-led process to a community-owned plan with the City of Calgary now one of the partners. We are guided by the concept of 'samepagedness.' Before, many people were working on different parts of our community and trying to make change in silos. Now, the organizations are working individually towards goals that are shared. People are making connections with one another, sharing learning and resources.
The City reviewed the plan's 114 targets, identified 22 where it could have the greatest potential impact, and organized them into 3 focus areas which became the city's priorities for sustainability. Following the 2008 election, the new Council agreed to use the priorities from the Imagine Calgary plan for 2009-2011.
During the business planning, we discovered that the inherited process was more a series of activities, where a silo structure inhibited the ability to have a real conversation. We conducted an organization assessment which led to the creation of an office of sustainability to integrate strategic directions, coordinate resources, and monitor and report on progress.
This is an adaptive learning process. The paths are not straight, and plateaus and fatigue are a reality, but over the long-term the results are powerful. Other cities have discovered the power of the process, with Imagine Durban, in South Africa, adapting the model.
About the People
Gwendolyn Hallsmith is the Director of Planning and Community Development for the City of Montpelier, Vermont, and founder and chair of Global Community Initiatives. She is the author of Key to Sustainable Cities: Taking Action for Sustainability, of Local Action for Sustainable Renewal (LASER), and of the EarthCat Guide to Community Development.
Linda Spencer is one of the architects of Imagine Calgary, and of the process for creating the plan for Calgary's long-term sustainability. As Manager of Imagine Calgary, she leads the transition team that is transforming the project into a community-owned initiative as well as embedding the goals within the City's organization.
Paul Gregory was the FCM host for the webinar. The full webinar can be found at the FCM website.
Jay Kassirer was the moderator for the 90-minute webinar.
Participants: More than 75 municipal staff and professionals participated in the webinar.
About the Sponsor
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) represents the interests of more than 1700 member municipalities on policy and program issues within federal jurisdiction. Through its Green Municipal Fund, theFCM sponsors services and resources relating to sustainable community development.