Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Trunk and Branches - Whole Systems Thinking – The Rules of the Game…

Many of you are probably familiar with the concept of "whole systems thinking" - it's more or less explained in the name - in dealing with complex systems (such as the biosphere, or a government or the weather, or a company or an ecosystem, or a farm) it's important to take into account all of the components of the system, how they interact, and cause-and-effect relationships among them - think in terms of the whole system. This is a very daunting task. But it's important to do, otherwise you get lost in the details, specific areas of specialization (which are usually very complex and confusing on their own) and you can spend a lot of time and energy trying to solve a problem, only to realize that you've created another, and go on and on until you get confused and frustrated and give up.

So we've been using the metaphor of a tree (yeah, kind of a cliche for a sustainability framework - but it works well), where the trunk and branches represent the core principles (discussed last time - essentially the 'rules of the game') and the leaves represent all of the glorious details - specific problems and specific areas of expertise. Because the task at hand is so massive and complex, no one is going to have all the answers - there's simply too much information. So we need all kinds of scientists, economists, policy makers, researchers, teachers, business leaders, etc etc to work together. Now, imagine all of the ideas, opinions, special interests, etc that come with this group. Any dialogue will quickly degenerate into bickering, confusion, misunderstanding. This is dealing in the "leaves,” the details - and it's very frustrating, and too often the path that discourse on the environment and sustainability follow –

“Paper or Plastic?” (paper contributes to deforestation, plastic doesn’t biodegrade) “Solar, Wind or Oil?” (solar is inefficient and uses weird metals, wind kills birds and makes noise, oil causes global warming… but global warming doesn’t even exist as far as we know) etc… These are the details – obviously not insignificant - but we can’t approach these complex, confusing, politically charged issues without a shared framework, some facts that everyone can agree on. Then we can tackle the details with all kinds of specialists working together.

So by establishing a common framework - and starting with the trunk and branches - we can all get on the same page, understand the rules of the game, and proceed further out on the branches, into the details of the leaves with a shared mental model. True dialogue can commence, eliminating the usual confusion. Again, the details will need to be dealt with in time in order to act - but with a common framework action can be cohesive, moving toward a common goal.

You can think of the 4 principles as the rules of the game - like in chess or soccer. It's the easy part, but if everyone doesn't understand them, no one's going to get very far, and it’s very often the step that is skipped when we set out to create strategies to reach sustainability.... which brings me to the 5-level Framework:

I. Systems Level ... (in terms of sustianability, it's the biosphere - individual in an organization in society in the biosphere)

II. Success Level ... (in this case, the sustainability principles - the 4-principles, the rules of the game)

III. Strategic Level ... (not strategies, but strategic guidelines, planning methodologies, we'll get into these)

IV. Actions Level ... (concrete things we do, plans into action)

V. Tools Level ... (help in putting plans into action - indicators, modeling, life-cycle analysis)

It all probably seems pretty vague and theoretical at this point, but it does come together and make sense. Hopefully by the end of '05 I'll be able to give you all an hour presentation that will convey all of this and more with brilliant clarity. As for what's been happening here this week, we've had more lectures from Karl Hendrik, and trying to work out some of the subtleties, nuances and technicalities in the framework to be clear we understand it to the point of being able to teach it -- "is that a strategy, or a strategic guideline?" ..."why are CO2 emissions in violation of principle 1, while NOx emissions violate principle 2?" ...stuff like that. The weather remains beautiful, and having a blast being a student in this little town... I’ll try to keep these shorter in the future.

Hope everyone's doing well - take care, Go Sox!!!