Understanding the environment: Learning and communication
Understanding the environment: Learning and communication

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Understanding the environment: Learning and communication

Activity 2B: Developing a relational model of the Powerdown Show programme

In this activity you will be challenged to reinterpret the following programme extracted from the Powerdown Show DVD: Energy Descent Pathways [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . The reason this programme was selected, from the many audio-visual programmes currently available online that tackle environmental and social issues, was because it presents an "ecotopian" approach to tackling the converging social, economic and environmental crises. Your challenge is to apply relational logic to reveal how the sets of factors illustrated within the programme can contribute to interrelated causes and effects that may threaten society, and the environment within which it is nested, and how the people represented in the programme plan to react.


In this activity you will develop a singular systemic visual model from the Energy Descent Pathways programme. The question which you will need to answer with your visual model is: 'What are the key environmental, social and economic threats that society is facing?'

In this activity I would like to encourage you to work collaboratively with others. You will bring to this exercise a distinct world view, cognitive style and set of multiple intelligences. Remember that in Activity 2A you explored your own particular world view and its points of agreement and/or disagreement with that of others, including my own. Your world view will shape which relationships you initially highlight and which you decide to disregard. By working collaboratively, the aim is to arrive at a visual model which attempts a balanced representation of different perspectives. Also, you may prefer to focus on a particular subset of issues and analyse these in great detail, maybe by watching the programme several times and taking down copious notes. Or, you may prefer to have a general overview by watching the programme once and then seeking external sources of information. By organising, sharing and discussing insights with others, it is probable that you will develop a richer, more holistic model of the situation, and in less time than if you did the work entirely on your own. It will hopefully be more fun too!

You should structure this exercise according to the four phases of the action learning process:

  • Planning – make sure you know what the aims of this activity are (including 'sub-aims' such as learning to draw a multiple cause diagram etc); what resources you have at your disposal (including time availability and the support you may get from your tutor/fellow students in your group); how you're going to carry out the activity; and what your measures of performance are in order to give you an idea of progress towards your aim(s).
  • Acting and observing – as you carry out your plan, make sure you take breaks to observe your progress, which not only includes accounting for your actual physical outputs, but also should take into consideration how you feel and the time that has elapsed.
  • Evaluating – how do your results compare to your initial objectives? Would you have done things differently? Is there an opportunity for a second iteration?

Remember, I have recommended that about 9 hours should be dedicated to the activities in this free course. This activity in particular will overwhelm anyone taking an exclusively analytical approach; you will need to be very strict about the way the activity is planned and executed, and keep in mind that you're trying to, collaboratively, get a broader picture rather than a deeper but narrow one. A key measure of performance for you would be: 'Have I managed to avoid analysis paralysis?'

Now, before you delve into the activity, a few tips about the particular form of visual modelling I would like you to perform. The particular approach to systems thinking developed within the Open University uses visual modelling and communication extensively, and a lot of effort has been invested in developing a range of effective visual modelling and communication techniques. In the Diagramming Resource you are introduced to a range of diagramming techniques, but in this activity I would like you to focus on one in particular: multiple cause diagrams.

The purpose of the multiple cause diagramming technique is to go beyond identifying simple causes and effects and to explore wider influences in order to gain insights and/or find intervention points which may be a long way away from the problem as initially presented. Things get really exciting when we sometimes discover that the emerging effects of any particular problem might in turn be the causes of other problems, which might produce effects which are the causes of the initial problem! The essential aspect here is that you are able to tell a story that somebody can 'read' by following the connections between different components within your diagram.

As you are developing your multiple cause diagram, I would like you to reflect on how this technique has influenced the way you have modelled the situation. Does the non-linear, visual representation suit your style of thinking? Has the exercise resulted in different insights compared to those that emerged during your initial viewing of the programme(s)?

If you want to share your evolving diagram with others, and/or would like to develop one collaboratively, there are a range of online diagramming tools which you may want to consider. These include diagrammr.com and dabbleboard.com, but feel free to explore other online tools. However, just searching for, and becoming familiar with, online tools can easily gobble up a huge amount of your time – if time is in short supply, just stick to pen and paper and scan the results if you want to share these with others.


How did it go? If your experience was anything like that of students on presentations of T214 (the course from which this free course comes from), then you will have found this activity challenging. During their studies, some students have reported extreme levels of frustration, angst, alarm and powerlessness, have seen plans go wrong and have felt overwhelmed. This is not surprising. Our current mechanistic society expects us to arrive at simple neat answers to problems using quick-fix methodologies. Our learning reinforces that if you can't achieve an answer then the solution is to reduce the problem to a smaller and smaller subset of issues (or find a convenient scapegoat). Unfortunately, the problems raised by the Powerdown Show programme cannot be reduced down to singular causes and cannot be resolved by singular interventions: there is no simple and perfect answer.

A systems approach to working through these wicked problems requires a completely different skill set to the one we have become accustomed to. Such problems require: patience, perseverance, intuition, relational logic, visual modelling, iteration, an appreciation of different equally valid perspectives, and, most importantly, a recognition that we can work through problems constructively without necessarily ever finding a 'perfect answer'. This focus on applying an appropriate process, in this case the action learning process, to understanding wicked problems is absolutely fundamental to the systems approach proposed in these free courses.


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