1 Systems thinking
Solving city challenges is extremely difficult. A change in one city system can have unintended consequences in another system. For example, a city might reduce the number of its healthcare centres in a move to save money and concentrate resources. This might increase the number of car journeys people make as they travel to more distant healthcare centres. In turn this will lead to more traffic congestion and air pollution, which will impact health.
Cities are very complex. They involve many systems, including energy, water and sewerage, food, transport, health and biodiversity, as well as economic, social and cultural systems. This network of systems, interconnections and flows can be described as a system of systems.
City government departments frequently work in silos when they’re trying to solve city problems; so, for example, transport is dealt with by transport planners and energy is dealt with by energy managers. The same is true of other organisations – water use is dealt with by the water supply company and energy use by many different energy suppliers. In reality the problems these sectors face are interconnected and an integrated approach has clear benefits.
‘Systems thinking’ is a discipline that provides skills and tools designed to address situations of complexity and uncertainty – situations that are difficult to grasp and to manage, and to which there are no simple answers.
How does systems thinking work? A system can be defined as a set of components that are interconnected for a purpose – a purpose that is identified as being of interest.
Here’s an example: let’s say a transport planning team wants to redesign a transport system in a city, and that the transport system has developed over the past 100 years. The traditional model of transport infrastructure would have transport as its focus. In a smart city, however, the team’s focus will be on goals such as mobility and connectivity for citizens.
One very powerful method of exploring systems is the drawing of systems diagrams. These facilitate learning about a system and enable expressions of connectivity and complexity. You can draw a systems diagram on your own, but they also work well when they’re created by a group.
You’ll get to see one type of systems diagram – a rich picture – shortly. If you want to find out more about systems thinking, its tools and techniques, why not explore for yourself using the following resources?
- The free OpenLearn courses Mastering systems thinking in practice. and
- STEEP: Explore a smart city project adopting a ‘systems thinking’ methodology