Systems practice: Managing sustainability
Systems practice: Managing sustainability

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Systems practice: Managing sustainability

2.2 Engaging with process design for emergent outcomes

This section raises a number of questions – mostly ‘How’ questions such as ‘How do I design a process that enables stakeholders?’ or ‘How do I design a process which allows for emergent outcomes?’ The remaining sections in this part attempt to answer some of these questions by starting with your own experiences thus far of using SS-method.

The material here is not the main focus of this unit. However, I invite you to engage with it so as to demonstrate how I have incorporated some of the ideas of this course in my own systems practice. This example has its origins in the period 1990–94 when I was involved in a project working with a range of different stakeholders in the semi-arid pastoral zone of New South Wales, Australia. We used our understanding of systems thinking to design an ‘inquiring system’ relevant to the context of the lives of pastoralists in semi-arid Australia. As part of that project I was, with my colleagues, involved in the design of a process to enable pastoralists to pursue their own research and development (R&D) activities – as opposed to having someone else’s R&D outcomes imposed on them! Our design was built around the notion that given the right experiences peoples’ enthusiasms for action could be triggered in such a way that those with similar enthusiasms might work together. We understood enthusiasm as:

  • a biological driving force (enthusiasm comes from the Greek meaning ‘the god within’; see study note below)
  • an emotion, which when present led to purposeful action
  • a theoretical notion
  • a methodology – a way to orchestrate purposeful action.

My use of ‘god’ in this context has no connection with organised religion – our position is to question the commonly held notion that ‘information’ comes from outside ourselves rather than from within in response to non-specific triggers from the environment.

We spent a lot of time designing a process that we thought had a chance to trigger peoples’ enthusiasms. Our process did in fact enable peoples’ enthusiasms to be surfaced and led to several years of R&D activity (purposeful activity) on the part of some pastoralists supported by ourselves (but never determined by us). The process we designed did not lead to the R&D actions (purposeful activity) in any cause and effect way. The purposeful activity taken was an emergent property of peoples’ participation in the systemic, experiential learning process that we had designed.

The way we went about designing the process is described in detail in Ison and Russell (2000). The four stages involved are described in the unit Managing complexity: a systems approach [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

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