Systems practice: Managing sustainability
Systems practice: Managing sustainability

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Systems practice: Managing sustainability

2.5 Developing your systems practice in the sustainable development and other domains

I said earlier that at the end of this part I would ask you to:

  1. consider how this unit changed how you engage with or think about sustainable development;
  2. draw some connections between systems practice in this domain with other domains;
  3. briefly explore how different modes of systems practice might be developed in your project; and
  4. reflect on what further work you might need to do to become confident in designing an ‘inquiring system’ as part of your systems practice.

Asking the question: ‘who learns?’ can be a powerful mechanism to guide and reflect on practice. But of course everyone learns all of the time – otherwise we would have lost one of the main characteristics of being human. So when I speak of a ‘learning system’ then I mean conceptualising a system in which a particular type of learning takes place, and which may not have happened if participants had not been engaged in the process. This is not the main way we think about learning in our society.

For example, many might conceptualise the curriculum that you studied at school as a learning system. With research, it may be possible to identify people who were responsible for its design. However, in my experience very few curricula have the systemic properties that I have been concerned with in this final part of the unit. Too often curricula are systematic designs. One of the features of a curriculum is that educators often specify learning outcomes in advance, just as we have. With good practice, which I hope we have achieved as educators, such learning outcomes become guidelines to design and process, not mere objectives to be met. They leave room for the experience of the learner, for contextualisation and for emergent, sometimes surprising, outcomes.

My concern in this unit has been with using systems thinking to design a process in which the learning outcomes cannot be totally specified in advance, but are an emergent property of the interactions of those who are involved. The enactment of the SS-methodology inquiry cycle has the potential to do just that. The aware systems practitioner using SSM as their systems approach does not specify the objectives in advance nor specify what the learning outcomes will be. They do however, if they are using SSM as methodology, carry a commitment to articulating in advance of their involvement, the intellectual framework they are using, and to reflect on their own learning about the situation and the process of inquiry.

Many of the examples cited in this unit point to a need for new ways of social learning to address some of the sustainable development issues that many experience as complex. Systems thinking in the hands of an aware systems practitioner has, in my view, a greater contribution to make than has hitherto been the case. It is for this reason, for instance, that the US President’s Council on Sustainable Development (1996) education panel concluded that:

... education for sustainability is the continual refinement of the knowledge and skills that lead to informed citizenry that is committed to responsible individuals and collaborative actions that will result in an ecologically sound, economically prosperous, and equitable society for present and future generations’. The principles underlying education for sustainable development include, but are not limited to, strong core academics, understanding the relationships between disciplines, systems thinking, lifelong learning, hands-on experiential learning, community-based learning, technology, partnerships, family involvement, and personal responsibility.

At the beginning of this unit you were asked to outline your initial understandings of sustainable development. Take a few moments now to look back at your answer to that activity. Then attempt the final two activities.

Activity 13 What does sustainable development mean to you now compared to when you started this unit?

Take just a few minutes to note what the term sustainable development means to you now that you have engaged with the material in this unit. Draw a spray diagram to explore the meanings you now attribute to the words sustainable and development. Write down any new comments or questions about the meaning of the whole term to you, either as part of the spray diagram or alongside. Then make some links with your own experience of completing this unit.

If you have not already done so, note where you now stand personally in regard to sustainable development. Has your stakeholding in any issue changed? Has your engagement with this unit triggered any purposeful activity on your part? Is it likely to, in your project for example? Try to answer these questions in terms of some of the concepts like circumstances, values and beliefs.

Using the metaphor of the systems practitioner as juggler note what seem to be the areas of your own systems practice that you have strengthened during this unit. Also note those areas where you would like to develop your practice further. For example, you might reflect on how you would now go about managing sustainable development through systems practice.

Because your answer to this activity must arise from your own experience of the unit I have not attempted to provide an answer.

Activity 14 Formulating a system to manage sustainable development

Take a look at Figure 10 in the unit Managing complexity: a systems approach [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (the diagram that suggested sustainable development as the area of overlap between purposeful action that was ecologically sustainable, socially desirable and economically viable.) In the text referring to the figure three other terms were mentioned: ‘technical feasibility’, ‘political legitimacy’ and ‘institutional capacity’. I have interpreted these three factors as being relevant in the environment (in the systems sense) of the three primary activities, associated with the circles, and sustainable development.

Now, based on this figure draw a systems map which contains all the elements listed in the paragraph above. Develop this map in the light of what you have learned about sustainable development in this unit. List any new insights you gain from completing the systems map.

When you have completed the systems map, develop an activity model of a root definition of ‘a system to manage sustainable development’ that incorporates all six terms (or elements).

Expand the root definition via PQR then further elaborate using CATWOE. Using this revised root definition build an activity model of it. Activities relevant to the six elements will be important.

Now check that all six are covered by the root definition, CATWOE and activity model set. Then consider if any other ideas could or should be incorporated.

Explain why you have positioned the six activities where you have. Remember that your answer will involve you determining six verbs, in the imperative form, to go with each of the terms.

Having developed an activity model based on just the six terms, consider whether from your perspective you would want to add or subtract any activities from ‘a system to manage sustainable development’.

Outline what insights, if any, you gained from completing this activity.

I have included my answers to this activity for comparison. My answer is likely to be different from yours.


I went through the following process in developing my answer to this question:

  1. Initially I developed a systems map of a ‘system to manage sustainable development’ based on all the elements referred to in connection with the figure below. In doing this I found that all elements fitted within the boundary of my system of interest except ‘ecological sustainability’ which I have put partially in and partially outside my boundary. My reason for doing this is because from my perspective some aspects of, or processes which contribute to, ecological sustainability are outside the scope of purposeful human activity. This seems to me to be an important and often neglected insight. I did however think that I wanted to move beyond the static representation that a systems map affords and to explore the purposeful managing of sustainable development some more. I decided to do this by developing an activity model.
Figure 25 A systems map of a system to manage sustainable development
  1. To develop my activity model I first I thought about the verbs I wanted to associate with each of the three ‘circles’ in the original diagram. I decided on:
    1. explore ecological sustainability
    2. decide social desirability
    3. determine economic viability.
  2. I then decided what verbs were associated with the other terms:
    • determine technical feasibility
    • assess political legitimacy
    • judge institutional capacity.
  3. Having allocated verbs that I was relatively happy with, I thought about which activities could be done at once (see sequence outlined in Figure 26). I discovered that this was not a straightforward decision in this issue-based activity model that I was trying to build (Figure 27). I realised that my answer to this question would depend on the specific context in which I was attempting to operationalise my ‘system to manage sustainable development’. I also became aware that an important sub-system in each of my activities would be, for example, ‘decide criteria for ecological sustainability’ (I also became aware of lots of other activities that would be needed in this process as I did this).
Figure 26 The dependency sequence for my initial attempt to develop an activity model of a system to manage sustainable development
  1. I decided, given my background in technology development for grassland management, that I would start with ‘determine technical feasibility’ – this is something I know how to do in my context and there are many others experienced with technology development (Figure 26). (An example might be to introduce new exotic species into a country for soil erosion control, or it might be to introduce a carbon tax into a country’s financial system.) Having decided this, I remembered that in my experience, many researchers only determine technical feasibility and do not go beyond this activity, so I felt I was heading in the direction I thought was necessary. As I worked through the original six activities to build my first model I learnt that I needed an activity which decided whether any innovation, project, etc. constituted sustainable development. (I imagined that as I expanded this activity into its sub-systems that it would involve making trade-offs and judgements against some criteria through some process etc.) I also found myself asking whether inclusion of this activity was valid (to me) or whether sustainable development was an output of the system, an emergent process of enacting such a system? This raises some interesting questions which I will explore for myself, but not here. I also found myself asking whether, because of my particular experience, I was being naïve about the activity of ‘assess political legitimacy’, and that on reflection I might place it nearer to activities 3 and 4 (in my Figure 27u model) because what is socially desirable or economically feasible is contingent on what is politically legitimate in a given context.
Figure 27 A first iteration activity model of a ‘system to manage SD’
  1. Having developed my initial activity model (Figure 27) based on the six elements in the original diagram, I became aware of the need for some further activities. I have added some to the revised activity model (Figure 28).

The other insight I gained is that even though I did not set out to do so, the process of doing the activity resulted in me asserting the precedence of ‘explore ecological sustainability’ in the activity sequence. This reflects my concerns with the nature of the relationships between people and their bio-physical environments, some of which appear to be relatively non-negotiable. (Originally I used the verb ‘determine ecological sustainability’ but decided that a deterministic answer to this question was beyond any fully objective reach, and thus any final answer to what was regarded as ecological sustainability would have to be judged by concerned stakeholders. (This of course partially contradicts the position I had arrived at with my systems map regarding purposefulness.)

Another insight I had was that despite the level of abstraction in this activity, I found it clarified my thinking and that as a result I felt I would, if I continued the process, be able to ground it in specific examples in a given context.

Figure 28 A second iteration activity model of a ‘system to manage SD’

I have introduced you to contemporary uses of SSM in particular, as an action learning/research process that might be designed?

SAQ 22 Using the LUMAS model

Use the LUMAS model (Figure 14) and your learning in this unit to briefly describe two situations with which you are familiar in domains other than sustainable development where the design of learning systems might be employed to good effect.


From my perspective the approach depicted by the LUMAS model is applicable in any situation I perceive as complex and where I wish to take purposeful action. It is, after all, another manifestation of the action learning and research model that has been introduced many times through the course already.

One of my current concerns is how to develop a major marketing strategy for the activities of the systems group at the OU. We have had some preliminary discussions about this and will set aside some time in the very near future to do a study based on SSM. In other words we will use the approach to learn our way to some appreciation of what is needed in our current context.

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