We cannot deal with complexity…
I believe that our current Francis Bacon inspired linear cause-effect methodology for describing and solving problems is just inadequate for helping us tackle the larger scale, complex, geographically extended problems we are faced with.
There must be a better way of visualising complex problems and ensuring our efforts produce the maximum possible results we aspire to and I believe that better way is Systems Practice.
How we currently focus on one part of the picture…
What do you see when you look at this map? Initially I see an overwhelming mass of inter-connected different things, I do not know where to look and my brain cannot decide which set of links or which process to “read first”. This, as science is telling us, is because as soon as there is more than one potential outcome or scenario or factor present, our brain is really unable to forecast different outcomes, let alone evaluate potential courses of action.
Currently, we are taught that to solve a problem we need to break it into manageable pieces and find a way of tackling each bit individually and that when we put our pieces back together that will give us the solution we need. When drafting project proposals, we subgroup our tasks and workplans into separate disciplines, package them up and give them to different teams to deal with. This is largely our inheritance from the 17th century Scientific Method.
Our approach to facing complexity is to focus in on one story thread at any given time and follow that, in meticulous detail, wherever it leads us. For example, in creating a community improvement scheme, we might decide that the key improvement we want to deliver is better access to water for bathing and drinking, and we might define that as more abundant water with a continuous supply. We are sometimes so blinded by our attachment to one “correct” solution that we become unable to consider the broader context of other factors and processes that might undermine our solution's effectiveness.
The cost of this approach
I am sure that in your past you have faced scenarios where despite all the efforts and good intentions and hard work and funding invested into a project (say, for example, a community water supply or flood risk mitigation scheme) your team did not achieve the outcomes you had hoped for. For example, scenarios where despite community engagement and initial liaison with the water tank providers and users of the local borewells, the new water supply scheme ends up not being used or adopted by the target population or the engagement in maintaining a new flood defence solution is poor.
I remember studying the Three Gorges Dam project and being surprised by how some of the initial goals set for the project (such as better navigation across the Yangtze, stimulated commercial trade, greater water and electricity supplies for eastern China) were threatened by unintended consequences that the project itself created (for example, increase in siltation leading to greater maintenance costs required to ensure navigability, reduction in silt flowing downstream reducing the deposition of silt in the estuary and encouraging saline intrusion of groundwater aquifers, and underestimation of the number of people relocated by the project, causing a local reduction in the need for water and electricity, meaning that what was produced needed to be transported to other parts of China at additional cost).