Systems Thinking Part 3: Practice

I used to love it when people would ask me “what do you take at school?” and I would proudly say “environmental science!” because I really feel good doing work about environmental issues. But now, as I’ve fallen further and further into the academic rabbit hole… my answer has become more complicated. “Well, I research health and the environment in Shanghai’s elderly population…but…it’s not really the case study that I’m researching it’s the application of a new methodology within my field that I’m researching.” …A lot more complicated and I think most people really only hear “health and the environment”. So in this mini series I’ve been trying to explain my area of research, that I am desperately passionate about, but that I have such a hard time explaining because it… just takes a long time for people to see how cool it can be. So now that I’ve explained the philosophy and the methodologies I want to talk to you about intervention (sort of) and just add some closing remarks.

My Work

Once a person is familiar with the epistemology of systems and have picked a methodology that is meaningful and useful to their problem situation it is time to begin the research and intervention. (As you will see later I think it is mandatory for one to have a firm understanding of the first two before moving on to their research, which is something that is completely lacking from master’s students academia right now, at least where I’m from… there is not enough focus on how important philosophy and methodology are to an issue…) So for me I find that systems philosophy firmly backs the ideas of interconnectedness and using public participatory action within soft systems methodologies to do research on health and the elderly in Shanghai. So I’ll explain what my project is and how it works, but keeps in mind the goal for my research is not to produce a lot of grand data on the topic, but rather to test soft systems methodology in a Chinese context.

In China Air pollution caused by rapid urbanization and economic development over the last three decades has created wide scale health implications for Chinese citizens. With expected annual growth rates of approximately 2.5% in airborne chemicals such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide between 2010 and 2050, the problem will become much worse (Wang, 2009). Health problems related to air pollution cost China approximately 250 billion Yuan (approximately 40 billion CDN) in 2010. This is expected to rapidly increase at a growth rate of 7.83% per year, thus costing 452-615 billion Yuan (approximately 98 billion CDN) in 2020 (Wang, 2010). The purpose of my research was to understand the individual experience of elderly people who have lived through at least thirty years of this rapid deterioration of air quality. Using systems thinking techniques I engaged individuals in a way that compared their quality of life today to that before the 1982 Constitution, which allowed for increased economic and urban development. Dramatic changes in landscape and urban life during this time period resulted in unique stories from each participant. I also engaged with the participants and their stories in a way that questioned the effects of a powerful social hierarchy in the culture. Shanghai is an interesting location for this comparison due to the large amount of economic and urban development it has undergone. Shanghai’s elderly population also accounts for nearly a quarter of the city’s population, well above the global average (The People’s Daily, 2012).

The information required for my research was i) what the lives of the participants were like 30 years ago in regards to health and their relationship to the physical environment, ii) what economic development and urban development has physically altered in their surrounding environment and neighbourhoods, iii) reported changes in their wellbeing and health in these past 30 years, iv) the extent to which individuals are able to contribute to decision making within their neighbourhood and/or city, v) participant’s health problems and perception of their own well-being and vi) the perceived state of their surrounding environment. The process for obtaining this information was to first select and make contact with my participants, to begin the soft systems methodology, conduct interviews, collect visual representations of the situation and analyze the situation using SSM and the concept of nested social hierarchies.

Participants were chosen based on their age and geographical location. For the purposes of the study I only spoke with people aged 55+ that have lived in Shanghai since 1982 or earlier.

For my research I followed Peter Checkland’s soft systems methodology, which I explained in my previous post (Checkland, 1999). I am currently in the stage of identifying the problem situation and how to approach learning more about it. While in Shanghai I will engage steps 2 -5 in Checkland’s seven step technique by doing the research outlined below.

I conducted over 30 interviews in an open format with my translator. The interviews were more like a conversation on what is going on in China, what the environment is like and how their life has changed. Much to my surprise, most people said their lives and health have dramatically improved over the past thirty years. While some of this was expected (due to the cultural revolution…) some was not. Despite the data, the public thought the air is getting better because factories have been moved out of their immediate neighbourhoods. We also created rich pictures. Rich pictures are an important part of soft systems methodology as they help to transcend language and educational barriers between the participant and the researcher.

Participants were invited to create a picture of their neighbourhoods and surrounding city systems, including the way in which various levels of the nested social hierarchy influence particular areas. Rich pictures draw attention to specific people, stakeholders, relationships and connections in a situation. I will take the various rich pictures and compile them into two different pictures, one representing today and the other representing the past. These will serve as a visual comparison of what has changed in the eyes of the participants, including the social systems. These steps, interviews and the rich picture development, are important for steps 2 – 5 in Checkland’s process of creating a definition of the problem, comparing that problem to real life and seeing if it is accurate. My definition is obviously lacking a lot of stackholder input (ie: governments, younger people, more educated people…etc).

My next step is to created a human activity system, which I have yet to do. Using the information collected during interviews and the insights provided by the visual representations of the problem situation I will develop conceptual model(s) of the human activity system(s), as outlined in Checkland’s method. Human activity systems are conceptual models representing a perceived reality of a human system. The models will provide insight during the stages of analysis.

The point of doing all this, is partly to become more familiar with health and the environment in Shanghai and to understand the social hierarchy more, but more importantly it is to get hands on experience in using soft systems methodology in the real world. It is easy to sit at home or at school and talk about philosophy and to think “oh yes, this methodology looks really nice on paper!” … it’s an entirely other thing to get out into the field and start working with it. I definitely found some faults with the method (I didn’t feel like it was very rigorous and it would be extremely time consuming to create a definition of this problem that encompassed all areas… for this to be a more complete project I should have done it over 2 or 3 years instead of 3 or 4 months) but I also found some strengths (being able to talk one on one with people really brought out interesting information and creating a root definition with them helped me to understand their perspective of the problem rather than me forcing my own viewpoint onto the definition).

Actually practicing systems theory has given me a whole new level of appreciate for the power that the methodology holds and the weaknesses that make me miss hard science. However, with the philosophy behind me…reminding me why I need to do it this way and with the methodology guiding me on how to do it… the practice was much more meaningful and insightful than if I would have just gone and done it without further background.

Final Reflections On All of This Stuff

I have learned a few valuable while digging deeper into systems theory over the past few years. The most important is what Midgley calls the “Trinity”: philosophy, methodology and practice. Each of these three elements is dependent on the other. I was reluctant to explore the philosophical realm of systems, but having done so I now have a substantially more secure and well-articulated reason for using systems methodologies in my studies. I have learned that having a solidified epistemology will give validity to my methodology. In turn, a valid methodology will lead to more effective learning, increased confidence in my abilities to perform meaningful research and to practice the methodology in effective ways.

By further exploring the philosophical backings of systems, namely the ideas of reductionism, subject/object dualism, systems as a generalization of reality, metadisciplinary principles and the boundary concept, I have developed an epistemological foundation for working with systems. Knowledge in systems is a continuous learning process associated with emergence, hierarchy and cross discipline action contained by subjective and personal boundaries. This assisted in my decision to use soft systems methodology for my research as it allows for these values within my epistemological framework to flourish while gathering meaningful knowledge. I would add that soft systems methodology also allowed me to take into account a culturally sensitive country where power relations often stifle the growth of knowledge. The ability to use rich picture development, to be involved with the actors in the problem situation and to present a non-invasive method of data collection greatly increased the amount of learning and contributions I can make within this problem situation.

The problem of environmental impact on the health and well-being of Shanghai residents directly requires a metadisciplinary approach that is directly involved with the objects of study. Because the situation is so complex, it necessitates the use of boundaries to narrow the scope of the issue. I believe these requirements for practice strongly correlate with the techniques the methodology offers, which I also believe is strongly supported by my epistemology. Being able to firmly state that philosophy and methodology accurately strongly supports my practice and adds validity to my work as a graduate student. Additionally, the Trinity creates an approach that is systemic in nature and can foster an overall learning system as I grow and develop within the definitions and ideas I have outlined. My hope is that by using a systemic approach, my philosophy and methodological decision making process both will be able to continuously evolve as I advance further into the fields of knowledge.

These ideas are a reflection on a more mature form of soft systems methodology that is far more desirable and wide-reaching than what one would learn in one semester of class (usually you just learn that things are interconnected and here is a great method that will help you deal with that complexity – and yes that is important to understand but I think this “trinity” view is more valuable). I see soft systems methodologies as a learning system, which makes it substantially easier to go into my research knowing there will be no “stage 7” – no intervention. I hoped only to learn more about the problem situation and to learn from the problem situation that I was a part of this summer, and I did.

With the support of the Trinity I can maintain the romantic ideas of interconnectedness and interdisciplinary approaches so strongly idealised in my faculty. However, I can maintain these ideas with the strength in my arguments backed by a solid philosophical position, appropriate methodology and practice that will encourage learning and growth.


Works Cited In the Series (and awesome systems books in general):

Ackoff, Russell L. (1973). Science in the Systems Age: Beyond IE, OR, and MS. Operations Research 21(3): 661-671.

Bateson, Gregory. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chandler Publishing Company: Philadelphia, PA.

Bertalanffy, Ludwig von. (1950). An Outline of General System Theory. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 1(2): 134-165.

Bertalanffy, Ludwig von. (1956). General Systems Theory. General Systems Year Book 1: 1-10.

Capra, Fritjof. (1997). The Web of Life: A new scientific understanding of living systems. Random House of Canada: Mississauga, ON.

Checkland, Peter (1981) Systems Thinking, Systems Practice. John Wiley and Sons, Ltd: West Sussex.

Checkland, P. and Scholes, J. (1999). Soft Systems Methodology in Action. John Wiley and Sons, Ltd: West Sussex.

Churchman, C. West. (1968). The Systems Approach. Dell Publishing: New York, NY.

Churchman, C. West. (1970). Operations Research as a Profession. Management Science 17: b37-53.

Fitzgerald, L.A. (1999). Why there’s nothing wrong with systems thinking a little chaos won’t fix? A critique of modern systems theory and the practice of organizational change it informs. Systemic Practice and Action Research 12: 229-235.

Forrester, J. W. (1961). Industrial Dynamics. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

Gleick, James. (1987). Chao: Making a New Science. Penguin: London, UK.

Jackson, M.C. (1991). Systems Methodology for the Management Sciences. Plenum: New York, NY.

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL.

Midgley, Gerald. (2000). Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, Methodology and Practice. Kluwet Academic/Plenum Publishers: New  York, NY.

Resnik, David B. (1998). The Ethics of Science: An Introduction. Routledge: London, UK.

Resnik, David B. (2009). Playing Politics with Science: balancing scientific independence and government oversight. Oxford University Press: New York, NY.

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Katie is a graduate student from Canada studying the environment and systems theory. She also loves dinosaurs and baking cupcakes. Follow her on twitter @katiekish

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