Article published in Integration and Implementation Insights.
Who can make systems change? The challenges of complexity are intensely felt by those who are trying to make strategic interventions in coupled human-environmental systems in order to fulfill personal, societal, or institutional goals. The activists, leaders, and decision-makers I work with often feel overwhelmed by trying to deal with multiple problems at once, with limited time, resources, and attention. We need tools to help leaders cut through the complexity so that they can identify the most effective strategies to make change.
This is where participatory system dynamics modelers like myself come in. We work side-by-side with communities and decision-makers – not to tell them what to do, but to help them figure out how to accomplish their goals in a complex systems context, regardless of where in the system they sit. We say that ‘the one who models is the one who learns’ – about the system and how to change it. From helping a development agency determine the root causes of deforestation in Zambia to working with community partners to determine how best to enhance household food security, models can help decision-makers figure out the best options for moving the system levers, given limited time and limited resources.
A common misconception about systems is that they are large and monolithic and therefore can’t be changed, or can be changed only by the person ‘at the top’. When trying to get my students to think about environmental problems, a common refrain is “well, the problem is in the system, so we can’t do anything about it.” ‘Can’t fight the system’ is, in fact, a common phrase used to suggest helplessness in the face of multiple forces keeping undesirable institutions and patterns in place.
But systems thinkers know better. We like to say that, in systems, no one is in charge. On the one hand, this means that undesirable behavior can arise even if no one is trying to design it. Think about climate change, for example – I would argue that no one is actively trying to create a global climate that is dangerous for humans and other life, but due to multiple interacting structures, that is what is happening. On the other hand, no one being in charge of systems results in panarchy – the notion that system change can arise from multiple scales. Someone at the bottom can affect things just as much as someone at the top. This means that people embedded in these systems have more power to effect change than they may realize they just need to be pushing at the right levers.
One of the best parts of my job as a participatory system dynamics modeler is sitting in the room with community leaders and decision-makers when they have an ‘aha’ moment around a model we built together. This ‘aha’ moment may take the form of finding common ground among previously warring ideologies, or identifying an option for action that no one had thought of or prioritized, but which the model indicates could significantly shift the system outcomes. When these moments happen, I can see new understanding and a new sense of possibility dawn on the faces of the modeling participants. As an academic who wants to see the world become a more just and sustainable place, this is incredibly rewarding. Participatory models empower leaders and decision-makers to do their jobs more effectively, and empower me to find fulfillment in mine.
Biography: Dr. Laura Schmitt Olabisi is an assistant professor at Michigan State University, jointly appointed in the Environmental Science & Policy Program and the department of Community Sustainability. She uses system dynamics modeling and other systems methods to investigate the future of complex socio-ecological systems, often working directly with stakeholders by applying participatory research methods. Her research has addressed soil erosion, climate change, water sustainability, energy use, sustainable agriculture, food security, and human health in the U.S., the Philippines, Nigeria, Zambia, Malawi, and Burkina Faso. She is member of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).