Seeing and describing systems

2.1 Resilience—overview

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In this learning module, you’ll learn about the concept of resilience in complex systems. Increasing the resilience of positive elements and/or decreasing the resilience of negative ones can be thought of as an over-arching goal when working for system change. Numerous natural system examples are used; but as you view the lectures, remember that we are using concepts drawn from work on environmental systems to apply to social systems—metaphors, in other words. In this unit, you’ll learn about system dynamics, about linked systems, and about thinking and linking across scales.

2.2 Resilience—resilience thinking

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Here, we introduce and define the concept of resilience, which is another key to understanding and working in complex adaptive systems. Resilience allows a system to adapt and re-organize after a disturbance of some kind. This can be very positive when positive system elements are resilient; but if you're trying to create change in a dysfunctional system, then the resilience of negative elements will be a big challenge. So, we'll begin to unpack this concept and will introduce a key tool for resilience thinking and systems thinking—the adaptive cycle. The adaptive cycle is a tool to which we'll return often, so take the time her to understand it well.

You will hear the presenters sometimes use the word "panarchy" when talking about the adaptive cycle. This term refers to a model which includes multiple levels or scales of adaptive cycles and which, in fact, is truer to what actually happens in systems. But for our purposes, we can begin to play with this idea by considering it at only one scale.

2.3 Resilience—finding the phases

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In this segment, we'll look at how to apply the adaptive cycle to help understand dynamics present in social systems. When applied to the journey of a social innovation—what is likely to be happening at each phase of the cycle? What are people likely to be doing at each phase? Can you recognize these phases in your organization, or in social changes you've witnessed or been part of?

2.4 Resilience—placing an initiative on the adaptive cycle

Resilience—placing an initiative on the adaptive cycle (PDF)

Think of a change effort that you’re part of, or which you’ve keenly observed. Where would you place it on the adaptive cycle? This will help you to better understand the change. Later, we’ll come back to this when we look at the role and activities of the social innovator at each phase of the adaptive cycle.

2.5 Resilience—thinking across scales

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Sometimes, it's easiest to understand systems dynamics through specific examples. In this segment, the example of resource extraction in a Canadian First Nations community is used to show the importance of diverse perspectives in understanding the nature of problems, as well as envisioning ways to achieve desirable change. Even if you can't relate to this specific example, think about a situation you're familiar with where there are stakeholders with different viewpoints. Try to imagine how you could use those diverse perspectives to help clarify the problem and create ways to accelerate positive impact.

2.6 Seeing systems—scale and boundaries

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Perspective, perspective, perspective! In this video segment, an engaging example is used to illustrate the importance of perspective and how critical it is to be clear about who is looking at a system and for what purpose. You'll learn about the key concepts of scale and boundaries, and how to define them in order to better understand your system.

To go deeper, check out Multi-Scale Integrated Analysis of Agroecosystems and Mario Giampietro, ICEA Research professor.

2.7 Describing systems

2.8 Describing systems—basic concepts

2.9 Describing systems—seeing systems

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When trying to see systems, it's easy to get overwhelmed by the many parts and their interconnections. Using the example of a farm, this segment identifies key elements useful when describing a system.

Don't be worried if, at this point, you don't really understand what a system map should look like. We've shown a few examples here to give you an idea, and you'll see more, in detail, in the coming segments and have the chance to create some of your own. Here, we focus on the elements that go into a system map, and some key considerations. Dan will coach you, based on the Victor Diamond Mine example from his research.

If you do want to go deeper at this point, you can find a step-by-step explanation of system mapping and a number of examples here: Casual Loop Diagram - Little Analytical Tool (PDF).

2.10 Describing systems—Victor Diamond mine case brief 1

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The following segments will lead you through a practice exercise. In preparation, read Victor Diamond Mine case brief 1, below. You’ll use the information in this case to describe the public consultation system, based on the perspective and purpose laid out in the brief. You will learn to identify: the key components and variables; the interactions between these (connections); the boundary of the system; the context of the system outside that boundary; and the relevant scales.

Victor Diamond mine case brief 1 (PDF)

2.11 Describing systems—Victor Diamond mine case brief 2

2.12 Describing systems—review of Victor Diamond mine case studies

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Here, Dan provides a quick debriefing of the Victor Diamond Mine case study. After viewing it, take some time to reflect on the activity you just completed. If you were part of that consultation process, how would you have thought or acted differently if you were aware of the other perspective?

Now, think about a current situation and imagine individuals who have a different experiences, perspectives, and/or opinions from yours. What value could their perspective bring to understanding the problems you’re working on?

2.13 Describing systems—causal flow diagrams

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Systems aren't static or frozen. In this segment, you'll learn how to take a system map with its components and set it in motion to reveal key dynamics. As you start using these tools, it's important to remember that you're not necessarily looking for a right or wrong answer to a particular question. These tools are most useful in describing or telling a story about the system and getting new insights into different pieces of the puzzle. Use this segment to start practicing with the elements you would include and how you'd describe them. Try a couple different variations of your diagrams, and pay attention to what becomes clearer as you experiment with different iterations.

2.14 Describing systems—feedback loops

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When mapping systems, we’re seeking to identify and describe the relationships between various system components and to understand if and how they influence each other. Hopefully, this assists us to imagine how changing those relationships can cause change within the system. This segment looks at different categories of relationships that can be mapped in order to better understand what’s really happening in a complex system. One type of relationship that is usually very helpful to identify is a feedback loop. You can think of this in much the same way as we usually use the term vicious cycle: ongoing, circular relationships amongst various elements at play.

2.15 Describing systems—feedback loops—Victor Diamond Mine case brief 1

2.16 Describing systems—feedback loops—Victor Diamond Mine case brief 2

2.17 Describing systems—causal flow diagrams—exercise debriefing

2.18 Describing systems—causal flow diagrams—examples

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In this segment, Dan shares his own example of drawing out a causal loop and tells you about how considering his diagram from different perspectives helped him to understand the problem and tell the story more fully. This kind of insight helps to get more strategic about where and what kind of change is needed to tip the system in a more positive direction. Take a look at the causal diagrams you created and imagine how they might look different if someone else were to map them. Ask what you might learn from those different perspectives. What different causal diagram would result? How might they assist your own work for change?