Friday, August 29, 2014

A Systems Story - New Short Video to Introduce Systems Thinking

I often get asked for interesting resources to help people learn more about Systems Thinking -  what it is and how to use it for understanding the complexity that surrounds us, and for making effective interventions for positive change. For those of us in the sustainable development community, working with this complexity is a feature of ever day life.

There's a new short video just out, called "A Systems Story", which aims to introduce systems thinking and its key components (stocks and flows, archetypes, delays, etc) through a story. The example this video uses is not what we might expect to see - water resource management, the climate system, global commodities flow - the example that is uses to introduce systems thinking is love. 

The Budapest-based start up that produced it,  BEE Environmental Communication, with team lead Sarah Czunyi, worked for the past few months to create the video with seed funding from the Balaton Group's Donella Meadows Fellowship Programme. Sarah was a Fellow of the programme last year and used the stipend to create this innovative educational video as a way to learn about systems thinking through trying to explain it very simply, and in a visually appealing way - all in 4 minutes and 45 seconds. 

Whether as an eye catching start to a formal course on systems thinking  learning and applications, or a way to introduce a strategic planning workshop exercise that uses some systems thinking diagramming tools, the video can grab people's attention and help spark a discussion about how things are interconnected, what possible influence elements of the system can have on each other, how things change dynamically and what kinds of effects an intervention might have on your system - be it love or climate change. 

See what you think!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Working with Values and Frames: Practical Lessons for Process Designers and Facilitators

With thanks to Guest blogger: Cristina Apetrei 

Back in January my friend Gillian and I were planning to go together to a Common Cause workshop, but we both cancelled last minute due to work obligations. When six months later I did manage to attend a similar event, she was very eager to hear what I learned and kindly invited me to write a guest blog post to share my experience with all of you.

Common Cause is an initiative started in 2009 by several NGOs in the UK who wanted to engage in a broader conversation about the values at the core of our society and what is needed in order to get more public engagement around various global (sustainability) issues. In an initial report - Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values (September 2010) - they looked at social psychology and cognitive science to investigate the relationship between values and behaviour. Later some of these findings were summarized in the Common Cause Handbook – which I recommend as a quick introduction to this discussion, although the full report is much richer.

The main practical conclusion is quite simple: An organization might well be striving for a certain idealistic goal, but it will not be very effective as long as it communicates in a language that enhances values which conflict with that goal. Therefore, we should always pay attention to how we frame and contextualize our messages, and be on the lookout for the implicit values that are being reinforced

Common Cause also says that some values are held more easily together by the same individual. To give an example, a campaign that frames the installation of solar panels as a way to save money on the energy bill reinforces the so-called “extrinsic value” of “wealth”. This value however is in conflict with values such as “protecting the environment” or “equality” that would be required for deeper engagement with the issue of climate change.

But value communication goes beyond the text of a campaign or the copywriting of a website; it also includes the context of an event or the overall culture of an organization. No communication is value-neutral, the Common Cause report argues, so try to nurture intrinsic values (self-transcendence, see Figures 2 and 3 How Values Work) rather than extrinsic ones (self-enhancement) if you want to see behaviours aligned with bigger-than-self goals.

Of course, one may read between the lines an implicit moral dimension here, suggesting that some values would be preferable to others, and this remains an open point for critique and debate. Nevertheless, I believe that the Common Cause approach at the very least makes us aware that not only are our behaviours determined by our values, but also that our actions shape the cultural value landscape that we are part of. As activists or sustainability workers, we are reminded that change does not happen in a vacuum, but requires a certain set of conditions to be met in our environment.

This has implications also for the work of a process designer and a facilitator, whose art is precisely about creating a space that is favourable to a positive outcome. I try to give a few lessons below:

1.      1. Think about the implicit frames and values of the participants
a.   Understand existing frames: Consider not only what each participant sees as the problem and the solution, but also the cultural frames that they may be employing in their evaluation. What stories do they have about the issue at hand, who is to blame in their view, who should take responsibility and why?
b.   Understand values: What underlying values do these frames elicit? Are these values compatible? Is the spectrum of values represented around the table very broad and what could be common ground for a solution?

2.       2. There may be more space for agreement than it appears
One of the findings of the Common Cause report is that people are not selfish, but value intrinsic goals more than their own interest. Also, appealing to people’s intrinsic values will over time reinforce them, while appealing to conflicting values will create confusion. If we take such insights as premises, how could the problems (or the difficult points) be reframed in a way that allows participants to more easily see the common ground?

3.       3. The context of the facilitation session  and dialogue matters
The space in which an event takes place also embeds certain values. To the extent to which you can influence the choice of the space and its setup, consider the following questions: Where does the session take place? Is it in a sumptuous room or is it on neutral ground, in an environment that makes everyone feel equal? What about group dynamics: who are the actors organizing the event and what is their relationship to the rest? Is there a speaker dominating the room or are hierarchies being reduced?

Whether you are working as a researcher, consultant, activist or facilitator, I hope this post will make you a bit more aware of the subjective fabric behind words and inspire you to think of your own role in promoting some values over others.

(From Gillian: Thanks so much to Cristina - also a Fellow Balaton Group Member -  for her intriguing post and report back from the Common Cause workshop - it sounds highly relevant, particularly to the communication and convening work that we all do continually in the sustainability community. Next time I will try to attend myself!)

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Turkish Astronomer, The SDGs and The Balaton Group

Every year on the shores of Lake Balaton, a very unique group of systems dynamicists, systems thinkers and sustainability practitioners - called The Balaton Group - meet. The Group has met annually since founders Dennis Meadows and Donella Meadows (Co-authors of Limits to Growth) constituted it in 1982 to explore, exchange, support, dream and create together around the sustainability challenges that face our world. 

This year our meeting focuses on the SDGs and is titled: How Can the Sustainable Development Goals Advance Sustainability?  Now, Balaton Group Members are remarkable people, and one of them who participated in the recent deliberations that lead to the current SDGs wrote a thoughtful reflection on the meetings that he was attending as a part of the intergovernmental Open Working Group (OWG). He called it The Turkish Astronomer...I thought it was a lovely reflection, it was poignant for me as I have sat on both sides of the room at these kinds of meetings, and I wanted to share it here (with his permission)...


I am sitting here at the morning hearing with stakeholders and major groups, morning after morning. This right now, as I write,  is the last one in the series, the Friday one. An African girl from a women’s group, also on behalf of trade unions is speaking.  Then an Arab one. Then a Latin American. Then a European. Then an old lady from Harlem.

What they are demanding eloquently, regularly, repetitively is what many of us yearn to hear during the day from UN Member States: respect to human rights, decisive action on climate change, observation of planetary boundaries, development instead of growth, new indicators for prosperity, win-win solutions for ecology and economy, natural resource accounting, contraction and convergence, and so on. The call for the establishment and use of new monitoring and evaluation methods for society, economy and ecology.

They are our Turkish astronomers. (Remember the Little Prince of Saint-Exupéry?) They are saying all the correct things. More than that: they are saying the essential things. But they  have the wrong clothes, an appearance that, ultimately, screens away this essence. They are not XY PhD, or Prof.dr. ZW or Director of the IIVSEM  (International Institute for Very Sound Expertise on the Matter). They are mere NGO activists of pressure groups with unknown but giveaway names. It is not their research. It is not their data. It is, in fact information from you, academics, scientists, research people from UN special agencies they rely on, they quote, they wield. They are people who listened to you, who read what you wrote, discussed it, teamed up and came together around it, understood it.

But they do not look like experts. They do not sound like experts. The do not have the business cards of experts. They are nothing but passionate persons impatient with the inertia of national governments that threatens their future, their childrens’ and grandchildrens’ future. They do not want war, violence, disasters, migration, hunger and thirst in their lives, and they find it intolerable that their representatives are not willing to make the right decisions to avoid the avoidable, and prepare wisely for the unavoidable.

But their members do not number enough to be taken seriously politically, and their identity offers an excuse to dismiss their messages as amateur personal opinions.  

But unlike the case of the Turkish astronomer, here we cannot hope for them returning “properly dressed” and thus credible to the same forum with the same message, this time to be listened to. 

Unless their ranks will be joined at the same fora by those whose spokespersons they became, they fight in vain.
Their “light cavalry” would need some artillery – the will not save the day by themselves.

Many thanks again for those of you, those of the science and expert community, who are engaging in this effort, through the OWG and through relentless lobbying your governments.

Warmest regards,