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(Editor's Note: The original blog post was updated on 12/14/11 to include links to photos and to deepen the explanation of activities at the workshop. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions about the original post.)
What is systems thinking, you ask? Why, it’s the process of understanding how things relate to and influence one another within a whole. Basically, instead of working from the perspective of navigating the tip of an iceberg, we think about and work with the 90% of the iceberg that’s underwater—the structure of it.
Pair systems thinking with systems mapping—a way of viewing all of a community’s resources, gaps and opportunities in relation to one another—and you have a great chance of avoiding a problem of titanic proportions.
Around the world, courageous leaders who are working to solve tough public problems use systems thinking and mapping to uncover how seemingly unrelated things relate. They’re trying to anticipate the problems these seemingly unrelated things could cause up ahead (how many times have you run into unintended consequences and wondered, “Why did that happen?”). Systems thinking and mapping can also bring about great innovation and, at a minimum, improve efficiency within a system. While using systems thinking, people connect to others and share knowledge and experience. And it builds up a pile of more accurate, focused data on the problem or opportunity for everyone’s benefit. Sounds great, right?
We thought so, too, which is why we decided that providing training in systems thinking and mapping would be the perfect way to build on the Prospects and Possibilities community meetings that took place across South Dakota in 2010. In feedback from those 35 conversations, South Dakotans told us they were eager to begin working in new ways on old problems.
On November 21 and 22, the Foundation gathered a group of South Dakotans from small and large communities across the state in Chamberlain for a systems thinking/systems mapping workshop led by Mike Goodman and Dr. Mary Emery (biographies).
We spent the afternoon discussing examples of successful solutions to problems and why they were successful. Ken Hubbell, a graphical facilitator, created some detailed murals by listening carefully to the discussions (which you can see on Incommons' FlickR stream.
Later in the evening, the workshop participants chose a sample mapping topic on which to apply what they’d learned. Although they chose the issue of building assisted-living facilities for seniors for the purpose of the exercise, it could just as well have been any other issue that communities face. In completing the exercise they used the community capitals framework(workshop presenter Emery assisted in developing this framework), which builds on research showing that the communities which are most successful in supporting healthy sustainable community and economic development pay attention to all seven types of community capital: natural, built, cultural, human, financial, social and political.
At the end of day one, here’s what the result of the capital mapping exercise looked like (download a printable PDF of this image).
On the second day, folks were exposed to systems thinking, learning and change, including its tools and how to use them. Just like the iceberg example I gave above, participants were asked to think about whysomething is happening. At the end of the day, folks talked about how they would proceed to work on the various tough problems they and their communities face. On workshop evaluations, they overwhelmingly expressed enthusiasm for a systems-thinking approach and said they would begin trying out at home the mapping tools they had learned.
The Bush Foundation would like to thank those who took time out of their busy lives to attend this systems-thinking and mapping workshop. Our staff and partners look forward to working with South Dakotans as they continue to be courageous leaders working to solve tough public problems.
Talk back to Bush
For those who participated in the workshop, what can you share about it and how you will use what you learned? For those who were not in attendance, how has systems thinking, mapping and/or the community capitals framework been helpful in making lasting change in your community?