Holistic Approach to Strategy, Policy Development, and Planning — Part 1
Governments, schools, and public and private corporations across the world are gravitating toward the idea of a systems thinking view of planning. They see it as an improved approach to problem solving, or a way to understand increasing complexity and, more recently, a road to integrating policy development and execution. This forum has as one of its purposes to build on this intention and existing efforts and bring a new level of practice to systems thinking work.
The new level of practice is based in moving from systems thinking applied to problem solving and mitigation alone, to a level which embodies a non-reductionist approach that overcomes the fragmentation and silo nature of work when systems thinking is carried out inside a separate ministry or functional group. This isolated practice of work often leads to conflicts and a call for integration of the fragmentation. The new level of practice calls for working from a framework that prevents the fragmentation from the outset. It moves planning out of the need for re-integrating and the focus only on reducing disorder, into being a process of working toward a higher order from the outset and improving the capacity of systems to regenerate themselves. We will refer to this new mode as Holistic Systems Thinking, because it works with wholes and not parts from the beginning.
Defining systems thinking and its role in policy development and implementation
Think about the human body. It has systems and is a nested aspect of greater systems. It has cardiovascular, digestive, and other systems. It also exists in an ecosystem and may move from one to another over a period of time. It also exists in a political system and is affected by and affects it. Systems are always nested because they are exchanging energies across the boundaries; and when working well they ensure vitality and viability with one another. Any one system, such as the cardiovascular system has specific work to do to ensure the on-going regenerative health of the whole of which it is apart. When that one system does not do its job, or cannot because it is compromised, the larger system suffers and even fails. The same is true for the human being. He or she has work to do in the larger system and the larger system cannot function well if humans do not vote, contribute to society, and care for the working of the ecosystem that they inhabit and move through.
The more we can grasp the larger system of which smaller systems are a systemic aspect, the more precise we can be in working with the larger system. For example, it is often best in working with the health of a human being, to look at more than the cardiovascular system, since other systems have a strong effect on it. And further, that the health of the ecosystem the human being inhabits, including its filtration system for pollutants, can affect the health of the cardiovascular system. Even more limiting is to look at the heart as though it were not a working aspect of the cardiovascular system. The heart is not a system but a structural element of a system. It works in relationship to the system in which it is embedded.
We have a tendency to lose sight of the system when looking at nature. We work on lakes and waterways which are structures within a system called a watershed. Or we look at forests, which are also structures within a watershed system. It takes practice to stop ourselves from fragmenting a system such as a watershed into its constituent parts such as forests, lakes, animals, and fish. The watershed’s working cannot be understood by looking at these aspects organized independent of the system. Looking at three levels of system is a good guideline as the minimum.
Seeing the whole of a system is necessary to overcome the fragmentation and silo planning processes especially as policy entities turn to climate change and sustainability initiatives as part of economic and land use decision making. As humans we have created arbitrary boundaries, which have nothing to do with how nature works. Humans need to understand systems as nature defines them and how they work to be healthy and vital. Humans, with education and effort to study with a different paradigm, can understand and contribute their valuable role in supporting and enabling the working of systems using nature’s operating manual.
Working from a Holistic Systems Framework to Understand a Place
For this series, we will work with a set of frameworks that represent a way the mind tends to work naturally when it is more systemic and working with wholes in a systemic say. It includes six levels of systems, which build on one another in the framework as well as in real life ecosystems. It is a holoarchy, instead of a hierarchy, a terms coined by Arthur Koestler to make the building of ideas less layered and more related. A holon means something is a part and a whole at the same time, and a holoarchy is a nested set of wholes, each one building on the other. It is a system of systems that are integrally related and increasingly so as the systems unfold. To understand a place as defined by nature, rather than the fragmenting organization that we as humans can often impose, we will work in the forum from this set of systems. We will see easily that the upper systems mirror the possibilities and restraints of the lower systems.