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Systems thinking in a time of crisis. In conversation with SITRA Lab’s Mikael Seppälä


As of today, there are more than 2.17 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally. The pandemic has spread at an unprecedented speed to more than 190 countries around the world. By the end of March 2020, over 180 countries had closed down their schools. Governments are taking action around the world to manage school closures, country-wide healthcare emergencies and likely economic recession (if not depression).

Governments have to take multiple policy decisions across policy sectors, very quickly and with high uncertainty. Systems Thinking seems to me to be the appropriate lens or framework to do that, but can it be applied at a time of crisis such as the one we are living through? And if so, how?

I reached out to Mikael Seppälä (also on Twitter) at SITRA Lab in Helsinki for a chat to find out more. We started with Systems Thinking and ended up talking about how we should use innovation to actively manage systemic risks such as COVID-19.

Thinking about systems, Mikael Seppäla

Arnaldo Pellini – Let me start with my main question: does Systems Thinking help government decisions at a time of crisis, like the one we are living through? The background to this question is that I have been working on a policy brief about the challenges and opportunities for governments in developing countries to transition to distance learning. Most governments are taking big decisions like this very quickly and in all sectors. They do so with incomplete information and a high degree of uncertainty. In this context, during a crisis what does it mean to apply systems thinking?

Mikael Seppälä – I think a lot of governments are in the complex mode where, borrowing from Dave Snowden, they have to probe, sense and respond quickly with what you mention, incomplete information. Since the start of the lockdown period in Finland on 16 March, I haven’t spoken to anyone working in the government, but I’d guess the mode they’re in right now feels very uncomfortable.

As an academic discipline, Systems Thinking is notorious for having a bunch of interesting methods and ways of exploring and understanding the world, but with no real meaning outside of academic circles and some communities of practice. Many of us have seen those intricate Systems Maps of obesity in the UK or the factors affecting stability in Afghanistan. Have those led to actual impact? I don’t really know. I’d guess that they have not had the impact at scale they wanted to have. So instead of just using Systems Thinking, during a time of crisis what governments might need is to amplify that with managing Systemic Risks.

AP – So, leaving the intricate theories in the background and identifying the Systems Thinking that is more appropriate at a time of crisis.

MS – At a recent webinar organized by David Snowden’s Cognitive Edge, the COVID-19 pandemic was defined as a Black Elephant (rather than a Black Swan), meaning we noticed it but mostly ignored it. With crises of this scale, we (and governments) have to be able to act fast rather than focus on the prerequisites of systems thinking and systems doing. When it is time to act, we don’t have time to start building trust, to develop a shared understanding among citizens, to help the system see itself and everything else that requires a lot of convening. We need to prepare our responses before the crisis hits.

Managing Systemic Risks is a lot about preparing for something we know is likely to happen even though we don’t know when it will happen. This requires  government institutions and organizations to adopt a reconceptualization of risks that fits the complex domain – they shouldn’t just try to avoid them or control them, but actively manage their relationship to the possible risks. This means preparing and innovating to build resilience rather than trying to react when something happens. 

AP – What are the capabilities that are required in government organizations to apply systems thinking at a time of crisis?

MS – I really liked the post about Taiwan that you shared. Taiwan has been preparing for the next pandemic since 2004 when it encountered SARS. Whereas much of the rest of the world was waiting to see what it was all about, the Taiwanese were already actively asking whether this might be the new SARS and already managing the risks in December 2019. Over the years Taiwan had developed a portfolio of 124 action items it was prepared to implement should it encounter a similar situation.

Another example is from the World Economic Forum. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2020 report does a great job of outlining interconnected Systemic Risks that are already present and likely to emerge despite nations and international institutions trying to work on the Sustainable Development Goals. You can see that infectious diseases are just one of the Systemic Risks.

Global Risks Interconnections Map. Source: World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2020 report

Another example comes from the OECD.In October 2019, the OECD’s New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC) Initiative, which was established to distil the lessons from the 2008 global financial crisis, organized a conference on Averting Systemic Collapse. This explored the question of how to manage Systemic Risks. At the conference they published a report called Resilience Strategies and Approaches to Contain Systemic Risks, which I can warmly recommend to anyone interested in the topic. The report outlines some of the capabilities that enable resilience management. The capabilities are essentially adaptive and networked and span the physical, informational, cognitive and social domains. Using these perspectives to understand Systemic Risks in a complex adaptive system is key to being able to manage them.

AP – So, there is a lot of thinking and knowledge production out there. Why were our governance systems, with some exceptions, not ready for the COVID-19 crisis?

MS – Considering the financial collapse that COVID-19 has created, I’m a bit confused about why the dominant narrative that drives innovation is that of creating new businesses, jobs, products and services. Given the imminent Systemic Risks that we face globally, governments should direct more finances into Systems Innovation that seeks to build the resilience that would help us mitigate future risks. The goal here is to work on networks of whole systems rather than inventing silver bullets that would magically solve the problems. Rather than being the starting point, the outcome of such innovation could be new businesses, jobs, products and services.

The investment logic of this could be borrowed from insurance, but with the difference that rather than paying to fix problems after the risks have been fulfilled, investment would be up front to be able to plan, absorb, recover and adapt faster and cheaper. This requires systemic capabilities that help governments and societies to do this.

AP – Mikael, thank you very much

If you republish, please add this text: This article is republished from Knowledge Counts, a blog by Arnaldo Pellini under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0). You can read the original article here.

Header photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

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