Reference Sheet C
What are systems
and systems thinking?
A system is a set of interacting or interdependent parts that form a whole. Every system has a purpose, components and interconnections. Its behaviours give each system a certain structure even if this changes regularly, and rules (many unwritten or even unspoken) that govern its behaviours.
Every community is a system, and a system within other systems. Your target community may have an unspoken purpose, for example, to promote welfare, happiness or prosperity. It is composed of many subsystems, which include individuals, households, leadership structures and even a development committee, central market, school or river. These components interact at many levels inside and beyond the community with various effects. Every element is capable of adapting and, when it does so, may change the entire system, including even its purpose.
Academic institutions have traditionally studied the individual components of complex systems, for example, health, water and infrastructure. International development and humanitarian aid agencies followed their lead. It is now recognized that interdisciplinary approaches offer huge advantages because, by studying the interactions in a system, they can find more complete solutions to modern challenges such as inequality and climate change.
Systems thinking is the deliberate examination of whole systems, rather than their separate parts. It offers communities a way to promote sustainable and transformative change, and calls for the examination of interconnections across levels (thereby promoting vertical integration when appropriate), across sectors/geographies (horizontal integration) and across time. You will need to explore how a community is (or should be) linked to local, provincial and national authorities, and even to global dimensions of knowledge (such as technological advances in vaccination, an up‑to‑date understanding of climate change, or changes in the pattern of natural hazards). You will also study access to services and relationships of power, and look carefully at the interactions between sectors or between one sector and others. For instance, you might need to examine how changes in the health status of a community are affected by climate, infrastructure, global market prices, migration, or the evolution of livelihoods and employment.
When we study systems we often encounter the terms chaos and complexity.
Chaos theory maps the causal links between small changes in one location and the occurrence of much larger events at a distance. Accordingly, a minor change in a small community may have a striking ripple effect across that system and more widely. Complexity theory examines the components of complex systems to study and explain the effects of their interaction, interdependence, adaptation and self‑organization.
Advantages of a systems approach
Applying a systems approach to resilience strengthening brings many more advantages than disadvantages. In fact, the only disadvantage may be the additional time it requires to analyse before taking action and radically review traditional approaches to programming to see how it can be run more effectively. The main advantages of a systems approach are highlighted below:
Context analysis: Systems thinking starts with a thorough and holistic context analysis that is not confined to one sector, programme or agenda. This enables a community to better understand both its complexity and its relationships with other parts of the system.
Wider reach: No National Society can support all the priorities that communities identify during a context analysis or vulnerability and capacity assessment (VCA). A systems approach will help to identify partners that the National Society should connect the community to in order to obtain additional support.
More sustainable: Applying a systems approach helps communities to understand their environment, including the wider system in which they are embedded. As a result, they are better equipped to identify and nurture new relationships sustainably, for example, with local authorities.
Redundancy: To strengthen the overall system, including the interconnections that define it, it is necessary to build in redundancy. Redundancy exists in a system when, if a critical component fails, another can assume its functions. For instance, if a community’s relationship with local authorities breaks down following elections, its ties with other communities may still provide for its needs.
Scalability: All communities are different: one advantage of a systems approach is that it can deal with differences in complexity and scale. It enables us to understand the diverse interconnections in a large urban community as well as the close relationships in a small village.
Taking the example of first aid services - a core activity for almost all National Societies - let us imagine how they might connect with other systems. The table below shows how work with first aid in isolation cannot, on its own, make a community resilient to health shocks. Treating first aid separately could be counterproductive and even harmful to the community. If your National Society is involved in the First Aid in Every Home initiative, your activities already contribute to household resilience. Impact can be improved, however, by using first aid as an entry point for strengthening other services it depends on.
While holistic systems thinking is only one of the landmarks of resilience strengthening, it presupposes and promotes the fundamental shift in thinking that is required before other landmarks can take form.
Many entities that work with National Societies are applying a holistic approach to their operational activities. For example, the Partners for Resilience (PfR) Vision Tree (Netherlands Red Cross, Cordaid, Wetlands International. 2012. Partners for resilience, a new vision for community resilience: A case for change) focuses on core phases (anticipate, respond, adapt and transform) set in a layered system that runs from households to communities and into larger landscapes. Its eight principles draw on systems thinking to promote resilience and its method stretches beyond the traditional community to include the full ecosystem. Since 2011, National Societies in nine countries have cooperated with Partners for Resilience. Disaster risk reduction initiatives that link communities upstream and downstream in flood early‑warning systems also apply systems thinking.