Guiding Principle 1) Systems Thinking – Understanding Context

Effective strategies in every human endeavor require that “context” be considered. In short, Systems Thinking aims to “contextualize” things and to steer clear of simple multi-disciplinary models. No project can be properly developed without carefully considering the context and repercussions of the proposed effort or change.

Gharajedaghi, 2006, describes “Systems Thinking” in extensive detail in “Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos & Complexity, a Platform for Designing Business Architecture”. And it is beyond the scope of this summary to discuss at length. As an introduction, however, all endeavors should give serious consideration to the potential environmental, social, political, economic, and cultural/historical repercussions and implications as they interact in the human-natural environment.

As an economic, social and educational endeavor, the JRLU, combined with the RRES should similarly consider the macro-scale impacts since a project of this scope touches all aspects of community life and will be instrumental in shaping future societies. However, we would also include two other “micro”- considerations that might best be termed human and spiritual as they relate to the foundations of our efforts to stimulate individual, personal empowerment that will then convert to community advancement.

Our strategy, discussed in greater detail below, is derived from the basic understanding that strategies aimed towards successful community empowerment require that we also comprehend the “opportunity space” objectively and comprehensively, and the ensuing impacts of our actions.

In general, historically and traditionally, human endeavors and scientific research (under the rubric of education) have tended to focus on independent multi-disciplinary pieces in which the whole is the sum of its associative parts. In our systems approach, we intend to look at the “big-picture”, identify and examine the various pieces, reassemble the “puzzle,” (Diagram 10) and then study it as an interactive system—a synthesis of processes, people, and subsystems which is the key to success. Evaluation is a critical element which is inherent throughout the process.

The complexity of endeavors to serve human needs effectively, efficiently and responsibly demands that a dynamic and adaptive approach be used. Systems Theory (or Thinking) provides a strong foundation for such an approach. Systems Thinking does not simply entail a multi-disciplinary approach; rather, the real issues related to dynamic and changing situations involving  human systems and services (engineered) is to develop ways to synthesize separate findings into a coherent whole. This fact is far more critical than the ability to generate information from different perspectives (i.e. from different disciplinary perspectives). To illustrate our point, we use the elephant story found in Persian literature as narrated by Molana Jaladedin Molavi (Rumi).  It is presented as a metaphor in which several men are attempting to identify an elephant in the dark. The effort proves fruitless until another man shows up with a light. Gharajedaghi (2006) Page 108-109 presents this perspective in the following:

 “The light, which in this context is a metaphor for methodology, enables them all to see the whole at last.

Rumi’s version of the story means that the ability to see the whole somehow requires an enabling light in the form of an operational systems methodology.” …. For our purpose here, … “one should be able to make one’s underlying assumptions about the nature of the socio-cultural systems explicitly known and verifiable to oneself.

Whatever the nature of the enabling light, my contention is that it must have two dimensions. The first dimension is a framework for reality, a system of systems concepts to help generate the initial set of working assumptions about the subject. The second dimension is an iterative search process to: 1) generate the initial working assumptions, 2) verify and/or modify initial assumptions, and 3) expand and evolve the emerging  notions, until a satisfactory vision of the whole is produced. As Singer put it “Truth lies at the end, not at the beginning of the holistic inquiry” (Singer, 1959).

The challenges presented by our modern world, and agencies and institutions inadequate performance to rectify the “problems”, suggest that we consider “stepping-back” to gain a new perspective which can provide insights to develop solutions and more effective “holistic” approaches.

The Duality – Engineered “systems” and People

Gharajedaghi presents an insightful and important discussion pointing to a conundrum in the structure for dealing with the realities of the world. He discusses three theoretical views: Mindless Systems: mechanistic, Uniminded Systems: A biological view, and Multiminded Systems: sociocultural systems. As you might imagine each of these perspectives involves considerable discussion. And in that process we add complexity which can cloud our perspective or clarity.

For our purposes here we will only focus on two systems that can be deduced from Ghaarajedaghi’s discourse and our observations working in communities. These two are sufficient for our need to identify a core issue that must be addressed.  They are 1) Engineered, and 2) Human. In our view all things that we have created are supposedly designed to advance human life (e.g. governments, business, social endeavors). And all engineered solutions were created for this purpose. However, in our perspective the engineered world dominates our reality now. And attention to the engineered world has caused us to lose perspective on the reasons why we make all this “stuff”, supposedly to make our lives better. But we see that the human and natural world have fallen into obscurity as we have become obsessed with technological advancement, materialism and “development”.

The term “Engineered” in this context includes organizations, agencies, roads, automobiles, etc. etc. In essence, and this can be traced back to the industrial revolution and to Adam Smith’s economic view, all of the institutions, governments, corporations, educational endeavors have fallen into the “engineered” reality because “science” has presented us this framework.

Even though some minor change in perspective may have occurred, the evolution of how the two systems interact “built/engineered” and “human” has not changed. It is easy to apply a “systems” solution to a road, or a machine or even an institution or government, the challenge is how does that affect the “human” part of the equation? Machines and systems are predictable (for the most part), but people are not, even less so are natural systems. In fact, even the term “systems thinking” is couched within the problem. Vesterberg provides a concise definition of Systems Thinking.

What is Systems Thinking? Systems thinking comes from a rigorous scientific discipline called General Systems Theory, which was developed in the 1920s. The theory centered on the natural world, the living systems therein and the common laws governing those systems. Its major premise was that such laws, once known, could serve as a conceptual framework for understanding the relationships within any system, and for handling any problems or changes encompassed by that system. Consequently, the theory emphasized the value of viewing a system as a whole, of gaining a perspective on the entire “entity”, before examining its parts.

The framework is based on the belief that the component parts of a system will act differently when the systems relationships are removed and it is viewed in isolation. The only way to fully understand why a problem or element occurs and persists is to understand the part in relation to the whole. (

Even the language that is being used in this document is constrained with the “engineered” mentality using the phrase “systems thinking”. If we look at how various institutions, corporations or governments operate, because they are structural, and thus systems, they implement engineered or “mechanistic” solutions. For example, if  there is a gap in a program or some form of waste is discovered inside an organization what is implemented is a new policy, or regulation, or law usually consisting of a new form to be filled out and/or some type of police action in order that the “gap” be watched and monitored. For all intents and purposes this is like putting a new “gear” in the machine. But even in a machine, this will not work. Even more blatant, and we have confronted this challenge innumerable times, is to attempt to introduce a new “program” or innovation into one of these institutions. If there is not a box on the form to write that, the idea simply will be discarded. In order to consider, there would need to be a major policy or structural change to accommodate even a “pilot” or demonstration project. An analogy would be like trying to add a new apparatus to the internal combustion engine – it’s not going to happen.

Where humans meet the machine cannot be described simply in mechanistic terms. It seems a bit ironic that “systems thinking” was originally derived from the observation of the natural world. But the natural world has been around much longer than this “mechanistic” view, and it would seem ultimately to be showing us the error of our ways. Because of our self-inflicted crisis, we are having to turn once again to nature to find solutions. We need to move out of the rigid language and thinking to a more fluid, organic and natural process that allows for adaptation to new environments which are presenting  themselves. In our discussion here, for lack of a better term, we are promoting a “grass-roots” approach.

To demonstrate how inadequate “engineered” thinking and language is to solve our crisis between our created systems and the natural world, would be to try to describe the beauty of a flower with engineers terms, much less the growth and development of a natural ecosystem, a landscape or a baby. It can’t be done.

Our main point here is people don’t respond like machines. So an engineered solution will not be adequate. For lack of a better term, people’s lives are more like “soap operas”, filled with drama, and uncertainty. And at the end, the systems don’t ultimately serve the people’s needs, they serve the institution´s needs which use up precious resources that could have been better utilized. It should be accepted as a given that the systems we have created are supposed to serve people.

Another example of how a “mechanistic” or engineered view fails is how institutions, or agencies, monitor their success or performance. It usually just comes down to numbers. This is because engineered reality can essentially deal only with quantitative characteristics not qualitative. Everything has to be boiled down to numbers, even the qualitative measures have to be put into tables of numbers, so what ends up happening to the qualities? It’s an important question. And even more importantly is the question that really is the bottom line in most people’s lives whether it is in a family, community, region or nation - how is the quality of life?

This discussion is not proposing to address this philosophical or paradigmatic crisis. That too is really “raging against the machine”, and would require exorbitant energies to change - precious energies that are better used to change the “system” from the ground-up, or from the “grass-roots”. The institutional structure that has been created is rigid, and will ultimately crumble under its own weight. The point to introducing this important issue is to be aware as one starts to move down to the level of bringing innovation into institutions and communities and potentially “evolution” into individual’s lives, it will be necessary to treat the people like “people” not “machines”. They will respond much better. Of course, people indoctrinated into the mechanistic way of being will resist these structural changes, but we ultimately do not have to worry about this. The people who are ready for change, the early adopters, are the ones we are interested in. The key to our success will be to get practical, rewarding solutions into these people’s hands and let them demonstrate to the remaining people and community, how new ways can open up opportunities and create a better “quality of life”. We can find innumerable examples of this occurring throughout history, and in our current times. However, in most cases, these are fairly isolated. What we want to do is implement strategies that take these successful approaches, and make them available to others.

The Context, or Opportunity Space – The Urban Rural Nexus

The JRLU is in a unique position to offer services to a highly underserved segment of societies—rural places. Traditionally urban and rural are viewed as two separate entities competing for resources. In actuality it is a whole system. Rural economies are dependent on an influx of dollars from the city. Cities are dependent on rural places for food, water, fiber, natural resource protection and for leisure and recreational respites. In other words the two are inextricably linked. Diagram 2 below presents what we call the Rural – Urban Nexus which illustrates the dynamic interchange and interdependencies.

The challenge for rural places is real. Geography and supplying various services to rural places has been a constant challenge because services need to be extended across distances, without the “critical mass” of customers which will pay for the services. Cities inherently have better access to services, but one could argue that the quality of life is not necessarily better. Much could be written about this conundrum, which is not the point of this book. The key issue is to introduce the “opportunity space” for extending services to rural places, and to identify how urban centers and rural places are dependent on each other for ultimate survival. In a way this paper suggests first recognizing the interdependencies and secondly to build a bridge for enhancing the opportunities that are presented to support this important dynamic relationship. That bridge can be built via the Internet.

It is critical to extend services to rural communities, and, with the advent of the Internet, it can be viable economically to do so. There are cases of businesses in the United States that realized the rural opportunity such as Wal-Mart and Dollar General. Both became highly profitable. However, these examples do little justice to the opportunity that we intend to develop by extending services, education and empowerment tools and resources to support the local citizenry of rural communities to be grown from the community itself. The overall potential for success in building this bridge, in combination with the “systems approach” for managing negative impacts more effectively, is tremendous and not just economically, but more importantly for the quality of life.

In Diagram 2 we highlight the provision of a group of services and information to empower rural communities (starting upper left). The key to this diagram is the process of extending services to rural regions and communities which have been historically underserved. The large 90 degree arrow points to the desired outcomes: the bringing of hope, inspiration and ultimately empowerment to individuals where success is ultimately grounded. The upper right quadrant of the diagram depicts the interdependent relationships between rural and urban places.

Diagram 2: The Urban – Rural Nexus – Building the Bridge

The bullet points in the bottom left of the diagram highlight that entities previously have extended services before and have been successful. However, our new opportunity is even greater with the advent of the Internet. In fact, we often point out that our new success will not be based on consumerism, selling people a bunch of stuff, but on providing resources to empower people through education and the various “empowerment tools” to capitalize on the inherent capital available in all places a) people, 2) the natural resource endowment, and 3) the history and culture of the place.

Finally, the last point in the bottom right of the diagram is included for those who would argue that private landowners cannot or will not protect the natural environment. This observation is true to an extent. However, our experience working in Texas which is almost exclusively privately owned is that landowners love their land. And if they end up causing damages it is usually a result of ignorance. We observed that as land management education was made available to these people it was taken up and implemented with impressive success. The primary point of the statement in Diagram 2 about government agencies is that first, there is not the political will to make enough  “effective” land management agencies for all lands, and secondly if there was, it would be such a huge endeavor it would almost surely fail. We have examples of this in the United States such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the effectiveness of these organizations for managing the vast resources under their watch is dubious at best.

A basic fact could be stated as we look at the rural-urban question: not everyone can live in the city! Nor would we want them to. One need only look at history to see what happens when too many people live in close proximity.

However, as one looks at economic pressures on the average rural citizen there appears to be significant challenges to be able to “stay on the land”, so to speak. And pressures continue to grow on urban centers as mass exoduses occur from rural areas of people hoping to find a better life, especially in developing countries.

However, there are some deviations to these trends in places like the United States. Where people have freed themselves financially, there are growing numbers that are moving from the city to rural places, and/or buying second homes there. Some investigators are highlighting that rural places are flourishing. Needless to say as one travels in rural communities whether it is in the United States or any country there appears to be some level of revitalization. Nonetheless, in our observations, problems are still ubiquitous, especially for the poor. These problems can especially be seen in communities that have historically been on the fringe, economically, socially or geographically (e.g. urban) or are in areas of racial diversity.

Further stymieing the process of agencies or corporations extending services is that the efforts are “silo’ized” (discussed in detail in Extracting Knowledge and Converting below). Each entity (agency) segments their area of service and only tries to push a narrow set of ideas/programs onto their constituents – almost always utilizing a “top-down” approach. Efforts are fragmented and lack quality and substance. We could cite several cases. In the process they are using up precious financial resources that could be better utilized by cooperating with other agencies and programs, that not only extend services from the top down, but start to build from “grass-roots”. Often the agencies and institutions have policies to share and collaborate with other organizations, or to make what they offer more germane and effective through cooperation, but in the end we would argue this usually only is presented as “lip-service”.

The time has come to bring more value and substance in the programs and services that are offered in the spirit of cooperation and efficiency, and utilizing new technologies. Drivers for this process go beyond the traditional, almost exclusively economical to include things like, environmental sustainability, enhancing the “quality of life”, innovation and inspiration in business and agriculture, creativity, enthusiasm, human connections, passion, spirit, intuition, love, etc.

In summary, some important points to consider when evaluating the “Rural – Urban Nexus”

- Rural landowners can provide much needed land and natural resource management, even if the “public will” was to create agencies to provide “land management” it is highly cost prohibitive, plus the performance of these agencies for long-term “protection”, from a historical perspective, is not satisfactory.

- Rural areas are necessary for the “recreation respite”, from the high paced, stressful lifestyle of cities. Nature is truly necessary for adequate rest and revitalization and large, quiet natural areas are not normally found in cities.

- Plenty of solutions are available in educational institutions and agencies that can be utilized to cope with the rural economic, social and environmental conundrum. The key is to develop the ways/means to extend these services.

- There is a tremendous opportunity to create a new service paradigm for “Extension education” via the Internet and technology tools.

- Value comes from real solutions. There are numerous “success stories” at various scales from around the globe by which general principles can be derived and then those strategies adapted to various contexts.

All rights reserved GBCI, SMI & JRLU Team © 2012