by: Prof. Kambiz Maani
Addressing climate change may be the most important problem the world will face in our lifetimes.
The evidence on the impacts of climate change on the environment, societies and businesses are compelling. Changes to climate affect productivity and profitability of corporations and industries globally.
Decisions and strategies related to climate change have been fraught with challenges and trade-offs. For example, biofuel is seen as an alternative source of energy. However, planting for biofuel may require clearing of forests which reduce the absorption rate of greenhouse gasses (GHG), or use of scarce agricultural land which would increase poverty in less developed countries.
The uncertainty in climate change exacerbates the complexity of decision-making which is caused by the number of the agencies involved and the stakeholders affected. As the stakeholders represent divergent views, backgrounds, assumptions and values, the key challenges for management and policy people is to first create a collaborative mindset and a sense of “common good” amongst the participants. This will facilitate development of a shared understanding of the complexities underlying decision making in climate change responses.
The question is then how to manage the uncertainty and complexity and reaching consensus on how to move forward. It is for these types of complex scenarios that new tools and models are required. As sustainable strategies require the inclusion of economic, social and environmental factors, a systems level approach is necessary.
Climate change issues are recognized as “wicked” or complex problems. From both scientific and social viewpoints, this is a ‘new’ challenge requiring collective learning and new modes of decision- making and collaboration.
The notion of “wicked” problem was first introduced by Horst Rittel in the 1960’s, but it has recently gained fresh attention and scientific treatment from the emerging field of Complexity Science. Complex problems do not lend themselves to conventional expert-driven, single-focus and top-down approaches with the hope of quick and ‘optimal’ solutions. Here, the imperative for partnership at every level is paramount – between the private sector and government, the local and federal, the national and global, poor and rich, powerful and the disadvantage. This challenge is unprecedented in history. The response must shift us towards new and deeper forms of interacting and collective intelligence.
Decision making for climate change is a complex and dynamic process. Nevertheless, several studies show that most individuals and organizations lack the capability and inclination to deal with complexity. Hence, counter-intuitive and counter-productive decision making abound in complex systems. As Herbert Simon, the economics and psychology Noble Laurette concluded, the decisions made in complex contexts, even with the best information and intentions, do not always result in favourable outcomes anticipated by decision makers. This is attributed, among other factors, to limited information processing ability, and misperception of dynamic feedback. The decision-making task becomes even more complex when decisions require the consensus and agreement of numerous stakeholders with divergent agendas, goals and motivations.
Systems Thinking is a scientific tool that presents a framework and ‘language’ for understanding complexity and creating consensus within multi-actor decision scenarios. Complex problems cannot be understood and ‘solved’ by a single agency, discipline or science. Systems Thinking, as a language, provides practical tools and deep insights into how complex systems interact (non-linear feedback). Systems Thinking helps uncover the underlying causes of the problem and helps create a shared understanding of the problem for all concerned.
The Systems Thinking approach considers not only the problem content (technical), but the all-important context (i.e., organizational, social, political environment) that the problem manifests itself.
Hence, it allows foreseeing the intended outcomes as well as unintended consequences of decisions, policies and interventions.
Ultimately, the final arbiter for transformative change is a genuine realization and respect for the common good. In the climate change context, national self-interests and myopic solutions will be detrimental to all. It is in this context that systems thinking aims for a holistic and transformative outcome.Read More