February 6, 2012
By Matt Palmer
“The Art of System Thinking in Driving Sustainable Transformation” is a great article from The Guardian about how systems thinking can help in the design of sustainable systems. Change of the scale we need in how we harness, deliver, and access energy involves multiple stakeholders being at the table, all having a voice. Here is a quote from the article:
The idea is catching on fast that no single company, NGO or government can bring about the scale of environmental, social and economic change that is essential if we are to deal with the many challenges the world is facing.
More than that, there is an increasing recognition that the inter-dependency of our globalised society means that there needs to be co-ordination across all parts of the system we are trying to change.
The lessons in this article can apply not only to energy systems but other systems, or organizations, particularly ones that may suffer from dysfunctional long-standing attitudes about how to get things done, or what messages to deliver to effect a change. Often the great challenge is the letting go of egos, that there is one right way, or that the group that holds power actually understands that their message, attitudes, and institutional processes need radical revamping. Another quote from The Guardian:
Another important ingredient to generating meaningful change is moving away from a position of what “should” be done and what everyone may feel guilty about not doing, to developing a vision of a positive future.
That is a key psychological learning because it immediately moves people beyond short-term thinking inside the box and encourages a reframing of the issues.
Delivering compelling thematic narratives about the power of collective force, are more effective in impacting policy change, than episodic stories. We need stories that highlight systems rather than trying to create sympathy. These ideas are all based on some of my research into reframing narratives. One interesting revelation my research revealed, at least for me, is that human reasoning is frame based, not fact based. We respond to narratives that speak to our common values.
We can see an example of how a frame based narrative works by looking at the debate around the Northern Gateway Pipeline. From the side of the energy industry and government they use compelling economic arguments as to the value Northern Gateway for Canada. Access to markets, getting world price for our bitumen. The environmental groups and First Nations successfully combat this economic argument by invoking Mother Nature. The risks to the environment out weigh any benefits, is the crux of their rebuttal, and in their narrative they have effectively used the beauty of the natural spaces of BC through which the pipeline would travel to gather support against the development. I would argue, as humans we have an innate programming attaching us emotionally to the natural environment. When we are in nature, we are at peace. This is a challenging frame to combat for the energy industry.
As we move forward, perhaps we can find common ground by exploring some value questions, as the answers we discover may provide an interesting base from which to build a strategy that the majority can understand and accept.