Sunday, August 26, 2007

Key to Sustainability: Understanding Systems Thinking's Role

Gwendolyn Hallsmith’s The Key to Sustainable Cities outlines the importance of sustainability and systems thinking as the foundation for community planning. Rather than perceiving cities, towns, villages or neighborhoods as distinct entities, Hallsmith advocates a holistic approach that views communities (loosely defined) as greater than the sum of its parts. In order to understand the inherent dynamics of communities, Hallsmith suggests identifying the interconnectedness between the 3 main actors: individuals/households, organizations (and institutions) and governmental bodies. These separate agents interact in either sustainable or unsustainable ways.

Hallsmith’s definition of sustainability expands upon the Brundtland Commission’s which focused on intergenerational equity to include Natural Step’s focus on global resource equity. Equity as well as economic security and social well-being are needs that Hallsmith contends are just as necessary as basic human needs for a functioning, sustainable community. These additional needs ensure appropriate power sharing which would in turn promote equitable access to and allocation of the required resources. The inclusion of these needs and the proposed effects would either create a vicious or virtuous cycle.

Categorizing processes and events within communities as vicious or virtuous cycles is an example of systems thinking. Systems thinking, first pioneered in the 1950s, is a framework for developing and analyzing natural and human systems. Systems thinking rejects the idea that problems exist in a vacuum. Instead systems thinking requires an understanding of the entire system (in this case – the community) in order to evaluate the unintended consequences of a solution before the solution to one problem just creates another problem.

Applying systems thinking to community planning provides the tools for creating sustainable communities because it acknowledges the dynamic and organic characteristics of communities. Communities as aggregates of individuals (organizations and governments) are not static and therefore require a flexible, self-regulating paradigm. Using systems thinking to identify the causeffects already in place will only strengthen our ability to create progressive, proactive plans for future sustainability. If sustainability is about finding an equitable balance of ideas, needs and resources then the search for solutions needs to be abandoned in favor of a working model that incorporates change and self-determination as its fundamental premises. This course with its focus on student participation and community involvement is structured to effectively employ systems thinking.

However as an academic setting this course is also in the position to analyze and evaluate systems thinking as well as sustainable planning. While Hallsmith provided a thorough background into both, she was quite general in her analysis of the interconnectedness and responsiveness of community agents. Much of her understanding of communities and the appropriateness of systems thinking seems to rest on individuals' need for social interaction and their interest in participating in their communities however this contradicts with the need (as she correctly identified) for self-determination. Requiring activism as an inherent feature of a sustainable model seems to be a fundamental flaw because it is creating a system that will inevitably fail if its members cease to be motivated. A realistically healthy community should only depend on some of its members to be communally minded and allow for a portion of its community to consist of solely self-interested parties.

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