Core Capacities: Whole Systems/Holistic View

Take a Whole Systems/Holistic View of a Situation

Climate adaptation is the kind of challenge that impacts the whole system, from individual beliefs, to municipal infrastructure, to decision-making processes, and more (Kates et al., 2012). As noted above, the tools of systems thinking could be shared in a whole course. However, even without extensive training in systems thinking methods, we can still employ and benefit from some of the core principles of this approach in our engagement and dialogue work.

In sum, this approach draws on our own “curiosity, clarity, compassion, choice, and courage” and “includes the willingness to see a situation more fully, to recognize that we are interrelated, to acknowledge that there are often multiple interventions to a problem…,” which supports us to “expand the choices available to us and create more satisfying, long-term solutions to chronic problems” (Goodman, n.d.).

For this course, the practices that align with a holistic or systems level view include:

  • Inquiry into underlying causes, behaviours, structures (including power structures), assumptions, and worldviews (including our own) that are enabling or generating particular patterns within individuals, groups or whole organizations (Goodman, n.d.);
  • Recognition that the patterns we see are the result of different parts of the system interacting with one another, creating outcomes that are rarely the result of a single actor or decision. And that these parts of the system are not always visible to us (such as assumptions, mental models and organizational culture); and
  • Curiosity about and inclusion of the many parts of the system (people, organizations, teams) that are either impacted by or impacting the initiative or project.

In application, this might look like “forging relationships across traditional sector boundaries or bringing together ‘unusual suspects’ who would not normally work together” (Abercrombie et al., 2018, p. 19). Or, it might mean considering a particular boundary around the system that you’re working in/with (a geographic community, a group of constituents, etc.…). It could also mean identifying all the parts within that system that you need to work or engage with, and including those multiple perspectives in consultation and decision-making. Additionally, this approach can include reflecting on the ways that your location in the system might leave you with blind spots and choosing to seek out people or individuals who can support you to see parts that might not be visible to you.


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Strategic Dialogue and Engagement for Climate Adaptation Copyright © by Simon Fraser University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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