About Nicky Ison
Nicky Ison has spent 20 years working for a faster and fairer transition to clean energy and climate justice. She is an acknowledged leader, expert and commentator in the fields of energy policy, community energy, climate action and making Australia a renewable superpower.
She is currently the Head of Direct Advocacy at Boundless. Previously, Nicky was the Energy Transition Manager at WWF Australia where she developed and led their Renewables Nation campaign. She was a Founding Director of the Community Power Agency, a Senior Research Consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney and a Strategist at Climate Action Network Australia.
Holly Hammond, Director of the Commons Library, interviewed Nicky about her connection to systems thinking and its relevance to campaigners.
Learning About Systems
How did you come to Systems Thinking?
I’ve been lucky and privileged to have an informal education in systems. My father is a professor in Systems Thinking, so we had a lot of chats over the dinner table and while we went for walks, etc. There were often other academics around having discussions and I absorbed that too. Rosalind Armson kindly gave me an early copy of her book Growing Wings On The Way and that further helped my understanding.
Outside of campaigning I’ve used systems tools in a variety of ways including in research projects and trainings when I worked UTS. For example, I co-designed and ran a two day training course around transport that drew heavily on Soft Systems Methodology. I also use them in my day to day life to understand how I’m thinking about things and how my relationships work. Here is an example which I developed to help a friend think through their work stress.
Systems Thinking Concepts
How would you describe Systems Thinking approaches to someone who hasn’t encountered them before?
Systems Thinking is really a way of thinking about and understanding the world. The predominant paradigm and mental model that we have is quite a reductionist one, dominated by traditional scientific thinking. So you present a hypothesis and then you test things, looking at them in isolation from each other. Whereas…
Systems Thinking is about trying to understand things as wholes and the interconnections. To understand the relationships between things as much as the things themselves.
What are some key concepts and assumptions with Systems Thinking?
There are many. Some which I think are important are concepts like ‘feedback or causal loops.’ This is the idea that you have interrelationships that stabilize or accelerate change.
Another concept in the systems thinking that I’ve been trained in is the idea that systems do not exist “out there”, but rather we can structure the way we choose to understand the world as systems. That might sound like splitting hairs but it’s quite a powerful distinction.
We often talk about the transport system or the system of government and in doing so we reify them, we make them firm and say that this thing exists in the world. Traditionally that has been coupled with a hard engineering approach so that the electricity system is the generators and poles, wires that transport electrons. Whereas a soft systems approach says that we can understand any situation as a system and what we’re looking for is what that system does. It might not just be producing energy, it might also be upholding the power of the fossil fuel industry. The energy system also includes the relationships between people and institutions.
By taking a step back and not viewing these things as fixed and existing independently of ourselves and the world, a Systems Thinking approach can enable us to inquire about the world and parts of it systemically.
That creates new opportunities for understanding and change.
Systems Thinking is also very much predicated on the idea that no one person has a full understanding of the situation and so you have ‘multiple partial perspectives.’ The more of these that you can bring together, the more likely you are to understand the situation.
In thinking about those multiple partial perspectives it reminds me that often when we work on strategy we’re doing it with people who think a lot like ourselves, and how it is important to bring in people with different sets of expertise so that you can understand the picture better.
Absolutely. Whenever I think about the idea of multiple partial perspectives I’m reminded of this passage from one of my favourite books as a child “Staying Alive in Year Five” by John Marsden:
‘Well,’ said Mr Murlin, ‘what about if Michael Marsh wrote a description of his desk after sitting in it for six months and at the same time a person going past looked through the window and wrote a description of Michael’s desk too, which would be the truer or the better?’
‘Michael’s,’’ everyone said.
‘Not necessarily,’ said Johnny. ‘Depends on a lot of things. Michael might have sat there for years and never noticed some things about it. But someone else can suddenly walk in and see something, like a cobweb, that Michael never saw. And what if the person looking through the window is a carpenter? They might notice things that someone who’s not a carpenter wouldn’t.’
I think this kids book quote really gets to the heart of the idea, people have different experience and expertise and we need to bring more diversity to bear on our change strategies, particularly by those with lived experience of climate change, the causes and solutions.
This image and parable is a similarly good explanation.
Systems Thinking and Campaigning
How have you applied this in thinking about campaigns?
If we look at the “theories of change” framework (which I was exposed to during my time in the Australian Student Environment Network and was originally developed by Movement for a New Society) one of the pieces that I thought was particularly powerful was the “mechanisms of change.” I’ve always gravitated towards “building alternatives.” For a long time I thought, “There’s a campaigning ways of doing things, which is more around influencing people to make decisions or confronting powerholders to make them do what we want and then there’s building alternatives.” I have spent much of my adult life building literal community alternatives and social enterprises, through the Community Power Agency. I did some advocacy and campaigning related to community energy but mainly it was practical things on the ground.
The reason I bring that up is that I had two mental models around change. One was around building the alternatives where we bring people together, look for the interconnections, grow relationships and take more of a systems approach. Whereas the campaign approach involves building power and deliberately painting things as black and white and identifying targets who we don’t necessarily want to be in the room. We don’t want their multiple partial perspectives contributing to solutions, they’re an opponent who we need to shift or make irrelevant.
Over the past five years as I’ve left more of that project based, building alternatives type work and become a climate solutions campaigner I’ve tried to integrate Systems Thinking into my campaign strategy work. I’ve found some of these tools really powerful and it’s led me to critique some of the existing campaign strategy tools that we use and rely on.
My main critique is that often the assumption that underpins our campaign strategy tools is that change is linear.
And if they don’t have that assumption, then they still don’t allow you to grapple with the concept of complex adaptive systems, that there are negative feedback loops, and that if you prod one part then it’ll adapt and maintain the status quo. Nor the idea that there is accelerating change and that change can be exponential.
Complexity is Challenging
As we’re talking, I’m thinking about why people might want to see change as linear. We want this outcome so we do this thing and then do the next thing to get the next outcome. But we need to plan in three dimensions so that if we do this thing here, then what’s the impact going to be on the system? How will our opponents respond, what will it mean for the market, what will all the different ripples be and what are all the different inputs in that system?
I think that’s why Systems Thinking hasn’t been applied to a whole lot of fields, even though it’s a meta-discipline in that it can be applied to pretty much any field.
Complexity is challenging and it takes a lot to engage with complexity. It’s easier to paint the world as simple and engage with tools that simplify the world rather than embrace the complexity and figure out how to use approaches that engage with some degree of that complexity.
A lot of Systems Thinking involves creating models (and I don’t just mean computer models). By definition, models are a simplified version of what is happening in the world but they’re still more complex than the basic cost-benefit analysis tools or critical path tool or other tools that just cut things really simply.
Go Through the Mess
The other thought I had is that often people feel very overwhelmed by the project of change so simplification is empowering in some ways for them. But the sticking point is that we can believe our own hype and forget that this is a simplified thing we have come up with.
It’s true that if you’re campaigning you need really simple communications messages to cut through. So there is a real need for simplification, but there’s also a concept or diagram out there which says you need to go through the mess to come out with something quite simple and elegant. I think that system tools can help you work through that mess and in the end you do come out with something that is quite simple and elegant.
I’ve experienced that through how the rooftop solar industry has really grown. It’s a really simple feedback loop which can be communicated quite simply and clearly. I think that the work around renewable superpower is also the other side of that complexity.
Systems Thinking Sensibility
One of the frameworks in Systems is the idea that there are different levels and that systems are nested within other systems.
Further you can apply this concept to how we think about Systems Thinking itself.
My dad says that some people have an instinctive Systems Thinking sensibility. Even if they’ve never heard of the term Systems Thinking they think about the relationships between things. Then there are some people who have done a bit of study and reading and start to structure their thinking in terms of Systems Thinking, that’s called systems literacy. And then the next level up is that you’re a Systems practitioner and have a whole bunch of tools and capabilities and are able to do this well.
What I’m keen to see is that we shift people who have some degree of natural Systems Thinking sensibility into the Systems literacy realm so that they have some tools to use in situations that are useful for them. Having these tools in our toolkit can only make us more powerful.
With Systems Thinking there isn’t really a right answer, there’s just ways of using the tools more effectively.
Systems Thinking Tools
In what ways do you think these tools could be made more accessible and how could people be encouraged to engage with complexity more?
I think the first thing is to step back and recognise that there is an imperative to understand the complexity so that we don’t lose. I’ll talk about the climate movement because that’s what I know. Climate is a horrendously complex situation and I think there has been a step up already by some campaigners to recognise that and say that no one organisation can run these campaigns alone, we need a movement wide strategy. In developing those strategies you’re beginning to engage more with complexity and a range of overlapping interventions tackling different parts of the challenge and hopefully working in concert with each other.
There are people who already have that sensibility and look for connection points and things that reinforce each other but don’t have a name for it. Even I, who have had twenty plus years experience of formal and informal learning around this, can’t name everything but I can see how twenty different things come together and that the result of it means we should do X, Y and Z.
So there is an intuitive aspect but I think tools can help formalise that and thus make the thinking more accessible to other people.
A good next step would be for people to have a play with a range of Systems Thinking tools and try and apply them, for instance when they are starting a strategy process. Then over time they could introduce the tools into strategy planning and then start working with Systems Thinking professionals.
It has been heartening to see the development of guides, for example Systems Thinking for Campaigning and Organizing, and Systems Mapping Tools for Campaign Design, by Blueprints for Change. However, one of my critiques of those is that they say you must use these Systems Thinking tools to the gold star standard, involving a lot of time, wide engagement and thus a lot of resources. Whereas I think campaigners should just start using systems tools. Start by drawing a systems diagram or a multiple cause diagram for yourself, have a play when you’re trying to think through an issue. Then when you’re feeling a bit more confident you could try a whiteboard session with a small number of colleagues. Then expand out from there. It’s only by practising using the systems tools that we build up our capabilities as individuals. And it’s only by building our capabilities as individual campaigners or strategists that we start to embed systems thinking in our movements. But it may not be easy, because not only are we learning a new skill, but we are also unlearning so much of the way we have been taught to think.
So of course, if you use systems tools comprehensively, in ways that try to gather many partial perspectives, you’ll gain better insights, but using the tools in any way, will still help you achieve good insights.
Tools to get started
In terms of scaffolding the learning what are some of the tools that people can start out with?
One tool is systems mapping or diagramming. There’s a range of tools: systems diagrams, influence diagrams, and multiple cause or causal loop diagrams being three. These work well if you’re a visual person. Not everyone can map these in their head but if someone can draw them for you then you can still engage with them. Those are a good place to start and there are some good resources from the Open University that are freely available online, or see Systems Mapping Tools for Campaign Design, by Blueprints for Change.
One of the things that really frustrates me with the campaign strategy tools we already have is that they constrain the number of levels that we can engage with. For example, when writing a campaign strategy we will often write a vision, goals, objectives and tactics. That means you’re looking at four levels. But in climate change there are 20 plus levels of engagement and a campaign to get your childcare centre to do something might have three. One of the great things about some systems diagramming tools, is they enable you to look at things at different levels, also known as nested systems.
They allow you to orientate yourself and think about, what level am I working at personally and within my organisation and where do we fit into a movement and where does that fit into movement strategies to stop gas versus the one to shut down coal, and where does that fit into the broader energy transition in Australia and then globally and so on. It also allows you to think about the interactions between levels.
Another useful tool is rich pictures. The idea that if you have a group of people who are talking at cross purposes then you can get people to draw the situation in a rich picture. You don’t need to be a good artist to do this drawing at all. You can use symbols for instance. You then use these pictures as a starting point for discussion. It helps people to understand one another’s perspectives and also draws on visual intelligence.
If there is one thing that I think would be the most powerful concept for people making change to engage with then it would be feedback loops, including stabilising or negative feedback loops and positive or accelerating feedback loops. They’re one of the phenomena that cause our campaigns to go horribly wrong. An example of a positive feedback loop is a divestment strategy which accelerates change by disrupting an existing stabilising or negative feedback loop which has seen capital go into fossil fuel projects and then get a return over and over again. Divestment would be a successful intervention into a negative feedback loop in that it disrupts it and started a more positive feedback loop. Multiple cause diagrams help us to understand these feedback loops.
Developing Systems Capability
The best intro to systems resource I think is a book called Growing Wings On The Way: Systems Thinking For Messy Situations. It’s written by Rosalind Armson and she really makes systems thinking accessible, giving practical examples and supporting you to just give it a go.
When people talk about Systems Thinking these days, they automatically think about Donella Meadows’ Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. There are two types of systems theories out there. One is about systems tools which provide explanations for how the world is and give you more complex explanations. Then there are systems tools that provide you with tools that allow you to engage with the world. One is more explanatory, and one is more exploratory. Both are highly useful but I champion the latter as I think we need to develop more systems capability for ourselves.
- Four Stages of Climate Action Framework
- The Action Scales Model: A conceptual tool to identify key points for action within complex adaptive systems
- Open University Systems Thinking Hub
- Systems Thinking for Campaigning and Organizing
- Systems Mapping Tools for Campaign Design
- Growing Wings On The Way: Systems Thinking For Messy Situations
- Video: 10 books that can help you understand systems thinking
- Hidden Power of Systems Thinking: Governance in a Climate Emergency