Private companies and social organisations have practiced system thinking for more than 20 years to analyse and solve problems with multiple moving parts. However, systems are complex, and the rapidly changing context of the world today adds another layer to this complexity. As we learned in a recent project with one of the world’s largest charitable foundations, to navigate this complexity, the integration of a human-centred mindset and future thinking is crucial to enhance system impact.
System thinking can be used to explain and understand everything from a physiological process to the design of an economic model or healthcare service. It establishes that every system is part of a bigger one. Thus, it affirms that the best understanding of the system comes from looking at it in a holistic way. This argument has contributed to solving complex problems by emphasising the interrelatedness of the elements making up the system.
This holistic perspective has its merits, but often ignores the fact that systems are made up of individuals who are playing certain roles. If we take the public health system as a case, it is made of individuals, such as health workers on the ground, officials in the Ministry of Health, policymakers, developers of new technologies, and many more. Each of them has different needs, motivations and goals. To really understand the public health system, it is crucial to understand their unique experiences. A human-centred approach to system thinking thus addresses issues at the individual level to then deliver solutions at the system level.
In some of our recent work, we have worked with our clients to help them flesh out the perspectives of different individuals within the system they’re looking at. We start by describing hypotheses on the most basic characteristics of these individuals: their goals, challenges, supporters, barriers, etc. Vocalising these hypotheses helps us realise what we know and, more importantly, what we don’t know about these people. This realisation forms the foundation for any research that needs to be done, and positions us to design experiences and solutions that better fit the lives and needs of the individuals within the system.
Still, individuals are inevitably influenced by what happens around them, which leads me to my second point. It is not enough to understand the current system around the individual. It is also important to envision how this system might change and how this change might impact the future experiences of the individuals within it.
Taking again the example of the public health system, we might think about how the political, economic, environmental, social or technological landscape will change, and how this will impact the health worker’s, the policymaker’s or the lab technician’s day-to-day experience. How will the adoption of new technologies in Africa impact the public health system? It could generate a positive impact by reducing mortality rates, but at the same time, higher life expectancies could exacerbate unemployment and produce negative economic implications. How can we consider and balance the impact of our solutions on different parts of the system?
System thinking is complex. There are two ways to break down and analyse this complexity. One, move beyond looking at a system as a machine and focus on understanding the people that inhabit it. Two, design not only for today, but also understand and design for possible futures.