Systems Thinking

It would be incorrect to assume that any agent in our society acts independently of any other. Whether the force or connection can be seen with the naked eye or is only elucidates upon deeper analysis, all components are connected in one way or another. Taking this fact into account, the interconnectedness of various agents can make it difficult to determine interventions that would be the most effective in targeting social ills or wrongs. Unfortunately in the majority of cases, implementing interventions is not as simple as saying change Factor A in order to reduce the effects on Factor B. In regard to food deserts, building a full service grocery store in Community A is not going to automatically ameliorate the effects that lack of access had in previous years. Proper implementation requires considering and taking all of these connections into account, both in the current time and for the future.

Systems thinking is a holistic process that focuses on the environmental, political, factors that link all aspects of a given system. It takes a certain problem and looks at the relationship of multiple actors that cause the problem, the solutions, limitations to these solutions, and the people/communities impacted by all of these.

“In systems thinking, we take into account the overall system as well as its parts. This elucidates how individual parts or stages in a system will act when isolated from each other or from the system’s environment…Systems thinking allows us to see the whole as more than just the sum of its parts.”

Richard Niesenbaum, Sustainable Solutions, 2019

I recently constructed a systems thinking diagram in order to visually see the interaction among social and economic agents influencing food deserts in the United States. I then used arrows to depict the linking relationships among these components across the categories (Causes, Impacted, Solutions, Limitations). The problem – Food Deserts – is listed in the center of the diagram

Causes:

  • Distance from a full service grocery store/market
  • Lack of transportation- personal or public transport (This ties into lack of access)
  • Low/no investment from full service groceries
  • Characteristics that define a “grocery store”

Impacted:

  • Residents living in the food desert community
  • Health care workers and providers (Think: chronic disease treatment)
  • Local farmers’ markets and produce suppliers
  • Business owners; small shop keepers
  •  Larger corporations (if they choose to invest in these areas)
  • Policy makers and local representatives

Solutions:

  • Community initiated/run grocery stores
  • More effective/efficient/reliable public transportation to full service stores
  • Incentivizes larger chains to open shops in these locations
  • Online delivery systems that can delivery food/fresh produce to your door
  • Farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture
  • Community gardens and urban agriculture

Limitations:

  • Fresh produce may have to travel longer distances
  • Initial cost of constructing a site closer to the community
  • Zoning laws
  • Unwillingness to invest in a certain area

As I constructed this diagram, it was interesting to notice that as time passed, I continued drawing more and more arrows as the relationship among the individual units of the system became clearer. And even so, I am sure there are some connections I missed! From this map, we can see the solutions would have the greatest benefit to residents in the community, business owners/small shopkeepers, and local farmers’ markets – which is an amazing; but at the same time, there are limitations to some of these solutions that would influence their efficacy. For example, community initiated grocery stores are listed as one of the solutions to food deserts. This would reduce the distance residents would have to travel to access a full service grocery store and benefit their overall lively hood. At the same time, one of the limitations to this is the initial cost of construction. This is a factor that would ultimately come around and influence the residents of these communities as well.

This highlights the complexity and pervasive nature of these issues. Constructing diagrams and using a systems thinking approach can be helpful because they help see which issues may need to be addressed first in order to generate the most long standing impact.

“Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing whole.”

– Peter Senge