The idea that problems are created and thus solved not in isolation, but by a system of players, who collectively have the wisdom to define, understand, and transform that system is what I refer to as the “System in the Room” approach. Let me explain.
Imagine for example, you are the Mayor of Somerville, MA and you are trying to solve the epidemic of Childhood Obesity in your city. Your goal is the abysmal fact is that more than 50% of the kids in your town are obese. Your goal is to get to 100% fit kids in less than five years. How to do it?
First, you bring together the diverse community of people who together understand and evaluate the problem. You identify the factors: sugar in drinks, processed foods, lack of outdoor time, lack of exercise, subsidy of corn syrup by the government, expense of organic foods by comparison, etc etc.
Do broken windows in the neighborhood have anything to do with it? First thought, no? Turns out when parents see the broken windows, they feel less safe letting their kids play outside. Exercise goes down, obesity goes up.
The system includes all of these variables and more. So after we draw that out on paper with the people closest to the problem helping to define its dimensions, we then invite representatives from each of these stakeholder groups together to help address and solve the issues. In isolation, they can not understand it.
In this example, we’d invite the school nutritionist, the government legislator, the parents, the soft-drink vendors, the enlightened police chief, and the neighborhood council together in the same room. The system is too complex for any one of these individuals to fully understand, define, and explain it, but together they can. We bring these people together intentionally because collectively they can gain a full understanding of the system. We call this getting “The System in the Room.”
Why systems? Why systems thinking? Why take a systemic approach to creating businesses more in harmony with the laws of life on this planet?
In the early 90s, when starting the first Sustainability Consortium for multinational businesses, (was that an Oxymoron—sustainability and large corporations—we didn’t know, but thought it important to try given their outsized impact.) we met live with the late author, Professor and visionary thinker Donella Meadows. Donella was a luminary in our field and we felt honored. We asked her, “If we could have one theme for the new Sustainability consortium for business, what should it be?”
“Systems” she said without hesitation, “Teach a systems approach. Systems abound in nature. There is nothing in nature that is not a system.” We are all interdependent and interconnected.
We breathe out Carbon Dioxide, the trees and all living green things “breathe” that in and “exhale” Oxygen. Exactly what we need to live. It’s as simple as that, we inter-breath each other. The wolf depends on the deer. And when that wolf dies it pushes up grass which the deer depends on for its life. Our bodies depend on billions of microorganisms in our guts and those guys couldn’t sustain themselves without us. When that tree dies and rots it becomes compost for the soil, so that more green things can grow up and begin the food chain for crawling critters all over again. Nature exists in a delicate, perfect, graceful, harmony of interdependence.
What inspired Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s to live in “Radical Amazement at the Mystery wonder and awe of creation.” There is nothing in nature that exists by itself. As Sustainability guru and architect Bill McDonough says, all waste equals food. There is no waste in nature.
The elegance of nature’s design reminds me of Einstein’s teaching, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
And yet, and yet, for the past 500 years or so of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve created commerce as outlaws from nature. The structure has been linear instead of cyclical. Take, make, waste. Extract, use, and throw away. Except there is no waste in nature, we’ve learned. There is no “away” on this planet.
Increasingly we see the devastation that this outlaw stance —this literally un-natural waste creation—has wreaked upon us. Carbon waste spewn into the atmosphere and Climate Change. Toxic chemical waste in the waters and exponential growth of species loss. Landfills leaching poisons. Could there even be a connection between our destruction of ecosystems, the oscillating imbalance, and the bugs released in our present global pandemic? I don’t have the facts or the science to back up that assertion. But intuitively it makes sense.
For the survival of our species the take-make-waste linear model, unnatural as it is, has got to go. And be replaced by the cyclical, systemic, interdependent example of nature. Nature has been successfully modeling this experiment for the past 3.5 billion years. We could learn something from such a stellar teacher.