Understanding Systems Thinking
09 Jul 2019
In the Towards a Housing, Homelessness and Support Strategy - Strategic Intent document, the South Australian Housing and Homelessness Taskforce introduced “systems thinking” to set the strategy for housing and homelessness in the state for the next ten years.
But what is that? SYC has extensive experience in systems thinking and developing systems approaches – so we have developed this handy guide to bring you up to speed. We will cover what systems are, how a systems approach differs from conventional thinking, what it could look like in a housing context and why we should apply it to a wicked problem like homelessness.
When thinking about systems thinking and systems approaches it is important to start with the basics, namely what do we mean when we say system? Think about a computer. It contains a whole range of parts and components, such as a power supply and a hard drive, but on their own none of these parts would be considered a computer. Instead, they are reliant on each other and it is through their dynamic relationships and the feedback loops they create that they become a computer.
This is the hallmark of a system, when a set of interrelated parts interact to form a more complex, interconnected whole. If we remove one of those parts, the system would likely fail, but this does not mean systems always remain the same. Instead, they are constantly changing and evolving, think of your computer today compared to one from 20 years ago. The overarching idea of a computer system is largely the same, but the things you can achieve with it and the parts that make it are quite different.
Systems thinking, then, is a way to make sense of the many complex systems in the world. Essentially, it is a mindset-shift that enables better problem solving by giving attention to the relationships, boundaries, and perspectives in a system and by viewing the situation more fully instead of in a linear, siloed fashion. Importantly, it focuses on identifying patterns of behaviour over time instead of observing specific events so we can surface the underlying structures that are driving those events or patterns.
This means there are certain types of problems that are ideal for a systems thinking intervention compared to others. These are generally complex or wicked problems where:
- The problem is chronic with a known, familiar history.
- There are competing or conflicting views of the situation or problem and multiple organisations or actors involved who interact and influence each other.
- There is no single cause of the problem, but multiple causes.
- The problem has generally tried to be solved before, but unsuccessfully and possibly with unintended consequences, and there is no single solution that will fit all situations related to the problem.
- Finally, the issue is important or pressing.
Adopting a systems approach is the process of using specific tools and methods to better understand the system and the complex problems within it. Ultimately, this helps us to see the bigger picture instead of just looking at the surface. We can ask better questions about what the fundamental and interconnected causes of the situation are and how relationships and behaviour change over time to contribute to the problem being as it is.
By understanding the system, we can see how the problem is made up of interconnected components and which aspects are not working well. We can then identify how changes in one area might influence other aspects and begin to shift or rearrange parts in the system to expand the options available to us to create better solutions that will deliver improved outcomes. This might mean championing interventions that are not popular and calling out instances where conventional thinking for complicated problems has been applied to a complex problem. These solutions might be well-intentioned, but because they do not recognised and intervene in the root causes of the problem the solutions can create new or worse problems.
For instance, consider a situation where there has been an increase in rough sleepers. Conventional thinking may look at this and develop a solution that meets their immediate needs, namely increasing the supply of crisis beds. This alleviates the short-term crisis for those individuals, but it does not actually reduce homelessness by addressing the cause of the issue. In fact, it sees more people living in crisis because that is where the investment has been made. Instead, a systems approach that recognises the situation as part of a complex problem may decide to take that funding and convert 90% of existing shelters into supported accommodation. This is then paired with purchasing private rentals to use as rental apartments for homeless people, and building new supported housing in a co-ordinated state or national way with funding for long-term ongoing supports and preventative services.
This situation is not a hypothetical, but explains the two approaches taken in Ireland and Finland. When Ireland was facing an increase in homelessness it invested heavily in a crisis response, increasing the number of shelter beds from 617 in 2008 to 1,959 beds in 2017, yet there was no reduction in homelessness. In fact, it increased to nearly three times the amount over that time. In comparison, Finland had 600 shelter beds in 2008 and now only has 52. They turned their temporary homeless solutions into independent accommodation with on-site support staff as part of a multi-pronged approach and over the same period. Homelessness more than halved.
The situation is not so much of a hypothetical in South Australia either. The Housing and Homelessness Taskforce identified that emergency accommodation expenditure has been increasing from 1996 to 2018. At the same time, new public housing tenancies have decreased, but the number of people accessing homelessness services in South Australia is far greater with the decrease in new public housing tenancies almost matched by the increase in people seeking support.
Our own work has looked at how we could reduce youth homelessness and improve the economic and social participation of this group through a systems approach. Instead of simply advocating for more housing or more crisis beds, the recommendations provided solutions to multiple causes of youth homelessness and housing issues more broadly. These included:
- Screening young people in school to identify those at risk of homelessness and prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place.
- A public health response based on targeting propensity factors of homelessness and provided other responses e.g. family counselling, before homelessness services are needed.
- Investment in affordable housing strategies, including new build, building conversions, and rental assistance, that are specifically suited to the needs and circumstances of young people.
- Addressing a lack of income contributing to homelessness by combining affordable housing with linkages to long-term employment and education support to build young people’s earning capacity.
- Individualised, ‘post-vention’ support to build life skills and other preventative factors against falling back into homelessness.
- Guarantor models to allow under 18s experiencing homelessness to hold a lease.
- ‘Buy-down’ rents supported by the government for a set period to help low-income young people build their earning capacity and transition to market rate rent.
- Implement pathways to home ownership for people in public housing e.g. Government matching of savings, to improve flow through and allow more spaces for new tenants.
By taking a systems approach we engaged with the complexity, identified opportunities for continuous improvement, mobilised a diverse group of stakeholders to see a shared interest in improving the system, found multiple leverage points where system change could occur, and looked beyond well-intended solutions that ultimately would not achieve change.
Based on our experience in systems thinking, we look forward to engaging in the consultation process and contributing to the development of the new State Housing, Homelessness and Support Strategy.