New systemic approach needed to tackle global challenges

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(Bill Oxford, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you in association with OECD.


The impacts of the coronavirus on people’s health and daily life, stock markets, and businesses illustrate the increasingly interconnected nature of the challenges facing governments around the world. Putting systemic thinking at the centre of policy making will be essential to address these issues in an era of rapid and disruptive change, according to a new joint report by the OECD and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).

Systemic thinking for policymaking: The potential of systems analysis for addressing global policy challenges in the 21st century aims to highlight to policymakers how systems research can be used to understand the complex issues facing society, anticipate the consequences of our decisions, and build resilience. The authors argue that, to tackle planetary emergencies linked to the environment, the economy, and sociopolitical systems, policymakers need to understand their systemic properties, including tipping points, interconnectedness, and resilience.

 

“The systems approach can promote cross-sectoral, multidisciplinary collaboration in the process of policy formulation by taking proper account of the crucial linkages between issues generally treated separately within different specialisations and scientific and institutional “silos””, said Gabriela Ramos, Chief of Staff. “The approach provides a methodology to achieve a better understanding of the non-linear behaviour of complex systems and improve the assessment of the consequences of policy interventions. The ultimate objective is to improve the capacity of policies to deliver better outcomes for people.”

 

“Unless we adopt a systems approach, unless we employ systems thinking, we will fail to understand the world we are living in. This is a world made up of complex systems, systems of systems interacting with each other, and changing each other by that interaction and the links between them. If we are to tackle these issues, governments must change the ways in which they make and implement policies. An acceptance of complexity shifts governments from a top-down siloed culture to an enabling culture where evidence, experimentation, and modeling help to inform and develop stakeholder engagement and buy-in,” concludes IIASA Director General Albert van Jaarsveld.

 

“The report shows the considerable potential of mainstreaming systemic thinking into policymaking, including within the OECD itself. As part of an agreed work program between the two organizations, the aim is to establish specific bilateral projects in the different areas of policymaking,” explains Acting Chief Operations Officer of IIASA, Jan Marco Müller.

 

The report highlights the application of systems thinking beyond the fields of analysis, modeling, and the formulation of policy, and that systems thinking has immediate application in developing human capital through education, training, and team building. Perspectives are drawn from a range of disciplines and methodologies including economics, social science, and policymaking, but also from the physical and biological sciences and engineering. The authors show how cross-sectoral, multidisciplinary collaboration can take account of the crucial linkages between issues generally treated within different specializations, and scientific and institutional silos.

 

Closer trade cooperation in combination with robust land use strategies could, for instance, increase the resilience of global food markets to the impacts of climate change, while an integrated approach to the management of water, energy, and land would provide experts and policymakers with a better understanding of the benefits and challenges of sustainably meeting future demand for resources. Another example cited in the report is the link between education and demographic change, where the authors highlight how lifelong education strategies, starting from early childhood, can promote productive working lives and healthy ageing.

 

Notes to editors:

The interconnected nature of the challenges the world faces today means that no country can overcome them on its own. In 2017, this realization prompted the establishment of a strategic partnership between the OECD and the IIASA, laying the foundations for a concerted effort to combine the OECD’s strengths in policy analysis and dialogue with the scientific expertise of the IIASA. As part of the agreement, a joint OECD-IIASA task force on systems thinking, anticipation, and resilience was established, bringing together 25 experts from across the two organizations to gain a more thorough understanding of the systemic and dynamic linkages between the major trends shaping our world and the impact that different policy measures have on them.

 

With an eye on further strengthening collaboration between the two organizations in the future, the task force is considering measures to strengthen the impact of its activities. In addition, a number of institutions have expressed interest in participating in the work of the strategic partnership and efforts are underway to continue building on the existing connections of the OECD and IIASA in the policy and scientific communities. The aim is to develop a worldwide network of institutions and experts to expand the existing partnership and to make the initiative visible and connected with influential stakeholders.

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