Covid-19 means systems thinking is no longer optional

via Covid-19 means systems thinking is no longer optional

Never has the interdependence of our world been experienced by so many, so directly, so rapidly and so simultaneously. Our response to one threat, Covid-19, has unleashed a deluge of secondary and tertiary consequences that have swept the globe faster than the virus itself. The butterfly effect has taken on new dimensions as the hard reality of system interdependence at multiple levels is brought directly into our homes and news feeds:

  • Individually, an innocuous bus journey sends a stranger to intensive care in a fortnight.
  • Societally, health charities are warning that actions taken in response to one health crisis – Covid-19 – could lead to up to 11,000 deaths of women in childbirth globally because of another – namely, 9.5m women not getting access to family planning intervention.
  • Governmentally, some systemic consequences of decision-making are there for all to see, others less immediately apparent – for example, Trump’s false proclamation of testing availability “for anyone that wants one”  ended up actually reducing the availability of tests by immediately increasing demand.  It even reduced the already scarce supply of protective masks, which must be disposed of after testing.

Students will be studying coronavirus for years. What lessons will we learn? What changes will it bring? Covid-19 presents many clear examples of effective systemic action, and stark lessons in the consequences of non-systemic thinking. Leaders and decision-makers everywhere are being compelled to think broader and deeper about causation and consequence. Decisions taken, even words spoken, without systemic awareness can have – indeed have had – profoundly damaging effects.

Systemic thinking, planning, action and leadership must now be mainstreamed – individually, organisationally, societally, across public, private and charity sectors. As an American diplomat reflected: “from climate change to the coronavirus, complex adaptive systems thinking is key to handling crises”. But currently, we do not think and act in accordance with how our complex systems function. In fact, some epidemiologists, suddenly the world’s most valuable profession, have been calling for more systemic ways of working for years.

 

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