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From system thinking to system change: managing Cornwall’s environment

Mark Walton

Can systems thinking help unthink land? We’ve been using it to help people working to manage Cornwall’s natural capital to think about how they can deliver ‘environmental growth’.

How can we take a systems approach to managing the natural environment? And how can people involved in that system think a bit differently about how they work together? That was the challenge we were set recently by the officers from Cornwall’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty team.

We are always up for a challenge, and always happy to engage with people taking a systems approach to land and natural resources, so we agreed to facilitate a one day workshop for a dozen people working across a diverse range of organisations with an interest in improving Cornwall’s natural capital. It was a great opportunity to test out a new system’s mapping model developed by our friends at Forum for the Future, as well as a perfect excuse to visit one of the most beautiful parts of the country (OK, it’s my childhood home so I may be a bit biased about that bit).

Cornwall may sometimes feel like it operates outside of the mainstream, but that can often be where great ideas and innovation flourish. Cornwall Council and Local Nature Partnership have recognised that nature “is the foundation upon which our society and economy depends” and adopted the concept of “environmental growth”. They have recently consulted on a draft ‘Environmental Growth Strategy’ which aims to improve the quality of Cornwall’s environment as a means to “increase environmental, social and economic prosperity”. But what does that mean in practice? This felt like a great context within which to think about a systems approach to meeting those aims.

Using Forum for the Future’s systems tool we mapped out the current system for managing natural capital, identified the key aspects of the current system, emerging innovation, and the major ‘landscape trends’ impacting upon it such as demographic and climate change.

What quickly became clear was that the participants were, for the most part working within some of the key organisations responsible for natural capital management so, in theory at least, had the opportunity to change things. But the ‘rules’ of the system made it hard for them to challenge the status quo and make those positive changes. This was more a matter of culture than written rules or processes, but everyone recognised those rules, even if they weren’t written down. The implications for delivering systems change were clear: these change agents, spread as they were across a range of organisations, would have to support each other to make change happen, and be understanding of the constraints that they were all operating within.

Change agents, spread as they were across a range of organisations, would have to support each other to make change happen

This raised a further problem. How do you know if the actions you are taking in your part of the system are helping to make the changes you all want to see? You can’t always meet up and engage in group discussions or ask advice. Sometimes you have to act within your own sphere of influence. This is where having a clear, shared purpose is critical. The map helped the group to identify some shared goals of the new system: not just ‘environmental growth’ but environmental growth that delivered greater equality of social and economic outcomes, and involved people in the management of their environment. With these shared goals and principles individuals are better able to take actions in their bit of the system that will contribute delivering positive changes to meet those goals.

So what did we learn?

By taking a systems approach professionals working across a wide range of organisations were better able to understand their own roles, and those of their colleagues but, crucially, were able to appreciate the constraints they were each operating under and where they might need mutual support. Armed with this information, and with a shared understanding of the goals and the principles of the system they were trying to create, they would be better able to take action within their own organisations and in collaboration with others.

At Shared Assets we often apply the principles of of group dynamics in our work with groups, in particular that groups only work well when they have have a clear shared purpose and the individuals within them understand their own role in achieving it. Here we see the same is true for a dispersed group of people trying to change a system from within.

In our reflections on the We Own It event exploring the public of public ownership we considered the massive systemic changes we might need to see in terms of how we own and make decisions about land and natural resources. Here we see how, using systems thinking, we might be able to make change happen, locally, regionally and nationally and that, once again, it is our relationships and the ways we make decisions that have the potential to change the way we think about how we manage our land and natural resources. We also saw the same patterns emerging in relation to devolution and ownership. So how do we ‘unthink’ our approach to land in ways that help us make better decisions about how we use it?

In upcoming blogs in this series we’ll be reviewing some of the emerging models of ownership and management in relation to parks and public open spaces, and then thinking about how we can apply some of this thinking about systems, commons governance and group dynamics to help make land work for everyone.

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