In this chapter the authors provide an overview of systems thinking in practice, the key concepts involved in it and in particular the role of mapping in addressing complex situations. While the chapter touches on all four themes of the book it focuses mainly on the systems thinking philosophy that underpins the work of nearly all the authors in this book; how that philosophy relates to the use of diagramming to capture systemic thinking; and how to engage research participants in trying to think more systemically. It finishes with some more practical advice on the use of diagrams in general and within participatory and action-oriented modes of research in particular.
Complexity and uncertainty can be features of any human activity system but this is more so when considering environmental situations and environmental sustainability (Ison, 2010). The number of facts and factors involved, the number of people with different perspectives and disciplinary expertise, all grow larger and seemingly more intractable. To be able to represent a complex messy situation by showing most of the components and how they are thought to fit and work together is therefore very helpful when understanding, researching, designing and implementing systemic changes that draw upon and integrate the thinking from many disciplines.
Systems thinking in practice is a particular way of approaching the understanding of messy situations for some purpose, usually to effect some changes. It is very suited to participatory, action-oriented research and environmental sustainability and is a philosophy that underpins both the teaching and research praxis of the many authors in this book. By praxis we mean the process by which a theory is enacted, embodied, or realised. Drawing on some basic features of systems thinking (see Chapman, 2004; Midgley, 2007), we can identify three generic imperatives as underpinning systems thinking in practice (Reynolds, 2011; 2013; 2014; Reynolds and Holwell, 2010):
• understanding inter-relationships (‘thinking’ about the bigger picture)
• engaging with multiple perspectives (the ‘practice’ of joined-up thinking)
• reflecting on boundary judgements (the praxis of thinking in practice).
A key feature is that one part of the praxis around systems thinking is finding ways of representing a chosen ‘system of interest’, and that is often best done through diagrams, maps or other visual techniques.