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“Am I the Only One Who Thinks Differently?” by Dr Andries Botha

I listen to the debate on environmental matters and sometimes cringe.  Is development really as bad as we make it out to be?  No two ways about it, there are negative cases out there, but is that the full picture and is that the future we must avoid completely?

When I was first introduced to systems thinking in 1990, the person doing the introduction drew me a graph.  On the X-axis he wrote environmental protection and on the Y-axis he wrote industrial development.  He then asked me:  Why do we always see the two as polar opposites?  Could industrial development and environmental protection not go hand in hand?  Use the revenues generated from the industrial activities to ensure environmental protection.  He showed me the graph based on the debate at the time regarding the St Lucia area.  A wonderful natural environment with huge tourism potential.  But also, a large reserve of heavy sand containing Titanium Dioxide.  The miners wanted to wash the dune sand and separate the TiO2 to sell for profits.  In the end, the environmentalists won and the decision was made to only allow tourism activities in the area.  Today, St Lucia is still a wonderful natural environment, but without the booming tourism industry that was planned.  Tourism did not care about investing in the road infrastructure and unless you are a serious 4×4 enthusiast you will not get there.  Fewer tourists mean less investment and a negative reinforcing loop.

I look at many activities and I often think, why not both?  Does the whole not result in more than the individual components?

I was in charge of construction a massive warehouse.  The best laid out property bordered on a wetland and my first thought was: NO.  Then I took the environmental management plan and read it from start to finish.  A monster of a document.  In the document the author spells out the risks, the sad state of the wetland at the time and what could be done to rehabilitate the wetland.  Nothing in the document said, do not develop, it just focused on: “Develop responsibly.”  Interestingly enough, I knew the author, a man who I had not seen for many years, but who has an absolute passion for preserving wetlands.  (We worked together in the early 1990s.)

Fast forward 8 years later.  The warehouse is built.  Every year we get a full status assessment on the wetland.  Every assessment says:  Pristine.  To the point that the wetland and surrounding area is now a case study of a sustainable urban drainage system.  Does it stop or negatively affect the industrial activity?  No, we just catch the occasional rinkhals and release it back into the wetland.  The cost to maintain the wetland is insignificant as we implemented all the requirements highlighted in the environmental management plan.

I want to challenge you as systems thinkers and SD practitioners to look at the dilemmas that face you and ask the questions:  Not either or, but what if we find balance and do both.

“Philosophy & Strategy in developing SD Models” by Dr Andries Botha

The purpose of this blog is not to provide an academic overview of system dynamics, but rather a sharing of many years of experience and learning applying system dynamics to address complex problems.  I would like to see the blog as part of a discussion and learning platform for new and experienced system dynamics practitioners.  Therefore, please start a debate if you disagree with me, or, ask a question.  Remember, there are no dumb questions, only bad answers.

It is important to start with the philosophy I apply to all system dynamics models:  All models are wrong, some models are more wrong than others, but some models are useful.  A system dynamics model can never be a perfect solution as we are working in a dynamic world where Murphy is seen as an optimist.

The strategy I use for system dynamics model building follows from the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov.  One of his characters explains that “Brute force is the last resort, of the incompetent.”  Building a system dynamics model on its own is the mathematical equivalent of brute force.

Where does this leave us?  Well, I believe there are 3 critical steps:

  1. Understand the problem.
  2. Understand the domain.
  3. Separate symptoms from root causes.

It also means we have to appreciate that complex outcomes are not necessarily the result of complex environments.  Sometimes bad decisions results in good or bad outcomes.

For now, think about the philosophy and strategy, and remember the three rules for developing any model:

  1. Simplify.
  2. Simplify.
  3. Simplify.

In the next blog I will share more about my journey into the fascinating field of system dynamics.