So what? Why go through all the trouble of doing a systems map?
Whether you make a systems map or not, understanding our environment as a complex social system – an interconnected and dynamic web of factors and behaviors – is the key to making sustainable social change. A systems map helps us see how these “interconnected and dynamic behaviors” form patterns. And, it is these patterns that shape quality of life in Hawaii and hold the key to improving it. So often our attention is draw to addressing symptoms – homelessness, unemployment, cost of housing – and we are distracted from addressing the underlying causes of these problems. A systems map helps us see these patterns (like patterns that cause a resistance to change, or encourage growth of a tourist economy) and how these patterns are interconnected. For example, take traditional efforts to address homelessness. In many parts of the US, a common response to this problem is to build homeless shelters, which may ease the immediate burden of homelessness but does not address the underlying social patterns that produce increasing numbers of homeless people.
More importantly, a systems map can help us leverage the resources we use in trying to improve quality of life. If we were to identify every problem that needs “fixing” or every social need to that needs to be addressed in order to improve quality of life in Hawaii, the cost of all the initiatives to address all those problems would be astronomical. In order to make change in complex systems like Hawaii, we must find ways to have impact that is much greater than our initial investment in making change. Rather than trying to fix individuals problems, leverage comes from affecting key patterns because patterns repeat themselves again and again over time. Thus, if we affect or change a pattern, it will work like a photocopier – replicating (and amplifying) that change over and over again. And, because patterns are interconnected, changing one pattern has the potential to change many other patterns in the system; having ripple effects like when you drop a stone into a smooth pond. And these ripple effects can then be copied or amplified again and again by these other patterns.
So, did you find those points of leverage in the Hawaii systems maps?
Yes. Remember that a systems map is a hypothesis or an educated guess about how things work, so the conclusions we make based on that map are also educated guesses.
That said, I think there are some clear messages from the maps.
First, when looking at the map as a whole, there are two key imperatives that should affect any effort to making a sustainable improvement in Hawaii’s quality of life:
- Addressing some of Hawaii’s key problems “head on” may be counter productive. The roots of many of Hawaii’s most difficult challenges are also the source of many of its strengths (many of the social patterns that detract from Hawaii’s quality of life are also ones that advance it). So, trying to counter one of these “root causes” may do as much harm as good. For example, Hawaii’s dependence on the visitor sector of its economy is a key to its economic performance and is key to promoting quality of life. On the other hand, the visitor economy also drives up the cost of living and the prevalence of part-time jobs, which detract of Hawaii’s quality of life. The same is true of the high levels of “intragroup loyalty” (the bond people feel with other members of their family, community or ethnic group). Intragroup loyalty helps people and communities cope with adversity, but it also fuels dynamics that pose big challenges, such as concentrated political power, and reducing the ability of people to deal well with those from different groups. So, it would not be wise to abandon the visitor economy or end intra-group loyalty because you are likely to do as much harm as good. Alternatively, it may be more productive to find ways to work with these forces and improve how the system responds to them.
- Attempts at change will take a holistic approach. It is striking that several factors that would, in general, drive change and innovation in a system are constrained in Hawaii. These include the abilities of people to: (1) take risks and innovate; (2) make good use of best practices; (3) take a long-term, systemic view of problems; and (4) work well with people from different groups. Making change in Hawaii is not as simple as getting people to “try something new.” Rather, any change initiative needs to address these four key constraints to sustaining efforts to do things differently.
More specifically, the system has three potential leverage points – or places where engagement may produce disproportionately high positive impacts:
- (LP1) Reverse the tendency for higher levels of intra-group loyalty to result in lower levels of inter-group agility by highlighting positive examples and making more proactive use bridging institutions and practices.
- (LP2) Building on LP1, Reverse the tendency for lower levels of faith and trust in government to result in lower levels of civic engagement by creating better feedback mechanisms for policy makers and citizens.
- (LP3) Building on LP1 and LP2, Provide “counterweights” to the growing dependence on the visitor economy by compensating for the growing gap in visitor versus local purchasing power through better understanding the impact of efforts to spur non-visitor centered economic growth and where to target future investments in human capital and infrastructure.
(LP1) Reverse the tendency for higher levels of intra-group loyalty to result in lower levels of inter-group agility by highlighting positive examples and making more proactive use bridging institutions and practices. The ability to affect the relationship between these two factors has a high potential to have positive ripple (e.g. leverage) because affecting this relationship affects, directly or indirectly, over a third of all the patterns (feedback loops) in the Hawaii systems map. Another positive sign is that there is already change happening in the system relative to these two factors. For example, the Aloha Spirit fosters generous sharing of cultural knowledge and practices across racial and ethnic lines as illustrated by the fact that Hawaii has more multi-racial and multi-ethnic marriages than any State in the nation.
However, these inter-marriages are happening between people who are from similar economic strata and economic class divisions between groups are getting harder to bridge. The poor, middle class and affluent have less contact with each other, so there is more misunderstanding and fewer shared solutions between them. In turn, this gives rise to more of a perceived competition for scarce resources and an even weaker ability to work together. Because it will be difficult to relieve the drivers of economic stress in the short term (e.g. the impact of declining family economic sufficiency), the better approach would be to change how people respond to that stress. In addition to bonding with people of a similar economic class (either face to face or through social media), it may help to both provide more opportunities and assistance in engaging people across class lines, but also to where people have successfully come together across class lines – in workplaces, civic and cultural organizations, religious institutions, etc. – to manage important problems. Lastly, people seen the whole system and its impacts on everyone’s quality of life might help people compete less against each other, than to work together to affect the broader system.
(LP2) Building on LP1, Reverse the tendency for lower levels of faith and trust in government to result in lower levels of civic engagement by creating better feedback mechanisms for policy makers and citizens. Currently, a perceived lack of government effectiveness and responsiveness decreases citizen engagement with their government. In turn, this lack of input and feedback decreases the ability of policy makers to improve the perception that government is ineffective and unresponsive. What if declining levels of satisfaction or trust in government lead to more civic engagement, not less? In other words can we channel dissatisfaction with government into creating new mechanisms for people to influence government and for government to get better feedback on the impacts of their actions?
There are important advances in how citizens can engage with their government, from virtual forums and social media mechanisms to improvements in how data can be gathered and analyzed to provide more evidenced-based policy making and public perceptions of impacts of government policies. Pilot projects that attempt to use new mechanisms for getting and giving better feedback would be mutually beneficial: policy makers would get more and better input and feedback, while citizens would be more likely to participate if they feel their voices are being heard and can participate more meaningfully if they have better data on how well public policy is addressing important public problems.
Further, the ability to improve the quality of public policy, which is a key outcome of changing the relationship between the perceived levels of government effectiveness and responsiveness and civic engagement, would have strong positive ripple effects in the system.
(LP3) Building on LP1 and LP2, Provide “counterweights” to the growing dependence on the visitor economy by compensating for the growing gap in visitor versus local purchasing power through better understanding the impact of efforts to spur non-visitor centered economic growth and where to target future investments in human capital and infrastructure. The visitor economy is essential to Hawaii’s economic performance, but is also central to several key patterns that adversely affect quality of life. And the amount of public and private investment that the visitor sector attracts, both because of the number of jobs it creates, but also because of the higher levels of purchasing power of visitors versus locals. And, this increasing investment in the visitor sector is the root of many patterns that adversely affect quality of life.
One approach to reversing this link between increase is to increase the amount and productivity of investments in the non-visitor economy and increasing the purchasing power or locals (e.g. through tax and other policy measures). For example, this does not mean that government should “bet” on certain industries, but might start by better understanding which non-tourist industries might enjoy a competitive advantage and doing better analysis of past government efforts to jump start non-visitor industries (e.g. Act 221, which provided tax credits to local tech start ups, and the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative). Government might also monitor measure of a widening gap in purchasing power between visitors and locals, and make social investments to tax credits to offset this gap.
So, are these three leverage points magic pills for improving quality of life in Hawaii?
No. There are no magic pills. These are promising ideas for improving quality of life in Hawaii over time. However, there will be a lot of trial and error. We will refine and improve both our understanding of Hawaii as a complex system and how best to engage that system. More important than any single program is how well we can learn from our efforts, both the successes and the failures. In addition to the value of the work done so far on understanding Hawaii as a complex system, we have two other assets in our favor.
First, the three leverage points identified can have a mutually reinforcing effect – the ability to work well across group divides will increase our ability to give and receive good feedback that improves policy making over time. And, better public policy making will play an integral role in improving our economy, which if successful, may relieve the economic stresses that contribute to the inability of people from different economic groups to work together in the first place.
Second, this web site will help all of us in the system become more aware of the system itself. We can’t change a system if we don’t see the system. These systems maps and the stories they contain about why Hawaii works as it does – as flawed as they might be — can generate new ideas and new discussion for how to make a better future. Systems change best when systems change themselves and by democratizing this discussion, I think we are doing just that.