Applying systems thinking to policy making

13 January 2023

In November 2022, the Centre for Science and Policy delivered a series of policy workshops on how to apply systems thnking to policy making. These workshops brought together policy makers and experts to discuss health systems, physical infrastructure, and conflict.

Written by: Caitlin Kearney, CSaP Policy Intern (October 2022 - January 2023)

When policy makers design a policy, they often consider how their contribution will scale and fit into large and sometimes immeasurably complex real-world settings. Thus, the online workshop series aimed to highlight various methods for systems thinking which describes a variety of methods that policymakers can use while considering how their solution fits into a policy change.

The first session covered some of the important methods and questions that are asked during the systems design process and used examples from private health systems. The second session considered system design for public infrastructure governance in reaction to crisis following the case study from Queensland flooding. The last session illustrated the difference between thinking about eco-systems as opposed to machine-component systems thinking.

Improving improvement: health systems design as a foundation for policy change

The first seminar was kicked off by John Clarkson, Director of Cambridge Engineering Design Centre, introduced a series of case studies and methods adopted from interdisciplinary design fields to enhance health systems for patients, practitioners, and stakeholders. When looking at an existing system, Clarkson encourages the questions “how could we do it better?”, and “what could go wrong?” Clarkson described his process of Improving Improvement which is simply summarized as the process of problem seeking and problem solving.

The discussion focused on:

  • Transferring to policy: Participants were concerned about the ability to transfer the ‘Improving Improvement’ into policy systems, research design, or designing social systems. Clarkson shared that in his experience in engineering and product design much of the recommendations are somehow also a common-sense approach, that needs to be mindfully included into the design process.
  • Time and cost: Participants were concerned about the complexity and time needed for this method. The problems that policymakers face are multifaceted and more complex than a single product or service. However, Clarkson argues that the process of mapping regardless of the challenge of complexity or limitations of time brings value in the consensus of the issue.
How can resilience and sustainability concepts be applied in decision making when planning and designing infrastructure projects?

The second roundtable focused on applying systems thinking to the topic of infrastructure resilience with Dr Kristen MacAskill, Lecturer at Engineering, Environment and Sustainable Development, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge. MacAskill introduced the importance of embedding systems thinking in every aspect of policy making, not just as a response to crisis. Particularly building resilience into an infrastructure system, additionally considering ways for a shorter recovery following a crisis.

The case study highlighted the preceding decade of governance recovery for road infrastructure following the 2010 floods in Queensland Australia. In the first years following the damage the recovery focused on like-for-like repair, then later the legislation transitioned to reforming infrastructure, and eventually a system of resilience which more broadly engaged with creating a safer outcome for communities in Queensland.

The discussion focused on:

  • Permanent authorities: A key factor for Queensland was making the reconstruction authority permanent. The result of which allowed for the creation of a large database of assets, allowing decision makers could understand the value and construction of assets for more informed decisions. For example, knowing the condition of an asset (like a road) before a disaster so an appropriate fund can be allocated to restore the asset.
  • Situational maintenance: Considering the resilience of infrastructure in the UK, there are historical assets that have been robustly constructed however they are still subject to damage because maintenance was not considered during the time of construction, or maintenance becomes deprioritized over time. MacAskill suggests that regular shortages and natural crises have built some level of resilience in countries with fewer resources. In some regards nations such as the UK, have a brittle infrastructure due to a lack of energy shortages and climate crises.
  • Weighing urgency vs. strategy: Participants discussed how reacting to disaster requires acute repairs—sometimes temporary infrastructure—to make services operational for communities. The community pressure to resume service, or the urgency of an emergency can delay more strategic thinking regarding resilience in repairing damaged infrastructure. While there is always limited time and budget for planning MacAskill suggests that conversations about long term considerations and discussing risks as a local level is a starting point.
  • Local knowledge: Community resilience is also dependent on local knowledge and creating systems that allows locals to leverage their own expertise in response to disasters. One challenge that was uncovered in Queensland was the amount of paperwork required by local authorities to apply for recovering funding can be a burden and deter the speed of recovery.

Conflict resolution, systems change and sustaining innovation

In the third and final session, participants explored managing stakeholder conflict by looking at various networks of systems and how they might form different shapes and results. Dr Luke Roberts, Managing Director, Resolve Consultants Ltd., introduced two types of ways of thinking about systems. The first is Taylorism, or the theory of systems thinking that centres around the machine metaphor versus the second, eco-systemic thinking which is thinking of systems through their interactions or networks.

Dr Roberts shared three eco-system illustrative case studies, two detailing aspects of the national health systems and another for correctional facilities. Shared findings across all case studies include the complexity of systems, the non-linear nature of time, and the emergence of passive resistance to enhancing the system. Roberts suggests that systems can tolerate conflict and even paradoxical behavioural, and it can even be a feature of the system if the system continues to function. The talk ended with the metaphor of the living bridges in India, which are functional bridges constructed by growing plants into the desired form, ideally naturally outlasting the creators.

The discussion focused on:

  • Thinking in the future: Participants discussed how useful and challenging it can be to have stakeholders think about the farther future of a system—30 years. One of the observations in the discussion was the difficulty of getting stakeholders to think beyond the next few years. And the importance of finding active and engaged stakeholders who can identify evidence gaps in Futures discussions.
  • Network shapes: In response to the participant questions that eco-system design is difficult to practically differentiate from machine systems thinking, it was raised to consider the hub-spoke model used in public organizations. Which is one expert, hub, who is supported by many other actor or spokes. A weakness in this model is when the ‘hub’ or centre of this model changes their role the ‘spokes’ often fail. This is an example of the wrong network shape for certain organizations which require free flowing information exchange that is not gated by one individual.
  • Eco-system energy: Another aspect highlighted by Roberts was the idea that there is a finite amount of energy with an eco-system. In practice this means that when looking for opportunities to enhance the systems it should not burden the energy resources in the system, i.e. supporting video calls within a team. A key indicator for the energy level in an organisation is the retention.

Image credit:,_Nongriat_village,_Meghalaya2.jpg#mw-jump-to-license

Caitlin Kearney

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge