The Systemic Challenge

Many issues are produced through complex systemic relationship and interactions. If a simple system is linear where defined inputs lead to predicable outputs and where the parts can be looked at separately to the whole, complex systems are characterised by:

  • Non-linearity and emergence, where effects emerge in ways which are unpredictable from relationships and interactions and where small changes in one place may produce effects, including large effects, elsewhere.
  • self-organization, where the nature of the system constantly adapts as actions are adjusted in dynamic relationship and where effects are generated and develop patterns without any conscious plan or imposed authority.
  • path dependence, where over time certain patterns become established that make certain other future effects more likely.

To indicate how complexity features in public engagement and democratic innovation we’ll look at one issue: that of cars.

In both Castle Gateway and York Central cars have been a central and contested issue. In 2017 the impetus for Castle Gateway was removing a car park to create a public space whilst still retaining the £1.2 million revenue from car parking and some city centre car parking. York Central creates a new part of the city and both removes a road and creates a new one. In both projects there was:

  • a huge chunk of the active public – the kinds that come to public events – that thought more should be done to remove cars. Key concerns were carbon reduction targets, noise, safety for cyclists and air quality;
  • elsewhere there was a significant assumption from people we would meet when we went out to the suburbs that cars would be catered for in the new developments, accompanied by complaints about public transport and the dangers of cycling;
  • there was media-based public debate about the relationship between city centre parking and economic viability of the city centre (given the competition from the three out of town shopping centres built over the previous 40 years);
  • an assumption via transport planning processes, based on traffic modelling, that car use would increase and that plans had to take into account a ‘worst case scenario’.

Some of the challenges to developing engagement processes here are:

  • the question of the boundaries around any issue;
  • the question of who needs to be involved;
  • the question of how to structure different types of involvement
  • the question of how to identify and address the blockages or knots that hold certain issues in place.

What ‘is’ the issue?

The first challenge here is identifying the nature of the issue. Ostensibly it is movement around the city and so it appears to be a transport issue. But, of course, it is also an economic issue, a health issue, an environmental issue but also an issue of emotions, habits, everyday choices, ideas of freedom and control and of fear. Clearly in the example above there are a number of different and competing world views (Checkland and Poulter 2006). Putting artificial boundaries around issues potentially means centring only one world view and never getting to the point where the different worldviews can be made visible and explored. As a result, great care needs to be taken in defining the boundaries of issues and questions and is best approached through an open approach where boundaries can shift and reform.

Who needs to be involved?

The council deals in different places with transport, economics, the environment and health, each of those areas in linked into a whole network of other public agencies (NHS; Environment Agency) and private companies (for example, bus companies) and community organisations (focused on, for example, cycling, air quality, environmental activism). Beyond this organised network of people, many other people are part of the whole through making choices to get in their car or not, are choosing to come into town or to go out of town for shopping, are coping with breathing (given the air quality) or are not, are feeling scared as a lorry passes them on their bike or are never putting themselves in that situation. Not involving the widest range of people mean you will not know the issue well enough. In this sense weak democratic approaches are also weak epistemic approaches.

How to design involvement with complex issues?

In practice all of these people are not in the same place at the same time and most will not want to be part of a public event exploring these issues. The complexity of the issues means taking a very distributed approach to work – going where people are and starting conversations on their own terms. From this, opportunities for connecting cross-system need to be looked for, both building networks and making visible the diversity of viewpoints. It also means not just relying on talk and expanding the different ways people can shape the process, for example using action and experimentation. Finally, for this to be democratic and to inform formal decision making, these distributed processes do also need to become part of building a shared public sphere where the issues can be understood from different perspectives, expert knowledge (e.g. traffic modelling) made transparent and translated and all interested can become involved (in different ways) in a deliberative process.

Understanding blockages

Through the work above specific blockages will become more visible. For example, the transport model is a specific challenge as it assumes growth and is connected to public funding, tying public agencies in. The reliance of local authorities on car park revenue in the wake of austerity (an issue that is sharper post-COVID). A particular bus route – with many more buses going in town than coming back out due to one-way systems – is another. Increasing traffic making people feel less safe on a bike is another. As you enact a deliberative system you are also collectively understanding the systemic disconnections or blocks that hold certain issues in an intractable place.

These are some of the challenges in working with complex issues, we now turn to two literatures to draw out key insights and current debates to help shape our future work: 1) Deliberative Systems and 2) Systemic Thinking and Whole System Change.