Systems Thinking

By Dr Simon Batchelor

In the paper TRANSFORMING ACCESS TO CLEAN TECHNOLOGY: LEARNING FROM LIGHTING AFRICA, David OckwellRob ByrneVictoria ChengoElsie OnsongoJacob Fodio Todd and Joanes Atela illustrate how the MECS programme could learn from Lighting Africa.  This is a great paper and one I hope those involved with MECS will read.  I think in a related blog post David explains how in complex systems we need so much more than a two dimensional economics and technology approach, but need to consider the social, political and innovation dimensions as well.  He illustrates in the blog and the paper how a techno centric approach just doesn’t take into account enough of the socio-political context.

They describe their paper as being about how “reframing our understanding of how transformations happen in access to clean energy technologies, foregrounding the social and the political, together with more sophisticated, systemic understandings of how sustained technological change and innovation occurs, can increase the chances of transformative change that is environmentally sustainable and socially just. This moves beyond the largely unsuccessful track record of past interventions that tended to focus only on technology hardware and finance. The working paper analyses the case of Lighting Africa, which successfully transformed access to solar lighting in Kenya and, as far as we are aware, conceptualises and illustrates for the first time Lighting Africa’s approach. This builds on past STEPS research that focusses on building sociotechnical innovation systems.”  Abstract Ockwell et al 2019

I am pleased to say that the MECS programme is actually constructed in line with Davids recommendations.  We start with the social, finding out how people cook, and the ecookbook is the outcome of this.  We have focus groups as the focus of our programme (pun intended), and we emphasise tasty meals as the desirable outcome of any change in cooking processes or appliances.  But what I also like about David’s paper is that it keeps systems thinking front and centre to our work.

Years ago I worked in Cambodia and we applied a wide ranging participatory approach that enabled the people to identify their own solutions.  As a programme we ended up dealing with everything from building schools to health insurance, from loans of buffaloes to widows to vaccination campaigns, from enhanced water supplies to mushrooms and ducks as livelihood options.  Life in Cambodia was a complex system, and the people, with a little help from us, made interventions at various points in the system, some of which led to significant economic growth, and some to greater equality and justice. 

In our work we corrupted the phrase – “give a man a fish you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you fed him for life” (which I always thought was from Oxfam, but apparently it has more historical origins!).  We made it to “give a person a fish you feed him for a day, teach a person to fish and you fed them until someone comes along with a better fishing technique, or until the factory upstream pollutes the water, or until war overtakes them and they become a refugee.  Enable a person to be a creative thinker and you have fed them for life.”  I admit it doesn’t roll off the tongue like the original does, but it was illustrative that a person making a change is not making that change in isolation.  They are part of a complex system and that system will affect their livelihood options.

I was interested to be recently told by a colleague that Oxfam themselves also considered the system linkages of the catchphrase’ and made a video to illustrate systems thinking. (Note I don’t think I agree with the last quarter of the video but nonetheless it illustrates our need for system thinking.)

So as Ockwell et al illustrate, MECS will not be about technology per se, it is about the role and place of cooking in the complex system of peoples lives.