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Jules Todd and Paul Nash invite you to help grow a new, action-focused, collaborative network around systems thinking

Recent RSA reports on new approaches to public service challenges encourage us to “think like a system, act like an entrepreneur”.

What do we expect of entrepreneurs? Agile thinking – to move quickly, develop a prototype, test the market, adapt, change, repeat. The ability to fail forwards: getting it wrong is an opportunity to learn, feedback, redesign then go again. Entrepreneurs are sales people, they present an idea, get buy-in and use that leverage to improve the idea. They have a clear vision of what success looks like, knowing what they are working towards before they set off.

Now apply that entrepreneurial approach to improving a social system: education, health-care, housing, food and farming for example. These systems are far more complex than any new product or service, so what would a suitable “research and development” approach be like?

Failure is not an option when dealing with people’s lives and livelihoods. Everybody reading this can recall, even in recent history, failed projects that have detrimentally affected those they were intended to help. Also, failure in the public realm is strongly criticised, as is a perception of wasted public money.

Systems Thinking (ST) is a way of looking at the world and how it works. ST has some important things to say about how complex systems work (or don't work) and how to change systems without “unforeseen consequences”. ST can help diverse stakeholders create a shared vision and a shared model of the systems they wish to change.

Experimenting with shared models is like prototyping a new product and much less risky than experimenting with the real system.

ST is also a body of theoretical and practical knowledge. Over the last fifty years or so, ST has grown, diversified and been applied to a wide range of complex problems from ecology to neuroscience. A useful “map” can be found online.


Our ideas for a Systems Thinking Network

Both the RSA and our collaborators and partners are working on a whole range of complex systems change problems. We know, in principle, that ST could provide insights into root causes of problems and ways of designing changes with the best prospects of success. We also have, in our staff and Fellowship network, a huge breadth and depth of knowledge of systems thinking and systems change.

We think a Fellow-led Systems Thinking network would help to make ST the R&D approach of choice for the complex systems change projects. The RSA already uses systems language and concepts and is developing a systemic change programmes and approaches.

Currently however, both inside and outside the RSA, ST approaches are rarely applied to their full potential in practice. Why not? Since feedback and learning are core systems concepts, the new network should reflect on this.

We are very open to ideas and support from colleagues inside and outside the RSA. Our current ideas for ST network activities include:

  • Pooling our knowledge and experience to shape know-how which supports RSA Fellowship initiatives
  • Developing an honest picture of ST benefits, challenges and practical application
  • Sharing the know-how in ways which help non-specialists
  • Maintaining that content over time, based on feedback and learning from its application.

These activities and outputs would bring three main benefits:

  • Directly support the RSA’s action-focused mission
  • Empower stakeholders to tackle their own social challenges
  • And most importantly, reduce the risks of failure when changing complex systems.

The Systems Thinking Network should appeal if you have experience of applying systems thinking and/or you are interested in any of the following:

  • Learning about systems thinking, or applying knowledge about the learning process, or team-based problem-solving
  • Applying systems thinking to real world challenges relevant to the RSA
  • Using various media to convey new knowledge and insights to a wide range of stakeholders
  • Working entrepreneurially - failing forwards, thinking on your feet, sharing ideas openly, changing direction in the light of acquired understanding, developing new models in the light of new understanding.

If you are interested in joining a steering group to support the development and leadership of a network, please complete this form. To find out more about systems-thinking and the potential of a network, book here to attend an online event on March 11th.


Julian Todd FRSA is a climate activist, systems thinker and aspiring entrepreneur. Julian loves working in teams to innovate and to solve problems, having recently retired after more than 25 years as an informatics and change consultant in health and social care.

His background is in science and engineering and he possesses both a strong analytical outlook and a long-term interest in the application of soft and hard systems thinking and tools to complex problems.

Paul Nash FRSA is Black Country born and bred. He spent 35 years working in a variety of roles in local government, including project management. Following this, Paul spent 10 years working for himself as a systems analyst and project consultant, focusing on technology driven change in business.

Post-retirement last year he now volunteers as a Magistrate and as a Parish Councillor, working hard on a neighbourhood plan. He also volunteers some time each week to a local disability network.

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