[Sustainability] An essay on systems thinking and energy management

This is something I wrote back in 2003 while doing my MSc at KTH in Sweden. It brings back good memories of student life and the great discussions with professors and classmates on such issues as climate change, resource management, social implications, etc (sometimes with a good beer at a bar). The story was published online at the World Student Community for Sustainable Development.

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A Systems Approach to Conflict Resolution in Sustainable Energy Management

In sustainable energy development, many actors are involved in the juggling and distribution of our natural resources, each with the best (personal or social) intentions in mind. These actors, which can be corporations, governments, and/or civil society, tend to follow set series of procedures to carry out these decisions, using tools such as economics, politics, scientific analysis, or simple public pressure. The success of the ultimate decisions depends on how the problem is defined. An example of this can be seen in the implementation of a program in rural Papua New Guinea to introduce more-efficient stoves to reduce pollution and health risks. The initiative failed due to inappropriate stove design, use of equipment that the potential user would not be able to afford, and lack of a supply of appropriate fuel. Clearly, the wrong choice was made, despite an altruistic motive toward humans and nature. This is an example of how inappropriate problem definitions can lead to the set-up of the wrong socio-technical systems, possibly leading to harm of humans or nature, or both. One way to improve the processes of defining problems and making decisions is to use an adaptive approach that is able to foresee and create the desired sustainable system that will efficiently manage the resources.

Looking back on my life, I can clearly picture what might have been my first system definition and the decisions I based on this. It was just after sunrise on a summer morning at our beach house in Venezuela. I was six years old. As I was walking barefoot along the wall between our house and the beach, several ants bit me. After running around in pain for some time and placing my foot in the calm, cold water of the lake to numb the sting, I decided vengeance must take place. I meticulously created a moat around the anthill and filled it with water. To further prevent any possibility of escape, I poured bike oil around the boundary of the moat. One thing was clear: The ants were going to pay.

Looking back on it now, I took childish pleasure in the ant chaos I created and in the feeling of control this gave me. I remember being there for hours, changing my machiavellian strategy according to the ants’ reaction. I spilled water over them; created make-believe sandstorms, recruited snails and crabs for a fictional fight . . . I used all the latest in child technology to achieve my only objective: realizing my desire for ant suffering.

Obviously, I did not know at the time what I was to learn some years later: that all the decisions we make are based on a conscious, personal, and preconceived system (in my experience with the ants, a physical system) upon which we try to manage several ideas and tools to accomplish our goals. Looking back now, I wonder how easily I came to the decisions I made on that day.

As I consider the thoughts I may have had at the time, I see that the way I designed my physical system helped make my choices much easier, and although very simple, my final goal had a big influence on this system.

(It is incredible how fun it can be to try to recreate the thought patterns of childhood actions from an objective and methodological engineering perspective.)

I took many things into account that day to help me make the best decisions: where to position the moat around the anthill, so as to capture as many ants as possible yet allow me to be outside the boundary and therefore avoid further bites; how wide and deep to make the moat, so as to maximize ant chaos but minimize the number of trips I would have to make to the lake with my water buckets; how to integrate my brothers into the master plan, using their labor to capture the warrior snails and crabs, thus freeing me up so I could concentrate on implementing the next crucial steps. All in all, these ideas-to-actions steps implicitly selected the correct route — in my perception — for successfully terrorizing the ants.

The true challenge is to transmit through this story how a parallel view can be extrapolated to the management of nature’s energy resources within a sustainable energy development concept. The first thing to note is that in the new scenario, more actors are involved, not just my brothers and I, and the actors desire different results from the common goal of providing energy (electrical, thermal, fuels, etc.), whereas my goal was simply payback for the ant bites. In the new scenario, the desired results are varied: increased profitability, employment, and human comfort and well-being; potential for growth and expansion; and minimizing negative effects such as impacts on the environment. The technologies used are also significantly more advanced than the buckets and shovels I used, bringing into the picture new and more efficient technologies in power plants, fuels such as biomass, solar, and hydro, and the need to take into account other factors such as emissions produced, transport distances required, and, as in my story, the physical boundaries of the system and the occupants found within.

It can easily be seen in this analogy that many more options are available, and thus the choices become more complex. It is here that a new approach must be made. We must expand from a conventional physical-energy system where we simply define where we want to act and what we want to produce, to a system that considers the surrounding environment and social and economic systems, including the roles and interests of government, corporations, and civil society. This socio-technical system thus opens a world of further options that might be used to achieve the desired goals. We are introducing here not only the technological advances as they emerge on the energy market, but also greatly involving more actors, which in turn increase the possible ways to develop, implement, govern, and maintain such technologies. This will help ensure that the decisions that are ultimately made are the best ones.

A problem arises, of course, when it comes to how to quantify the success of the outcomes. Here we should take into consideration the now commonly known “triple-bottom-line” approach (taking into account not just economic, but also social and environmental, concerns). In this approach, an important result to measure is the environmental impact both during the initial resource extraction and in the end-use application.

One should question, then, how this new socio-technical system could aid in ensuring the final decision has a triple-bottom-line positive impact. The proposed system must be adaptive to change, not only in the technological realm, but also in the social realm. Although in my childhood system I never thought of implementing a triple-bottom-line-type measurement to quantify my success, I had managed to effectively adapt my technologies to the changing environment. I used the resources at hand (water buckets, sand shovel, etc.) only as needed, ensuring that the resources would also be available for future ant annihilation.

Yes, in my experience, the choices made were easy, not just because of the type of judgment a six-year-old boy can call upon in such a situation, but because I was the sole decision-maker. So how can we help facilitate the decision-making process when more actors are involved? That’s where the proposed system can help. From our experience, we know that decisions are made based on how we define the challenge at hand. If we take into consideration only the technological side, some of the actors will utterly oppose the proposed decision. The same occurs when focusing only on the economic or social or environmental factors. The environmentalists will oppose decisions that don’t carry their point of view, just as communities will oppose decisions that ignore the local population’s interests and corporations will oppose decisions that restrict their ability to use raw materials in the amount and manner they choose. From the previous sentence alone, we can see the potential for the creation of big problems if a holistic decision-making system is not established.

Such a system must be established and must be allowed to adapt to changes that occur over time, such as changes in the actors. As with the concept of sustainable development, no one should be likely to disagree with such a system.

Sound far-fetched? As John Lennon would say, Imagine. Imagine a system that is able to foresee and create the foundation necessary for providing a number of options from which to construct the desired triple-bottom-line decision, thus benefiting all parties involved and resolving any conflicts that may arise. As can be seen from a number of technological, social, and environmental accomplishments, some of today’s realities were yesterday’s dreams.

So how can such a system be created and what should it include that allows it to be flexible and foresee new sustainable choices? Well, luckily there has been much thought on the issue of systems thinking; it is now just a matter of applying this to the issue of sustainable energy development. As Draper L. Kauffman presents in his book Systems 1: An Introduction to Systems Thinking, there are a number of guidelines that could offer important insight to this endeavor. Here are a few of them in brief:

  • Everything is connected to everything else. There is no such thing as an isolated subsystem; all are interlinked and therefore affect one another.
  • Nature knows best. Millions of years of evolution must be given some credence when trying to justify nature’s behavior, even when it is not clearly understood. A natural solution, therefore, should be sought whenever possible.
  • Don’t try to control the players; change the game. Forcing the actors to do something usually has a negative effect. Rules should be changed in such a way as to let the players see the new advantages that are available, therefore making choices for the greater good of the system.
  • Loose systems are often better. Extremely organized systems often limit flexibility. A more diverse system can better respond to changes and therefore be better prepared for different situations.
  • Don’t be a boiled frog. This is a great analogy for our current overuse of resources and abuse of the environment. If a frog is put in a pan of hot water, it will immediately jump out. But if it is put in a pan of cool water and the water is gradually heated, the frog will happily sit there and let itself be cooked. The moral of the story for our proposed system is that it must be able to foresee whether current practices will boil us in the future.

After meditating on what the above guidelines are expressing and trying to integrate them into the socio-technical, triple-bottom-line-oriented system described above, one can see the potential for improving the decision-making process in energy development. Had this approach been used in the stove example in the introductory paragraph, the outcome likely would have been different.

Fortunately, unlike the ants’ future in my story, ours could be different. Is it possible, then, that an adaptive systems (i.e., socio-technical) approach to sustainable energy management could help resolve conflicts that may arise in making decisions on resource use? If the most common problem is currently in the decision, could the answer be found in which system is used to define the problem?

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