Where have all the simple problems gone? It seems that every group I work with these days is dealing with long-term, often intractable problems. Water management, ag land preservation, housing, climate change, and rural economic resilience all challenge the very way we think about problems and solutions. Multiple layers of complexity often obscure both the obvious and the not-so-obvious.

So what can we do? Clearly it is not enough to simply walk away from these complex challenges, nor is it enough to adopt simple fixes  that often have unintended impacts as damaging as the problem itself. One answer is to use some of the tools from systems thinking.

Systems thinking and systems approaches to complexity have been with us for almost a century, but perhaps owe their greatest debt to Peter Senge, author of the Fifth Discipline and the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, who popularized concepts like feedback loops, systems archetypes, and causal loop mapping. Today the work of David Peter Stroh, author of Systems Thinking for Social Change, C. Otto Scharmer, author of Theory U, and adrienne marie brown, author of Emergent Strategy, continue to evolve the field in ever more useful directions.

What is systems thinking? One way to answer this is to contrast systems thinking with traditional problem solving. Most of us are experts at this type of thinking: we see a problem, for example water storage in California, we imagine a solution, raising the height of a dam, and then develop a process for creating our solution, in this case dam improvements.

This type of problem solving–Situation, Target, Process–works for many simple problems. We could not change a tire without it. But as problems become more complex, this type of problem solving often breaks down. Additional stored water only buffers, but does not resolve uncertainty of water supply under conditions of climate change, and may divert attention and resources from more fundamental solutions like increased underground storage or improved recycling of urban waste water. The unintended consequences of a particular solution are often worse than the presenting problem.

Systems thinking is a way to address this complexity. It is focused on developing the capacity to see the consequences of our own actions. In California, we have developed an exquisite system for moving water from places of abundance to places of need, but the consequences have been significant, ranging from the damage to the San Joaquin Delta and its biota from pumping to the false sense of security imported water has given to communities and individuals. As we understand the fundamental interconnectedness of water use and delivery, we can begin to unfold the complexity of the situation more effectively. This was one of the central themes of the California Roundtable on Water Food Supply’s pivotal report, From Crisis to Connectivity: Renewed Thinking About Managing California’s Water & Food Supply.

Systems thinking focuses on the connections and interactions among the elements of a system. In partnership with Sustainable Conservation, Ag Innovations developed a systems map of the factors that may lead to the success or failure of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. This map tells the story of how a tragedy of the commons in groundwater overuse led to regulatory action, which in turn leads to political push and pull on both the regulatory agencies charged with the Act’s success, and on the Groundwater Sustainability Agencies charged with its implementation. The pushes and pulls of stakeholders, the capacities of the Agencies, and the availability of data and tools are all connected and all interact. It is a system. From this map we can see where to apply additional resources to ensure the Act’s success and where potential weak points are that should be monitored. It simplifies the complex.

Systems thinking is focused on what C. Otto Scharmer calls the emerging future. Inside the California water system is an emerging future that simultaneously grows abundant food, has healthy communities with access to clean drinking water, improves conditions for the life that depends on groundwater, and assures adequate water for urban uses. To see this emerging future, we usually have to step back from our preferred solution and listen to our inner voice, to the natural world, to others we may not agree with, and to the future we aspire to give to the generations that follow us. This is not easy to do. Everything in our current political and social environment is pulling us away from the systems perspective. But that is a rip-tide that is bound to pull us under the tsunami of change that is coming. There is an opportunity for another way, a systems approach, that will, with work, connect us to a positive future that we can all co-create. And that is good news.