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Systems Analysis: Seeing the bigger picture

- Wits University

In September, the Wits Rural Facility became a ‘lab in the bush’ for a hands-on systems analysis thinking and modelling programme.

Postdoctoral, early career, and emerging researchers in multidisciplinary science fields, from Cameroon, India, Iran, southern Africa, and Tanzania, participated in the 2017 Southern African Systems Analysis Centre (SASAC) Emerging Researchers programme hosted by Mary Scholes, a professor in the Wits School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at Wits.

Jai Clifford-Holmes of Rhodes University took delegates through an intensive three-day systems modelling process. Here delegates learnt to use cutting-edge software to explore systems analysis case studies and develop their own models on diverse, real-life themes including small community fish farming, a cholera outbreak, drug-related crime, and how lithium scarcity affects electric vehicles.

Playing politics to practice food security, water management, pollution, sustainability

Participants had a huge amount of fun playing the Nexus simulation game facilitated by Piotr Magnuszewski from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). The game provides unique insights into the interconnected challenges of water, food and energy management. Some took on the roles of policy-makers, such as the President, Minister of Energy, and Minister of the Environment of two imaginary neighbouring countries, one upstream from the other, while others acted as representatives of NGOs, the World Bank and various funding and humanitarian organisations. The goals of the two countries overlapped, and decisions made by the one about water, energy and environmental policies had significant effects on the other, not always expected, and frequently severely detrimental.

Delegates at the Southern African Systems Analysis Centre (SASAC) Emerging Researchers programme hosted by Wits' Prof. Mary Scholes in APES, play the Nexus game

The interactive role-playing game Nexus involved representatives of two imaginary countries debate competing concerns of food security, water management, pollution and sustainability. Photograph: Simone Titus

Interactions became heated and tempers flared on occasion as participants found their inner politician and strove to address the water needs of their imaginary country and its people, industry, and agriculture, while facing the challenges of climate change, pollution and sustainability. The role-playing scenarios allowed participants to practice strategic systems analysis thinking while developing negotiation, cooperation and conflict resolution skills in an interactive and meaningful way.

Integrated, interdisciplinary collaboration the foundation of systems analysis

Food, water, health, energy, risk, migration, climate – most of these challenges can’t be solved by looking at them from only one perspective. The answers lie in integrated and interdisciplinary collaboration, which is the foundation of systems analysis. This is one of the few research approaches that provide the ‘bigger picture’ view, taking into account contingencies and uncertainties, and enabling robust decision-making.

Recognising the pivotal role that systems analysis will play in addressing global issues and informing policy, SASAC was formed in 2016 to develop greater capacity for systems analysis research approaches in South Africa, and grow high-level international research networks.

This multi-year initiative for scholars with research interests as diverse as public health, earthquake engineering, wetland management, transport infrastructure, adaptive dynamics and urbanisation is supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF), the South African Department of Science and Technology, and the IIASA, in collaboration with the universities of the Witwatersrand, Stellenbosch, Western Cape and Limpopo.

The lab in the bush

As an introduction to systems analysis, participants in this year’s SASAC Emerging Researchers programme spent 10 days in an urban environment on Wits Main Campus, interacting with leading systems analysis scholars including David Everatt (Wits), Bob Scholes (Wits), Ulf Dieckmann (IIASA), Dillip Das (CUT), and Michael Gastrow (HSRC), before heading off to the wilds of Mpumalanga for an immersive experience at Wits Rural Facility.

“Programmes like this are vital. Systems analysis is one of the only tools that can span the complexity of the interconnected global problems that face us today. Building capacity in this area, and boosting the knowledge and understanding of today’s talented up-and-coming researchers, offers our best chance of overcoming the substantial barriers to sustainability,” says Mary Scholes.

Participants reacted positively to the programme, which included a community visit to Acornhoek and a day trip to the Kruger Park.

“I will definitely incorporate systems dynamics modelling in my research and in that of my 15 Master’s and doctoral students,” said one of the participants from the University of the Western Cape. “[These are] a very useful set of tools indeed that will allow me to infuse policy scenarios in order to justify interventions.”

Wits University will host the programme again in 2018. Anyone interested in participating, or who has students or colleagues who might benefit, is encouraged to keep an eye out for the 2018 call for applicants from the NRF in March 2018.