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  • Eugene McGarrell

It's time governments adopted complex connected co-designed solutions for adaptive problems



Last night I attended a showing of “The Connected Universe”, a film by Nassim Haramein where he argues a scientific idea that we are all connected from the micro to the macro levels of the universe. Nassim’s Ted Talk will do a much better job of explaining his theory than I ever could. His theory reminded me of Nora Bateson’s film “An Ecology of Mind” and the work she has led on the shoulders of her Father Gregory Bateson.


Systems thinking is not a new concept. Most of us will be familiar with the work of Peter Senge in the late 1980s and will have read his book “The Fifth Discipline”. Many of us working in the health and social care space will understand the complexity of the sector and the need to address health and social issues as adaptive challenges.


An adaptive leadership framework had been developed by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky at the Harvard Kennedy School to support leaders to work within the system to co-create complex solutions for complex or adaptive challenges.


We are all connected whether we like it or not. The quality of our connections at home, in our community, at work and to the machine of policy, regulation and legislation determines the protective and risk factors to health and social factors including homelessness, addiction, mental illness, neglect, trauma and poverty.


All over the world government after government continue to address health and social policy in isolation and out of context. They address each adaptive challenge as a technical problem. Stop smoking, don’t do drugs, exercise and eat well are messages we hear on a regular basis. Policy makers take these issues out of their context, they create simple solutions and then they execute the simple solution with a grand fanfare for the responsible Minister to enjoy.


The health and social challenges we face every day in wealthy first world countries are being sustained because they are not being addressed as one complex and adaptive challenge. Targeting the behaviour of our citizens as the instrument for change has a limiting affect.

The recent statistics on smoking reported by the ABC show that there are some suburbs in Australia with smoking rates as high as the national average in 1979. Overall smoking rates have dropped, but in many suburbs those rates have worsened.


Why is that?


The paradigm that we just need to change the behaviour of our citizens to reduce the rates of heart disease, diabetes, suicide, mental illness, addiction and homelessness is simple and naïve. We cannot address these challenges by taking them out of context and designing simple solutions. We need to start looking and the health and social outcomes together, in the context of the community characteristics and as one complex challenge.


Policy makers can start by embedding themselves in the community they serve. Not as a guru with the answer to their problems, but as a humble resource to leverage policy, regulation and legislation that will create the conditions for human connection to each other, with their environment, their community and their work. Conditions that supports local agency, a sense of community and a responsibility for creating local solutions for local challenges.


Governments can support community to improve their own health and social outcomes by working with them in their own context and by creating the conditions for connected complex problem-solving ad solution design. It needs a change in paradigm and a government with the courage to make a difference.


There is a wealth of expertise in Australia to co-design and execute this new approach. Many are frustrated and chomping on the bit to create connected complex solutions. Maybe the time is now?