A session at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference on November 24th 2022, explores how systems thinking can help us transform the food system in Wales for a more sustainable future.

We know we are currently living in a climate and nature crisis, caused by the way humans have been living over the last few hundred years.  Three of the most important systems that have been identified as essential for tackling these dual crises are the food, transport, and energy systems.  Looking holistically at how different elements of these systems connect can help us to identify opportunities for transformative change.

So, practically, how can systems thinking help us?  

Thinking about the whole system around the problem can help us step back and look at a fuller range of potential solutions.  Within systems thinking practise, there is a whole spectrum of tools and techniques to aid problem solving.  At one end, we have ‘Hard systems thinking’ techniques, which require clearly defined problems, are mathematical and require data, such as modelling crop yield under different climate scenarios.  At the other end, there are ‘Soft systems thinking’ techniques, for more loosely defined, complex problems: these explore perspectives and connections, and are generally more accessible in terms of skills required.  An example would be a workshop where food suppliers, marketing specialists, health care workers and schools come together to talk about how they see childhood obesity.

How is Natural Resources Wales (NRW) working with systems thinking?

NRW’s purpose is to help Wales achieve the sustainable management of natural resources.  Our founding legislation tells us to take a systems approach in doing this, based on that of the United Nations.  This led us to conclude in the State of Natural Resources report (SoNaRR) that Wales needs to take a systems approach to addressing environmental degradation and transform its food, energy and transport systems.  Following the publication of the report in 2020, we set up the Bridges to the Future project within NRW to help us think about how we take forward a systems approach.

We are keen to fully explore how systems approaches can help us, and we are using techniques from a new Systems Thinking toolkit released earlier this year by the Government Office of Science.  The toolkit is based on four principal steps, see diagram above.  

In the centre ring, these steps are: confirming the goal, understanding the system, co-designing and testing, and finally implement monitor and evaluate.

The outer ring shows the tools and techniques you can use for each of those stages.  

Notice how the four principal steps are iterative, and you may be going back over previous steps as you move through.

It is early days for the Bridges to the Future group in NRW; we are at the exciting initial stages of confirming our goals and understanding the food system.  We are connecting with external partners who are already working on food systems, and have found great value in bringing together people from different areas of expertise, such as agriculture, waste, evidence, and land use to build our understanding of the ‘food system’ in Wales.  The tools from the toolkit provide a simple structure to follow.  Systems thinking is challenging and complex, but very rewarding!

Come along to our session or get in touch if you’d like to find out more.

Holly Butterworth

Natural Resources Wales

Diagram: Systems thinking: An Introductory Toolkit for Civil Servants, Government Office for Science (2022). https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1079384/GO-Science_Systems_Thinking_Toolkit_2022_v1.0.pdf