Chain Reaction

Systems thinking gets planners to consider the downstream effects of decisions.

Systems thinking is becoming more and more commonplace across government. One convert is the Army Corps of Engineers, which is trying to adapt its planning process so, for example, a dam project upriver doesn't ruin a wetlands plan downriver. Managers are seeing that they cannot treat individual projects as anything but interconnected parts of a larger whole.

The Corps of Engineers is a projects agency. It designs and builds dams, floodwalls, levees and locks, dredges harbors, restores beaches and protects wetlands. Under a 1986 law, the Corps puts up some of the money to complete a project but gets some of the money from local agencies, or "cost-sharing partners." Because of that cost-sharing arrangement, the Corps has tended to approach each project individually rather than as part of a larger system, such as a watershed.

"We . . . have not done as good a job as we should be doing on understanding the interaction of that project and other projects and other dynamics in a watershed," Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, head of the Corps, explained to reporters this summer. "So, for the last couple of years, we have been adding that as a component to our planning process, to think outside and understand the cumulative impacts of the projects on the watershed."

In the New Orleans area, the Corps has an extensive flood control network, composed of various floodgates, canals, levees and floodwalls. The network is the system, while the gates, levees and canals are the projects. Strock said one of the lessons the Corps learned from the failure of that system during Hurricane Katrina is that the agency tended to treat each component as an individual project, rather than as an integrated whole.

"What we did not do is each time we made another decision, we didn't revisit-go back to the root of the problem-and say, if you add Risk A with Risk B with Risk C with Risk D, which would have accumulated over the years, that's the total risk we're talking about, not the risk associated with the specific changes we might be making today," Strock said. "I think if we had these processes in place earlier . . . that each time we made a decision about not to do barriers or not to do gates or whatever, to go with I-walls instead of T-walls, we would have [had] a much better appreciation for the cumulative risks we faced."

The basic precept of systems thinking is that everything is connected. Hence there are always unexpected, and unintended, consequences to actions. Systems thinkers say it's worth reasoning upfront how those results might play out.

Along with the shift to a systems-based approach, the Corps of Engineers has been pushing for a more collaborative planning process-involving more players in the beginning so project planners get a better picture of the larger system. Such an approach helps planners predict how nature's various parts, or the ecosystem, will react to a project. Upfront collaboration also helps them see how different groups of people will react to a project. In the political environment in which the Corps and other agencies operate, trying to anticipate people's varied responses to change is just as important as anticipating Mother Nature's response.

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