Looking at the Whole: Approaching Resilience Planning Holistically

By Maddie Rehn, MJ Pickett and David Mitchell, students at Western State Colorado University, Sustainable and Resilient Communities MEM Program

Systems thinking utilizes characteristics, tools, and concepts to develop an understanding of the interdependent structures of dynamic systems. When stakeholders have a better understanding of a system, they are better able to identify the leverage points that lead to desired outcomes.  Systems thinking is an orderly way to get a holistic picture of all the components to a problem and begin charting a way to plan, support, and implement effective solutions to a problem.  When thinking about how to increase the resilience of cities one must think about the system in its entirety to integrate long-term solutions.

Another way to think about this is the more common term, triple bottom line. The triple bottom line expands the scope of work in a way that increases awareness for the need for sustainable development. The triple bottom line framework evenly fosters social equity, economic fairness, and environmental sustainability to construct a system that works for harmonious long-term effective human-nature systems. The triple bottom line framework can be used in various settings such as business, non-governmental organization, or governmental agency among others.

Looking at a governmental attempt for collaborative planning techniques is the Institute for Local Government. The goal of the institute is to “assist local leaders to govern openly, effectively and ethically, work collaboratively, and foster healthy and sustainable communities.” They plan with local communities and their neighbors to openly share information regarding sustainability planning. Through making information exchange between agencies more available and connected we can more effectively plan for a sustainable future as a whole.

An example in the global arena would be Germany’s normalization of the term Energiewende – the country’s transition away from nuclear power to renewables that first emerged in 1980. Germany has made a concerted effort to think holistically about transitioning their country and cities away from fossil fuels and continues to take into consideration many factors including workforce transition, emission policies, and diversified renewable options.

At a different scale, a non-governmental organization, The Green Belt Movement (GBM) based out of Nairobi, Kenya, uses a holistic approach for ecosystem-based adaptation and resource security.  The GBM empowers communities, particularly women, to conserve the environment and improve livelihoods within their community. GBM was founded by Professor Wangari Maathai in 1977 under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Kenya to respond to the needs of rural Kenyan women who reported that their streams were drying up, their food supply was less secure, and they had to walk further and further to get firewood for fuel and fencing.

The GBM uses an integrated watershed-based approach to restore degraded watersheds of key water catchments so as to improve their functions and improve the livelihood of the local communities. This sustainably supports and diversifies the sources of income for the communities by working together to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater, provide food and firewood, and receive a small monetary token for their work. The GBM strives for better environmental management, community empowerment, and livelihood improvement using tree-planting as an entry point to restructure this system for resiliency.

While many organizations and agencies are working to address resiliency through systems thinking and triple bottom line tactics, there is so much more to be done. We can learn a lot from organizations and businesses who are using triple bottom line accounting and systems thinking to address their challenges and gaps. One major factor in the ability to accomplish this is having the capacity, or support, to function within and around these systems.

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