Systems thinking for humanitarians: An introduction for the complete beginner



In 2015, ALNAP surveyed its Urban Response Community of Practice.1 The results revealed that members were keen for ALNAP to undertake research to improve humanitarian response to urban crises. This marked the beginning of a multiyear research initiative that would attempt to address the critiques often levelled at humanitarian response in urban crises, namely that it:

• fails to recognise the resources and capacities in the city

• misses opportunities to work collaboratively with urban stakeholders

• disrupts or hinders long-term planning and development

• cannot deal with interconnected problems or issues in the city

• fails to operate across different scales2 of the city

While undertaking research for its first paper on these themes – Stepping Back: Understanding cities and their systems (Campbell, 2016) – ALNAP found that many people outside the humanitarian sector described the complexity of urban contexts in the language of ‘systems’.
Stepping Back called for the humanitarian sector to embrace the idea of the city as a system.

The response to Stepping Back was largely positive, but there was also some confusion. ‘Systems’ can mean many things and without introducing these ideas clearly readers were left to draw their own conclusions. In the years since Stepping Back, ALNAP has invested in its own understanding of systems thinking, participating in events and workshops, reading relevant literature and discussing systems thinking with a wide variety of experts.

This paper is the culmination of these efforts. It is an attempt to explain much more clearly what systems thinking is and why humanitarians should pay attention to and adopt it. This paper is significantly informed by ALNAP’s work on urban crises; however, it is relevant for all humanitarians who encounter complexity in their work.

This paper introduces the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of systems thinking, situating it within the broader systems universe and demonstrating its relevance for the humanitarian sector. The paper looks at systems thinking in comparison to traditional reductionist and linear thinking, which fail to address the sorts of complex problems that humanitarians face, and introduces the principles, competencies, language and tools that can be used to put systems thinking principles into practice. The paper is accompanied by a companion handbook, which provides the ‘how’ of systems thinking. The hope is to inspire all readers to invest in building and applying their own systems thinking skills.

Definitions for key systems thinking concepts (including emergence, feedback, mental models and perspective) are provided throughout this paper, and you can find a glossary in the companion Handbook. The methodology can be found in the annex.