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A Whole System Perspective is Critical for Sustainable Climate Adaptation - The HGF View

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

When we talk about a ‘whole system’ perspective on an issue we are referring to the ‘environment’ of systems and sub-systems which, taken together, affect - or are affected by - our particular focus of interest. An understanding of how these systems interact is therefore crucial in supporting our understanding of potential impacts and consequences of any interventions. This, in turn, should enable planning processes to work with greater efficiency and effectiveness and in a better understood environment.

To take an example: the promotion of sustainable agricultural practices in an era of climate change and in an Africa context. Our initial focus is likely to be on understanding the impact of climate change and its consequences for local weather patterns, hydrological systems, soil structure, flora and fauna. There will also be associated direct effects on traditional farming practices which, in turn, will be bound up with local socio-cultural and socio-economic systems. If we seek to adapt farming practices to become more environmentally sustainable in the light of climate change effects, then subsequent changes will not be limited to environmental system sustainability improvements; there will also be consequences for local economic and social systems.

Some of the effects on these systems may be positive (eg increased household income), but others might be negative – what if new farming practices are only able to sustain a smaller population on the land and this becomes a driver for emigration? In other words, what might be clear-cut and positive benefits for environmental systems arising from the introduction of sustainable farming practices may have decidedly mixed impacts on important interconnected systems - often with unintended consequences. Furthermore, these effects might not be immediately apparent and take several years to fully emerge.

Adopting a whole system approach from the start with extensive scanning of potential systems also makes us more aware of the extent to which inter-linked systems of interest might also be regarded as ‘complex adaptive systems’. In these cases, even if a perfect understanding of all individual sub-systems were possible, it may not convey a perfect understanding of the overall system's behaviour because a complex adaptive system is not simply the sum of its parts. Sub-system interactions are dynamic networks that can adapt so that both individual and collective system behaviour may self-organize in response to change-initiating events. In this way a system - whether it is natural or man-made - increases ‘its survivability’ as a macro-structure. The larger the field or interest and the scale of intervention in it, the greater the scope for complexity.

Having an awareness and understanding of systems in this way is crucial to developing workable strategic directions and operational plans. It is particularly helpful in highlighting circumstances where artificially imposed boundaries - for example, created by divisions in administrative responsibilities or funding – obscure the focus on the primary issue of interest.

So, how to go about taking a ‘whole system perspective’? There is no ‘one-size fits all’ methodology, but there are some basic principles which, if adopted at an early stage, can potentially widen perspectives and understanding.

Stakeholder identification and engagement

Ensuring an awareness of all interested parties, and their active support where possible, often opens up pockets of expertise, domain knowledge and priorities that might otherwise be overlooked by an outsider, or someone arriving with a ready-made plan.

Relevant technical expertise

Stakeholders may flag up areas where additional expert support is required, but which had not been considered at the outset. A team approach to project work will likely produce a better result in integrating technical and social aspects and produce a more workable and, importantly, longer-term sustainable range of solutions.


The capacity to be flexible in working approaches, and able to respond appropriately to changes in understanding as work progresses is crucial.

A ‘whole system’ perspective, therefore, offers the potential to unlock rich possibilities for enhanced understanding, creativity and innovation.

With these principles in mind, the Higher Ground Foundation’s ‘Standard Framework’ methodology -with the Vulnerability Reduction Credit (VRC) metric at its core - directly supports a whole system perspective in project development, management and long-term sustainability. It is designed to enable constant monitoring and adaptation of a project throughout its design, development and implementation. In doing so the VRC connects the various systems and sub-systems, can help identify positive and negative feedbacks between them, and actively support whole system complexity. The ‘project lifetime’ involvement is critical because from a system’s perspective it enables:

  • time to develop and sustain trust, engagement and ownership with stakeholders

  • more opportunity to account for any unexpected consequences which may emerge

  • monitoring of progress and outcomes with the flexibility to adapt if necessary.

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic is the most prominent example of the moment of how interconnected systems with governing boundaries that are inappropriate to the situation can be highly vulnerable to unfolding events. Soberingly, however, it has been noted by climate adaptation experts that impending climate crises will affect human and natural systems in a similarly complex fashion, but repeatedly and at a much greater scale.

The impacts of these crises will be far-reaching with many unintended and intertwined consequences. Adopting a whole system approach is likely to afford the best means to try and understand and meet the challenges which lie ahead.

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