We’ve all heard the proverb, Teach a man to fish and you have fed him for a lifetime.

The concept is irresistible. It lightly assumes that people, organizations, or societies can sustain themselves forever as long as they have the right fix, like skill set or knowledge, innovative legislative or sustainable policy.

That approach works, but only until change happens, that unpleasant habit of our world.

For a fisherman, the stock of fish may decline due to climate change. Powerful cliques may start overfishing. The fish market may change demands or even crash. Legal directives may limit who can fish and in which amounts. Funds and governments may invest in local fish factories, and they don't keep up with the new demands. Their ship breaks. Needed tools to stay competitive become unaffordable. They get back pain and can’t move and have to stay in bed for a few months. They may get in a relationship with vegan. Sometimes at the same time as their ship breaks.

The most successful fisher livelihood strategy is not the one that is fixed in every way and set out in a tidy plan. It is the one that can adapt or even transform within these changing conditions while keeping the wanted purpose or the function.

The interventions that make the fisher truly adaptive or transformable would need to arise from a deep understanding of the bigger picture, e.g., of the different components in the system and their relationships that they need to respond and affect. This “big picture” thinking is also called “systems thinking”.

The tricky question is how to translate the abstract concepts of system thinking into concrete steps for designing societies that evolve in change.

Recognition of system principles

Most of us think in logical frameworks and make plans with firm goals, activities, and anticipated results. Such a mindset stems from a proposition that almost everything can be planned by understanding linear causes and effects.

This approach is beneficial for interventions with higher levels of certainty. While planning a nuclear plant or office building, you will come up with quick technical solutions, effective in getting the system back in the function after disturbance.

However, when dealing with complex social-ecological systems like cities, infrastructure systems, or governance, we do not have such high levels of certainty. Complex systems change in ways we cannot predict. Interventions in complex systems are all about enabling evolution towards a new functioning state.

We all have dealt with complex systems. I know that because we are complex systems. Our lives are integrated, interconnected, self-maintaining complexities. Although my CV may look to you like I conceived a big master plan, and clear aims and goals guide my life, the truth is quite different. I do have some vague preferences, like staying healthy, having a pleasant shelter, and making out once in a while, but what I actually did was to respond to opportunities and crises as they kept appearing. Whenever I religiously stuck with my pre-programmed plan, I ended up in disaster and suffering, bumping into trouble as a poorly pre-programmed driverless car unable to respond to feedback and adapt its route.

Practical understanding of how complex systems work, and how to work with them

You might have noticed that we can’t design a world with no surprises.

The future can't be predicted, but it seems it can be envisioned and sometimes brought into being. What we can do is expect change, learn from it, evolve with it, and even profit from it.

The application of systems thinking in creating the adaptive cities and regions requires new practices. I divide them into two groups: practices for understanding vulnerabilities and ones for enhancing adaptive capacities.

To keep it short, awareness of vulnerabilities to change, like geographical exposure to climate change, knowing the degree to which the system can respond, and identifying the most vulnerable social groups or species, should be coupled with principles for building adaptive capacities. They include maintaining the diversity and redundancy of species, landscape types, knowledge systems, actors, social groups, or institutions; directing and understanding the social and ecological relationships; constantly updating existing knowledge by encouraging learning and experimentation; broadening participation and active engagement of stakeholders in the management or governance processes.

We might agree, let’s not stop teaching people to fish, but acknowledge the complexity of their livelihood systems. Indeed, we should adjust the proverb to‚

“Teach the people to fish, and give them

access to a healthy river full of fish,

access to various knowledge systems,

access to information of implications of climate, legal and economic vulnerabilities,

access to and tight cross scaled and cross sectoral cooperation with legal and environmental institutions and organisations,

empower them to take most important part in policymaking along with other stakeholders,

and they might be able to feed themselves and their family for life.”

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