The IFF World System Model

The World System Model establishes a holistic structure for visioning the state of the world and, thereby, a platform for understanding our global predicament, assessing innovations and designing wise initiatives.
— Anthony Hodgson (2011: 43)

The IFF [International Futures Forum] World Systems Model and the associated IFF World Game were developed to help people explore what a transformative response to our current ‘crisis of perception’ or ‘conceptual emergency’ might look like. They are effective tools for facilitating joined-up, systemic thinking about the converging and interconnected crises we are facing, and offer a way to connect currently proposed solutions into a more synergistic framework.

The idea for this approach was inspired by Richard Buckminster Fuller, but the bulk of the development of these tools is the work of Anthony Hodgson (with the support of the International Futures Forum). In Ready for Anything — Designing Resilience for a Transforming World, Tony describes different uses and the rationale behind the IFF World System Model, offering a number of case studies of effective applications so far. The figure below shows the basic IFF World System Model.

The IFF World System Model (WSM) connects 12 key dimensions (or nodes) of a regenerative system. The 12 nodes have been carefully chosen to map out vital components or issues for creating a viable and thriving human system at any scale. As such, the model can be used to map — in a systemic and transdisciplinary way — the vital aspects of a community, a neighbourhood, a city, a bioregion, a nation or the planet (hence ‘world’ system model). The WSM acts as a question-generating engine or catalyst for joined-up thinking.

Figure 6: The IFF World System Model, reproduced from Hodgson (2011) with the author’s permission

Each of the 12 nodes is joined in a map resembling a clock face with 66 interconnecting lines. Each of those lines creates a ‘dyad’ of two interconnected factors, inviting the question how these two factors might be related to each other. The question of ‘interconnection’ can be asked with regard to how failure or decreased viability in one node might affect other nodes. It also invites us to explore how a proposed solution in one node could simultaneously affect other nodes positively.

The WSM can be used to generate joined-up design solutions aiming to create synergies between the different nodes by optimizing the whole system. For example, the model might invite us to investigate how a proposed improvement in the use of ‘renewable energy and earth resources’ could positively affect improvements in ‘habitat and infrastructure’ and vice versa; or it might ask us to explore the connection between ‘health and wellbeing’ and ‘ecosystems functions’ (the functions of healthy ecosystems providing clean air, fresh water, food and biological resources, as well as the regulation of climate and disease, erosion control, nutrient cycling and pollination).

Whether we are working on the specific case of a sustainable urban neighbourhood project, or on improving a country’s sustainability performance at a national scale, the model can be applied to any scale from local to global, and by doing so can also invite questions about how work on one scale might affect the other, a practice referred to as ‘scale-linking design’ (van der Ryn & Cowan, 1996; and Wahl, 2007).

The model can not only be used to invite questions about how to create more joined-up, sustainable design solutions and systemic improvements in overall viability; it also can be applied to auditing the ‘status quo’ of any system, by inviting us to map the strengths and weaknesses of a given system with regard to each one of the nodes.

In combination with the Three Horizons model, introduced in Chapter 2, the WSM can be used to map a system with regard to each horizon: the actual ‘world in crisis’ situation of H1, the potential for H2 transition innovations and systemic improvements, and H3 visions of a viable system. Ideally the 12 nodes mutually reinforce the viability of all the other nodes, thereby creating a healthy and thriving system overall. In order to create locally and globally appropriate synergistic whole-systems design solutions we must begin with a better understanding of the interconnected nature of the problems we face in each of the different nodes.

The international security analyst and consultant Thomas Homer-Dixon observed how failure in viability in one aspect of a system is frequently accompanied by simultaneous failures in other aspects of that system. He referred to this situation as synchronous failure (Homer-Dixon, 2006).

The WSM can make us more aware of the way changes in viability in one node might cause domino effects throughout the system, resulting in changes in other nodes. A solution proposed from the isolated perspective of one particular node and focused only on improving the viability of that node can actually result in negative effects (decreased viability) in one or many other nodes. To avoid this we need to learn to think and act more systemically.

An obvious example of our systemic myopia is how many decision-makers focus only on ‘rescuing the economy’ by driving economic growth and, in doing so, their short-term ‘solutions’ actually decrease viability in most other nodes of the system. Many measures that are aimed at increasing economic growth end up having a negative impact on ‘Community’. This is because they often increase inequality and decrease the viability of ‘Ecosystems Services’ while, at the same time, increasing ‘Climate Change Intensity’.

So far, the WSM has been used to map out the potential impact of diverse synchronous failure or synchronous success, and domino-effect scenarios in a number of case-study applications ranging in scale from small communities to cities, regions, islands, and even entire countries (see Hodgson, 2011).

By engaging diverse groups of stakeholders and experts in the process of questioning the possible connections between different nodes, we challenge them to connect issues that might previously have been viewed in isolation. This creates not only a ‘fast and frugal’ way to generate a range of possible future scenarios, it also invites lateral thinking and innovative ideas that might lead to pathways for transformative innovations. Once a series of scenarios have been generated, they can be explored within the context of the Three Horizons model. We can ask ourselves whether proposed innovations are indeed likely to catalyse the transition towards the viable world of Horizon 3 or are more likely to be captured by the first horizon to prolong ‘business as usual’.†

The WSM and the associated World Game are particularly useful in raising awareness of connections and possible interactions at and across different scales (recursion and scale-linking). They are effective ways to generate rapid scenarios and promote systemic ‘future thinking’. As a tool for ‘advance facilitation’ in strategy workshops and multi-stakeholder situations, the World Game liberates creativity through ‘play’ and gives decision-makers a direct experience of whole-systems thinking and its potential benefits for wise action. Creative gaming is a powerful way to liberate lateral and generative thinking (Hodgson, 2012).

The emergence of systemic health, wellbeing and regenerative cultures can be facilitated by integrative whole-systems design (see Chapter 4). Engaging in systems thinking and design is not an exact science but the art of appropriate participation.

We are still at the beginning of our journey of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again — of undoing some of the side-effects of the story of separation. We have to accept that we don’t have all the answers and we will have to frequently re-examine the questions we are asking. Whole-systems integration and synthesis is the task ahead of us all.

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.
— E.O. Wilson (1999: 294)

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

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