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August 23, 2018

Dr Tim Hobbs

What we talk about when we talk about systems

‘Systems thinking’ and ‘complexity’ are currently in vogue. So what are we talking about when we talk about systems? A useful way in is the ‘Cynefin’ Framework (pronounced ‘ki-nev-in’; from the Welsh word meaning ‘habitat’). This categorises situations that are:

  • Simple: if you do X, expect Y (e.g. put your seat belt on, it will reduce risk of injury in a crash)
  • Complicated: Z will occur, if X and Y happen in that order (e.g. accidents will be avoided if all traffic lights work correctly and drivers obey the highway code). 
  • Complex: You can’t predict car accidents because people don’t always obey the rules and sometimes seemingly random events occur (which given the range of interacting possibilities is far from predictable).

Many social policy fields fall into the ‘complex’ arena. A successful outcome is the product of many inter-related and converging situations – some of which have predictable components, yet which can interact in often unpredictable or counter-intuitive ways. Homelessness is a great example of such a complex system.

It is for this reason that the Centre for Homelessness Impact - as part of its mission to create the infrastructure necessary to help identify what’s working and weed out what isn’t - is working to develop a ‘systems map’ of homelessness. This will align to the Centre’s SHARE Framework - mapping wider system influences related to policy, housing, people and place, services and wider shared narratives about homelessness. 

The work of Harry Rutter and colleagues on obesity prevention – another classic systems issue- makes a good case study of what a systems map is, and why it is important. The ‘systems map’ of obesity, which probably looks like a plate of spaghetti on your screen, illustrates a complex system. 

The Foresight obesity 'systems map'

On a simple level, obesity is in part a function of energy consumed and expended by an individual. But there are a whole bunch of things that affect that energy intake; to name just a few: sugar content in food, price of food, associated industry regulations, norms about portion size and individual genes, metabolism and physiology. Energy intake is balanced against expenditure: again, to name but a few contributors: exercise, driven in part by opportunities, cost, norms and motivation as well as individual genes, physiology and metabolism. These interact in often complex and sometimes unpredictable ways. 

Homelessness is no different. It is also an example of a ‘complex adaptive system’. Areas of influence - as alluded to in the SHARE Framework - include national and international macro-economic policy, national and local housing and benefit policy and implementation, income and housing security, physical and mental health, relationship stability, public attitudes, investment in prevention and investments and quality of support services, etc. 

Make a well-intentioned policy or practice change in one area and it will likely have a series of knock-on effects to other parts of the system – which may or may not be predictable. For example, funding short-term solutions to homelessness such as temporary accommodation might seem like a good idea, but a systems approach can reveal the longer-term risks of such a strategy: spending on temporary accommodation and other short-term fixes may draw resource away from the services required to make a long-term impact on homelessness. While the number of people who are homeless may decline initially when temporary housing is expanded, the long-term effects may not be so positive if the underlying problems are not being addressed.

It is this appreciation of the complex set of inter-dependencies that has driven colleagues at the Centre for Homelessness Impact to embark on mapping the complexity of the homelessness system. Working with the Dartington Service Design Lab, we are setting out to better chart this complexity, drawing on the policy and practice expertise of those closest to different parts of the system. 

So how are we going about this? We are bringing together a wide range of practitioners, national and local policy makers, academics and those from across each UK nation to understand the drivers and consequences of homelessness. Through a series of workshops across the UK we are introducing delegates to concepts of ‘systems thinking’ and together long-listing factors that are important to the issue of homelessness. You can see what participants thought of the first workshop below:


Through the co-creation of a series of ‘Connection Circles’ we are then hypothesising causal links between these factors: see the figure below by way of illustration. 

We will be drawing out insights from these Connection Circles, and the wider research literature, to create an overarching, interactive and evolving ‘systems map’ of the homelessness sector: a causal loop diagram that sets out the factors relevant to homelessness, shows how they are connected and in particular reveals where virtuous and vicious ‘feedback loops’ are driving the behaviour we observe in different parts of the system. 

Yet we don’t want to stop at just mapping out how complex the system is: a common call of defeat by those frustrated at lack of progress in tackling the issue of homelessness. Instead the Centre for Homelessness Impact is mapping the system in order to identify practical areas for policy and practice intervention, and, over time, to map against these against the strength of evidence in relation to different strategies, and to gain a wider appreciation about the necessary precursors and consequences of effective policy and practice interventions in different parts of the system. 

Get in touch at to help contribute to this evolving map of the system, and stay tuned for update on how the work progresses and what this might mean for you and your work. 

Tim Hobbs, PhD, is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Homelessness Impact and the Director of the Dartington Service Design Lab. 


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