Unintended Consequences – An Example


I’m on my holidays at the moment and systems thinking has come along with me!

I’m in Northumberland, the place where I love to walk and take photographs. I’m particularly passionate about the bird life here. So, off on a boat trip to the Farne Islands I went. Shock! Horror! What did I find? A peaceful trip to an amazing bird colony, as per usual? No, absolutely not. You may have seen the programme, Tales from Northumberland? Well, it has brought people in their droves to what is usually quite a quiet place. “Well, it’s good for tourism,” I hear you say. But is it?

Apply system thinking to the scenario: number of tourists visiting bird colony significantly increases – leads to greater risk of disturbing the nesting birds – birds leave the island as a result – people forget about the TV programme in a year or two and stop coming to the area. Trouble is…………the birds may have already left to find somewhere quieter (having been frightened off by hundreds of people invading their island) and the nature lovers (who usually holiday here for the peace and quiet) may have also found somewhere else to go also. Result – short term boom in tourism; potential long term damage to tourism.

There’s quite a possibility of this scenario being an unintended consequence of the programme. That’s why systems thinking is so useful. Exposing the unintended consequences before they happen is extremely powerful. More measures could have easily been put in place to control numbers of visitors to the islands. Whilst the islands do have restricted access, I do not jest when I say the numbers on the island the day I went by on a boat were significantly more than I had ever seen before. Systems thinking – useful for all kinds of decisions.


Systems Thinking and Health

SmallLogoSystems thinking is immensely useful for understanding complex health systems. It’s perfect for those large, complex, interconnected, messy situations that health and social care services are embedded in. Understanding them is imperative if we are to make the right changes to empower people to understand and look after their own health.

There are lots of articles about health systems around the world where systems thinking is being successfully applied to give excellent outcomes. See the useful links page for more information!