University of Vermont

Students on the Lawn

Systems Thinking on an Island

by Mieko A. Ozeki, M.S., A.L.M, Former Sustainability Projects Coordinator

Several days ago I traveled to Holderness, NH for a four day professional development retreat, organized by the Environmental Leadership Program. It was another opportunity to interact with Senior Fellows from ELP and meet with other professionals from the TogetherGreen fellowship program and Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders (EWCL) program. My car was packed with camping gear plus my hand built Greenland-style sea kayak, which I call the Nuannaarpoq (Inuit for "taking an inordinate pleasure in being alive), for a long summer weekend of paddling around and camping on Bowman Island on Squam Lake.

Mieko paddling

The focus of our retreat was on learning about and discussing the application of systems thinking in our work. Systems thinking is a process of understanding "an interconnected set of elements that is organized in a way that achieves something (Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows (2008))". It is a non-linear and holistic way of viewing the world. Systems thinking is very much compatible with our field of campus sustainabililty as it is with all other disciplines. It is an interdisciplinary process by nature. 

This retreat was a pilot experience on multiple levels. First, it was an opportunity for ELP Executive Director, Errol Mazursky, and Senior Fellow Ariana Bain to hone their systems thinking instruction by practicing the content delivery with our group and soon after train the 2012 New England and Eastern region classes. Second, it was the first time ELP organized a rugged outdoor adventure/camping experience. Third, it was an opportunity for Senior ELP Fellow and Executive Director of the Squam Lakes Association to see whether the island's accomodations would work for professional retreats. All and all, I was happy to be part of these pilot endeavors as the retreat was an opportunity to look outside of my field and then reflect on my work. 

Retreat participants (photo taken by Errol Mazursky

Out of the four days, we spent two and a half days learning the principles of systems thinking and taking the time intellectually discuss these concepts. A good portion involved group work, identifying problems and mapping out the stocks, flows, processes, and drivers behind these problems. This got us in the practice of looking at issues from 30,000 feet.

ST mapDuring the weekend, I applied systems thinking toward a marketing and branding project I am working on for the OoS. The end of bottle water sales on campus, starting January 2013, stimulated among key stakeholders to look over the University's outreach and branding of sustainability on campus. The audience for our messaging includes prospective students and their parents, the public and media, and on-campus community members (students, staff, faculty, and adminstration). I spent some time mapping out (see map on the left) the stakeholders and identifying the communication stocks (i.e. social media, websites, paper media, admissions book, etc.) and flows (i.e. distribution of information via media channels). The ability to discuss these issues through this thought process helped a great deal, especially toward developing action steps. When I returned to UVM, I felt prepared to layout a draft of the information architecture for the first part of our communication strategy: a revision of the Greening UVM website. 

This retreat was a nice continuation of the excellent professional training I received from previous ELP retreats. It was a great opportunity to meet individuals from different environmental fields and to spend some time with fellows from my New England regional class. Learning about systems thinking on an island was a perfect opportunity in a beautiful microcosm.