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Back to the Future: How Indigenous thinking could take the water sector forward

As the Australian water sector continues on its journey towards rightfully acknowledging, respecting and incorporating Indigenous knowledge practices into how it operates, the way the sector has traditionally approached challenges is slowly beginning to shift.
As part of the Water Source’s Expert Series, UTS Professor Emerita and The Good Ancestor Founder Cynthia Mitchell discusses how Indigenous thinking has the potential to transform the water sector for the better.

If, as Einstein famously said, we can’t solve today’s problems with the same kind of thinking that created them, then what kind of thinking is it that we need?

Is it sustainability thinking? Or resilience thinking? Or circular economy thinking? Or regenerative thinking? Or net positive thinking? Or?

Well, yes, it’s all of these of course, because we know we are in a deep hole, and simply slowing down the rate at which we are digging (i.e. doing less harm) won’t get us out of it. We need instead to turn around, to head in a different direction, to start filling in the hole. That is, we now have to do more good, not just less harm.

But there’s more. We have to expand beyond if-then thinking to encompass systems thinking. Now let me be clear: if-then thinking is a marvellous thing. It has brought us pretty much the entire scientific endeavour; multiple vaccines to COVID-19 in record time being the latest marvel.

If-then thinking works an absolute treat in situations that are knowable. Here, best practice guide-books make sense because situations that are knowable can still be very complicated e.g., the inner workings of a jet engine.

Acknowledging the unknowable

The trouble is, not all situations are knowable.

In unknowable situations, we have two choices.  Either, we can pretend that the situation is actually knowable. This is what happens most of the time, so we are very good at this. So good, in fact, that we generally don’t even realise we are doing it. What happens is this: we simply narrow our view until what remains is close-enough to knowable. That is, we ignore the messy parts and tricky bits. We might need to call on experts to tell us how to predict what’s going to happen, but we still believe that prediction is possible and useful. If this, then that. So we go ahead and model it, with slightly higher contingency values and safety factors.

Or, we can accept that the situation is not knowable ahead of time. That is, that it is not predictable. That it will only be obvious after the fact. In his Cynefin framework, Dave Snowden calls this kind of situation ‘complex’, because it’s emergent.

Effectively managing this kind of situation requires a different approach – a different order of things. Here, it’s ‘probe, sense, respond’. That is, try something small, look carefully and in unexpected places to see what happened, then scale up the bits of the trial that worked, and repeat. When we look back at what worked and what didn’t, we might be able to discern a pattern.

But wait, there’s more. The kinds of tools and interventions that work well to control and manage knowable situations are pretty much guaranteed to have the opposite effect in unknowable situations. That is, if-then thinking often makes complex situations worse. Think Robodebt and the vaccine rollout for starters.

In complex situations, we can only learn our way forwards. Most human systems are complex. But also, many natural systems behave in complex (unpredictable) ways. Systems thinking can help: its tools and approaches often include if-then thinking, but they go beyond, into feedback loops, self-organising systems, soft systems and beyond.

There’s a reason we struggle to think in systems

‘Getting’ systems thinking is hard, because in a system, all bets are off, literally. Donella Meadows, one of the world’s most famous and best-loved systems scientists, said you can’t control systems, but you can learn to dance with them, and that’s why the place to start is in getting the beat of the system. In her classic piece on places to intervene in a system, she shows how the place we usually focus, tweaking parameters in our models, is least likely to give a helpful result.

The thing is, there are good reasons why we stick to our if-then thinking, even when we know it’s not working. If-then thinking is deeply, deeply embedded in our psyche. We were literally born and raised with it, which makes grappling with complexity deeply unsettling.

Another reason it’s deeply unsettling is because it hooks straight into our deepest meaning-making structures – our worldviews and our beliefs about how the world works, about what’s possible, about our place in the world, about who to believe.

These structures are so deeply buried that we are largely unaware of them – it’s rare for us to bring them out, dust them off and check whether they are still serving us well.  I wonder whether our fear of failure stems from this underlying belief that we ought to be able to predict what’s going to happen.

A leap of faith is required to jump the chasm between believing in predictability and believing in emergence. Adult psychology tells us that most of us never make that leap. Some of us find it too challenging on the other side, and slip back to a simpler life. Some stay. These people, according to Bill Torbert, co-author of one of Harvard Business Review’s top 10 leadership pieces, make the best leaders, especially in challenging times. Ahem.

Now more than ever, we need to work out how to help people take that leap from if-then thinking to thinking in systems. And this is where I think Indigenous thinking might help. A lot.

Relationality matters more than we know

Our gobsmackingly gorgeous country is home to the world’s oldest living culture. If time were a hundred metre dash, then we second Australians turned up less than half a metre before the finish line of today. Little by little, as our prejudices fall away, we are learning how to hear what Australia’s Indigenous peoples have been saying all along. Hugh Mackay has articulated beautifully just why we find attentive listening so hard.

Ironically, this year’s Senior Australian of the Year, Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Bauman, writes poetically about what she calls perhaps the greatest gift Indigenous Australians can offer non-Indigenous Australians, and that is ‘dadirri’, a special quality of deep listening. What if we could learn how to offer that to our Indigenous peoples in return?

Kombu-Merri woman and scholar, Dr Mary Graham, eloquently explained in this year’s Stewardship of Country series that the custodial ethic underpinning Indigenous ways of knowing and being across this great land is all about relationality. The first relationship a person has is to land. The quality of that relationship determines the quality of the relationships they have with other people.

Now here’s the rub: systems thinking, or thinking in systems, is all about relationality. As systemicist Gregory Bateson famously wrote, our opposable thumb would be nothing without the fingers. If-then thinking is concerned with things, parts. That’s why our language system is so driven by nouns. Systems thinking, and Indigenous thinking, is concerned with the relationship between things. Indigenous languages the world over are concerned with context and how parts fit together.

Indigenous thinking takes us a step further

Across our sector we’re seeing steady growth in respect for Indigeneity: utilities, agencies, and corporations are authentically taking up Reconciliation Action Plans, embedding Indigenous Cultural Officers, and celebrating Indigenous staff.

In river basin management and water rights, Indigenous cultural values are now routinely included – although not always implemented. More recently, the pioneering work of the Ngarrindjeri peoples extended respect for Indigenous sovereignty into innovative legal and political mechanisms, enabling shared authority for managing Murrundi, the River Murray.

Tyson Yunkaporta invites us to go a step further. ‘Sand Talk’, his 2019 book that’s become a runaway success, is subtitled ‘How Indigenous Thinking Can Save The World’. He gives us an accessible, bold, challenging, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny entry point into the subtle and nuanced world of Indigenous ways of knowing and being. Tyson reckons Indigenous peoples never bought into the idea of simplicity. They know the world is complex, and their pattern-thinking is a powerful way to engage in that complexity.

The first, and perhaps most challenging step, is letting go of what Yunkaporta calls the most destructive idea in existence: ‘I am greater than you; you are less than me’. In systems thinking terms, this is about letting go of our desire for control, and instead, digging deeper both in ourselves and in what we are trying to ‘fix’, looking for different perspectives and longer levers that might actually improve the situation.

Soon, I’ll be embarking on a project with Phil Duncan, proud Gamillaroi elder, as us-two learn our way forwards together with Hunter Water, a brave utility willing to give their executives and staff the courage to turn these ideas into practice for water strategy, planning and decision making.

As Tyson says, if we get stuck, we’ll ask the echidnas for help.