Dec 7, 2016
Naomi Morrison and Lisa Jervey Lennox
In Cornell Institute for Public Affairs

On Dec. 6, approximately 700 people attended a CIPA-sponsored Systems Thinking Symposium entitled, “Applying Systems Thinking to Complex Water and Policy Problems.” CIPA Visiting Lecturers Dr. Derek Cabrera and Dr. Laura Cabrera, founders and senior research scientists at Cabrera Research Lab, were the event organizers, and Derek offered the keynote address. Additional speakers for the TED-style event included USDA ThinkWater Fellowship winners and MPA graduate students from the Cabreras’ fall semester Systems Thinking class.

Approximately 160 people attended the live event at Cornell and more than 500 participated –via- live streaming. The attendees represented 31 US states and 39 different countries.

Derek Cabrera was not surprised about the breath of interest in this symposium. “Systems thinking is popular internationally,” he said. “One of the things that is so much fun and also so powerful is that it appeals to nearly any audience--not only transdisciplinarily across academic subjects but also bridging researchers and practitioners at the local, regional, national and international level. The real promise of systems thinking lies in its utility for addressing transdisciplinary “wicked problems:” seemingly intractable, complex issues that involve competing interests and multiple systems (e.g., economic, social, political).”

This symposium’s unique format featured 10-minute TED-style talks and multi-media content. Speakers discussed how the application of systems thinking had influenced their ongoing water and policy efforts at the masters, doctoral, postdoctoral, and faculty levels of research.

Five of the speakers were CIPA fellows. Following their presentations, audience members participated in a poll to choose the best one. First-year student Paulina Lucio Maymon, whose research interests focus on human rights and gender equality, took home the award for her talk, “Four Simple Rules for Policy Making: The Case of Indigenous Peoples in Mexico.”

“I chose to talk about indigenous peoples in Mexico to show that failing to do systems thinking analysis before the implementation of public policy and legislation will lead to unintended consequences that can be disastrous for some social groups,” said Lucio Maymon.

A variety of expert practitioners in their respective fields also shared insights from their application of systems thinking. These practitioners represented organizations including the US Military Academy at West Point, the US Department of State, Arizona Project Wet (youth environmental education programming), and Extension-based outreach programs.

“It was fascinating to see how systems thinking can be used to solve high stakes, real-world problems at the US State Department and in the US Army,” said second-year Fellow Christine Barker, who attended the event.

This event was co-sponsored by other leaders in the public, private, and University sectors including the Cornell College of Human Ecology, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Sustainable Tompkins, Colorado Water Institute, Cornell Cooperative Extension, eCornell, University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Science, Alliance for Water Stewardship North America, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Cornell Engineering, and Alliance for Water Stewardship North America.