Systems thinking: unlocking it’s potential to improve children’s outcomes


Last month we held our first Dartington Service Design Lab lecture in Edinburgh, Scotland. The theme of our event was “Systems Thinking: Unlocking it’s potential to improve children’s outcomes”. Despite the blustery weather brought over by Storm Ali, and many forms of public transport being cancelled or stalled, we had great attendance from people all over the UK. We’d like to thank everyone who was able to battle through the storm! If you weren’t able to make it, fear not, we are excited to share with you the run-down from the day, including lecture materials and social media content.

We would like to extend our thanks once again to Save the Children for co-sponsoring the lecture, and to the UK Chapter of the System Dynamics Society for sponsoring our drinks reception afterwards, which was a great opportunity to continue the discussion. It was with their generous contributions that the lecture was such a success.


We were delighted that the lecture was delivered by our longstanding collaborator, Professor Peter Hovmand, the founder of the Social System Design Lab in St Louis. His presentation focused on the Application of Systems Thinking to Children’s Services and considered the breadth from structural violence to learning systems for prevention. Professor Hovmand gave a very clear explanation of why social problems are caused by wholesale systems failure, rather than single causes, and therefore why a systems approach was required to tackle them. He explained why systems thinking is therefore needed, and explored what a system actually was. He proposed that tackling these kinds of systems issues requires us to involve communities in mapping systems dynamics and processes, and the insights and discoveries this generates. In systems thinking, he argued, “engaging communities is an intervention with valued tangible and intangible benefits”.


Click here to watch Peter’s presentation. Alternatively, you can access the slides here


Following the lecture, we moved to our expert panel and audience discussion; chaired by Save the Children’s Head of UK Programme Development & Quality. Jane was joined by our Director Tim Hobbs, Lynn Henry of the Hunter Foundation and STV, and Peter Hovmand himself. The audience and panel discussed many thought-provoking topics, including:

  • The boundaries we draw around systems – be these local community place-based systems or public service systems, such as child welfare;

  • How many events – such as violence or children being taken into care – are often surface ‘symptoms’ of stronger system undercurrents related to structures, values and norms;

  • How to engage widely and deeply with those in a system to understand these undercurrents and create opportunities for positive change.

If you would like to read what our delegates were thinking and writing, you can revisit the tweets from the day here.

You can still be a part of the conversation, using our hashtag #DSDL18!

 Our reflections

A cause for optimism from the lecture were the international examples shared of ‘learning systems’- communities or public systems that have a degree of maturity and collective awareness of the dynamics that drive them, so that they can, in turn, self-organise and behave in positive ways.

A cause for pessimism was the realisation that the significant cuts to public expenditure in our country are probably having the consequence of draining systems’ collective ability to learn. Pressures and cuts to workforces are draining the ‘stock’ of experienced practitioners and ‘navigators’ within a system (something we routinely observe in our modelling of children’s social care systems). Cuts to local infrastructures – e.g. youth work, spaces to gather, arts and culture – is probably reducing the potential to develop and nurture the collective leadership of local communities.

At Dartington, much of our current work is orientated towards this development and nurture, so that systems can effectively learn, and improve the decisions and outcomes experienced by people.  We’ll be publishing learning from some of our systems work to date soon – do sign up here to stay in the loop on this, and to be invited to future events.


Co-authored by Dartington Service Design Lab and Save the Children.