Tanzi Smith


Critical systems thinking originated with the purpose of questioning power imbalances and facilitating a reflective and systems oriented approach to some of the most complex issues we face. Sustainability is one such issue which brings with it the challenge of integrating social, environmental and economic dimensions of a situation. Liveability is often the primary motive driving an individual or communities desire for improvement. This paper suggests that one of the main ways that this desire for improvement can coincide with sustainability lies in the ability to identify and propel virtuous cycles in which both sustainability and liveability are enhanced.

Among the development sector there is increasing recognition of links between the environment and aspects of development such as poverty alleviation, health, income generation and agriculture. Whilst furnished with a diverse range of perspectives and approaches, development practice is in need of ways of conceptualizing the interaction between sustainability and liveability that emphasise the opportunities for improvement in human and ecological well-being that exist in this space. For decades, the rural development sector has been developing practices aimed at fostering participation, mutual learning and sustainability. This paper offers a contribution to expand on and improve these practices.

The paper focuses on rural development and identifies both virtuous and vicious cycles of liveability and sustainability which are relevant to development practice. Critical systems thinking is proposed as a way for rural development practitioners to conceptualise the integration of economic, social and environmental dimensions and, in doing so, support participant communities to nurture and foster virtuous cycles of sustainable liveability. Four desirable attributes of a critical systems thinking approach to rural development are identified based on development literature, critical systems literature and the authors’ research into sustainability in semi-rural communities in Vietnam. These four attributes are described and compared with existing rural development practices which seek to foster virtuous cycles through learning oriented and participatory processes that recognise the connection between the human and non human world. The four attributes are: a systems thinking approach; an ethical base to action and choices; critical reflection of process and purpose and appreciation and application of diverse views and approaches.

Through these four attributes a synthesis of rural development practice and critical systems thinking is offered as a means of moving toward sustainable interactions between the human and non-human world. This paper also offers an invitation to further dialogue on these ideas and concludes with suggestions for further learning.


critical systems thinking; rural development; integrated approaches; Vietnam; sustainability

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