#20: Five New Zealanders you should be reading

On oblique learning and oblique listening.

I’m Luke Craven; this is another of my weekly explorations of how systems thinking and complexity can be used to drive real, transformative change in the public sector and beyond. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.

Kia ora, dear reader,

Well, I made it back to New Zealand, after a COVID-induced absence that kept me away for longer than ever before. I’m the first to admit that Australasia has weathered the pandemic far better than other parts of the world. I know I have nothing to complain about, but I still struggle to express the sense of physical relief at walking on these shores. Despite being a Pākehā New Zealander, this land is literally in my bones. For years, I was part of this environment. I ate food from its soils. I breathed its air. Western culture has become so good at enforcing at dualism between humans and their environment that, reading this paragraph back, even I find it slightly jarring. I do my best to temper that reaction. As I’ve written before, a core part of my own systems practice is learning to accept that the real world is agnostic about human endeavours. We are entangled with our environments. They get carried with us and they long to return.

This is also another milestone issue of this newsletter. Twenty issues, in twenty consecutive weeks. I never thought I’d be able to successfully hold myself to this routine. I never thought over 1,000 people would subscribe to receive my missives on systems and complexity. If each of you shared this issue with a friend or colleague, and if each of them subscribed, I’d hit 2,000 subscribers within a week. That’s probably an unrealistic expectation, but I’ll leave it here regardless! 😜

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But to more serious business, the real focus of this issue is to amplify the profiles and voices of five New Zealand-based systems thinkers who have shaped my own thinking and practice. New Zealand punches above its weight in more than arena, including—at least in my view!—the world of systems and complexity practice. There’s probably more to be written about how our culture and education systems support and enable these ways of thinking, but that’s for another time. While you wait, here are five Kiwi systems thinkers you should be reading:

1. Associate Professor Krushil Watene

Krushil Watene is an Associate Professor in the Massey University Department of Philosophy, specialising in moral and political philosophies of well-being, development, and justice with a particular focus on indigenous philosophies. I met Krushil during my time in academia, while it was still socially acceptable to rack up a stonking carbon footprint flying around the world to attend the Human Development and Capabilities Association Conference, in Washington, D.C., London, Tokyo and Cape Town. Her work is original and transformative, drawing on Māori philosophical ideas like kaitiakitanga and whakapapa to challenge western (and largely nonsystemic!) ideas of justice, as articulated in the capability approach. If you one thing Krushil has written, it should be this. You can follow her on Twitter @kwatene.

2. Dr Rodney Scott

Rodney Scott is Chief Policy Advisor for New Zealand’s Public Service Commission, where he leads advice on the design and direction of New Zealand’s public services. Rodney is also affiliated with UNSW Canberra, one of my previous employers and where I learned a great deal about how to scale and embed systems and complexity approaches in the public sector. Rodney has written on the effectiveness of group model building processes and, more recently, on inter-agency performance targets. Rodney talks about his work and the history of New Zealand public sector reform in this interview. He does not have Twitter.

3. Dr Mat Walton

Mat Walton is the Team Leader, Social Systems at ESR. Prior to his time at ESR, Mat was a lecturer at Massy University, doing path-breaking work on systems- and complexity- informed evaluations in public health. Some of that work is available here, here and here. In his new job, Mat and I get to do some work together. ESR is currently using System Effects to gather perspectives from a number of communities across New Zealand on what supports rivers and streams to be healthy. This mapping work is part of a larger research project around emerging contaminants and identifying leverage points for community action. You can follow him on Twitter @matdome.

4. Dr Emily Beausoleil

Emily Beausoleil is a Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at Victoria University of Wellington. While she is Canadian, I quite happily claim her as a New Zealander. Emily’s work was hugely influential in shaping the theoretical underpinnings of Systems Effects during my PhD, particularly how we might meaningfully listen to lived experience. There is a lot written about listening in political theory, but Emily’s contribution is unique and refreshing. Drawing on fieldwork with massage therapists, and other practitioners across conflict mediation, therapy, education, and performance she reveals how different practices of listening—comedic, theatrical, and embodied—can help us perceive and make sense of systems in new and emancipatory ways. You can follow her on Twitter @BeausoleilEmily.

5. Dr Emma Blomkamp

Emma Blomkamp is a facilitator, researcher and strategic designer, best known for her work in co-design for behaviour and systems change. Emma, like me, is a Kiwi who now lives in Australia, but she’s doing awesome work so I’ve chosen to include her here regardless. Recently, Emma has released her systemic practice framework to guide practitioners taking creative and participatory approaches to complex problems [academic article]. Emma also runs a highly-regarded training course to introduce participants to the challenges of co-design in complex systems. You can follow her on Twitter @emmablomkamp.

Obviously these are just five names and this is not meant to be a comprehensive survey of every New Zealander working in this space. Nonetheless, these five have had a huge impact on me and my systems practice. Systems purists might look at this list and scoff that these people aren’t “systems theorists”, but as I wrote in an earlier piece, we only really learn about complexity obliquely, through experience, and because of strange and serendipitous connections. Connections like these are always close by, in unsuspecting places. As Emily Beausoleil puts it, we need more oblique forms of listening. Perhaps we need more oblique forms of learning, too.

By the way: This newsletter is hard to categorise and probably not for everyone—but if you know unconventional thinkers who might enjoy it, please share it with them.

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Find me elsewhere on the web at www.lukecraven.com, on Twitter @LukeCraven, on LinkedIn here, or by email at <luke.k.craven@gmail.com>.