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Peter Head on systems-thinking for planning resilience in the Hunter

Peter Head (left) and Stephen Passmore
Peter Head (left) and Stephen Passmore

The Hunter Region in NSW is exploring a major transformation of how it might handle future development, using a comprehensive strategic planning tool based on complex systems thinking.

Former global director for ARUP Peter Head and his team of “Resilience Brokers”, based in the UK, has already led the first workshop between Hunter Water, the Hunter Development Corporation and a number of other key agencies, community and academic interests, in a prototype of what could become a global model for developing resilient communities.

The new model could also become a magnet for investment, including for fast growing impact investors.

The idea is to create a positive reinforcing system that can solve the kinds of problems posed by climate and social inequity in a way that is economically, socially and financially rewarding. 

The aim, according to Mr Head, is to transform the “entire kit and caboodle” – water systems, waste systems, building infrastructure, and more –  into an integrated, resilient ecosystem that puts human and ecological needs at the centre.

This is a systems-thinking approach to planning – where sensitivity is given to the circular nature of the world and the innate connectivity of systems – and it’s not necessarily a new concept.  

What has traditionally held back the systems-thinking approach to planning is the tendency to develop urban infrastructure systems in silos, Mr Head said during a briefing on his work with The Fifth Estate on Tuesday.

But Mr Head and his Resilience Brokers team of “six or seven” employees, located all over the world, have a secret weapon to help embed systems-thinking into the next generation of planning.

This is the resilience-io modelling platform – an open-source platform that combines computer representations of human and business activity, resource flows and infrastructure of a city region, and then generates a holistic view that shows interlinkages between the systems.

According to Mr Head, who has spent seven years and his own money developing the prototype, said this is what planning needs but doesn’t have.

It’s what propelled him to leave ARUP so he could create the modelling software that underpins the Resilience Brokers Programme, which he hopes will revolutionise planning.

“We want the whole world to realise this stuff and [experience] the benefits,” he said.

In practice, a developer or architect using the platform will be able to plug in their designs for projects, such as roads and utilities. They can then input potential inhabitants – say 1000 people  – to see the impacts this population will have on the proposed design.

Communities and planners will also be able to access the tools to “work out what’s going on.” 

“…basically the model is a resource flow model. It models all the flows of everything, it does scenarios thinking. It models demand and habits of populations,” the team’s technology director Stephen Passmore explained.

It’s a “tool to make all that complexity very accessible”, including the finance. 

Mr Passmore also stressed that the platform is open-source and is “not an [Intellectual Property] play.”

“It’s more about learning and developing to go broad.”

Why the Hunter Region?

In the Hunter Region, the platform will be instrumental in ensuring all stakeholders see eye-to-eye on the proposed plans. But setting up the modelling platform is only part of the task.

“We’re helping [stakeholders] to embed systems thinking [into the planning process]. We’re working with state and local governments, Hunter Water, community groups, Indigenous groups,” Mr Head said.

“We’re bringing them together to talk about how to go about this … We run some workshops, we’re the anchor lead for this systems-thinking model. 

“We’re brokers. We’re not at the beginning or the end of anything. We’re about connecting,” he said.

The Hunter Region has been selected as one of several global locations to pilot the resilience-io prototype. One reason it was selected was because local government leaders believe in the systems-thinking approach, but were unsure how to implement it without assistance.

The population in the Hunter Region is also expected to grow significantly in the coming years, and is also vulnerable to climate change impacts, Mr Head said.

The resilience-io platform has already gone live in the Greater Accra region in Ghana, where it’s being used to tackle the region’s water and sanitation challenges. 

Why has it taken seven years to shape up?

Mr Head said funding model issues are partly to blame for a start up period now in its seventh year. He said that the company survived as a self-funded venture for some time before it gathered momentum and has now attracted funding from the British government, among other backers.

“We also work with the private sector to slingshot the benefits to all the countries in the world.”

This includes a partner from Holland “who believes in what we believe in”, but could not be named.

He also said it took so long to get the initiative underway because it’s difficult to establish “viable business models that the banks are interested in investing in”.

He said now the banks are interested because “it’s like a guarantee” for impact investors because “the platform is linked to providing impacts for investors”.

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Comments

3 Responses to “Peter Head on systems-thinking for planning resilience in the Hunter”

  • Mervyn Hayman-Danker FRAIA says:

    As Peter Head states:
    “The idea is to create a positive reinforcing system that can solve the kinds of problems posed by climate and social inequity in a way that is economically, socially and financially rewarding”.

    What a great Idea to use the giant strides in technical development of computer technologies applied to system thinking intersecting complex and integrated strategic planning! WOW!

    Most Exciting! Can’t wait for the solutions to bite!
    All the Best to you and your Team.

    • Tina Perinotto says:

      Yep, meet someone like Peter Head and you run dangerously close to rampant optimism. But as they say, when you’re facing extinction or whatever path we’re on right now, there’s nowhere to go but up, so may as well be bold ambitious and crazily positive about the prospects for success. Nothing to lose.

  • Marcus Busby says:

    Great work, great thinking! Very exciting developments. Every success!

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