Based in Wroclaw, Poland, the Centre for Systems Solutions is a group of systems scientists who design and run scenario exercises for government stakeholders. Using systems science principles, their work has been used by government to inform policy on environmental management, organisational change, sustainable change and social justice.
The Centre’s most successful work to date is a large-scale systems management scenario entitled Lords of the Valley.
The team began by constructing a systems model of a river system in Hungary. This model became the framework for the development of a large-scale game simulating the complex challenges of managing such ecological systems.
Lords of the Valley involves up to 50 participants, and takes place over the course of 1-2 days. At the centre of the game is a large visual map of the river valley, representing features such as the elevation of the water at different points. This map changes over the course of the game to reflect the choices and actions of the players.
Players are assigned to different groups, each of which represents a stakeholder community of the river system. These roles include farms, banks, water boards, local development office, local government and an environmental NGO. Each group has different affordances: some can buy and sell land, some can loan money, some can make rules, some have no direct powers but can influence other groups.
The players interact in their different groups, assessing information and making choices about what to do. Their decisions are implemented by the facilitators, who run the software model simulation and reflect the results in the visual map.
There are ecological principles underpinning the game and the systems model, but the real intention of Lords of the Valley is to convey some general principles about managing complex systems and dealing with diverse stakeholders.
Interactions between groups are carefully structured, with only a few participants able to interact at any time. This is a key feature of the game, reflecting the frequently limited communication between different stakeholder groups in real-life ecosystems.
One of the most critical components of Lords of the Valley is the facilitated debriefing discussion, which can be as long as the game itself. During the debrief, players are asked to explain their goals, the strategies they used to achieve them, and to assess their success. Throughout the game there are facilitators observing everyone’s play. During the debrief they will contribute their observations and present people with quotes from their own play.
The debriefing aims to illuminate some of the key principles behind the scenario, lessons from systems thinking which the designers hope to encourage in real-life management practices. These principles include:
- Involve the relevant stakeholders in planning
- Explore the situation before jumping in
- Share available information
- Define the problem you are hoping to solve
- Identify and search for missing information
- Generate alternative hypotheses
The wide-ranging application of Lords of the Valley is an indication of the relevance of these principles, and the broad appeal of the setting.
The success of the game also highlights the critical value of discussion and debrief – the game itself is a valuable prompt, but it is incomplete without a means of sharing and unpacking the ideas it contains.