Local Systems Solutions: A framework for solving urban challenges

Challenges such as garbage collection are universal, yet deeply local to each city. And they are the result of many aspects of the city system being broken. A systems approach, adapted to the local context, can help find unique solutions

Swati Ramanathan

[Image by RitaE from Pixabay] 

This article explores the theme, A New Model of Change: Why Complex Global Problems Need Local Systems Solutions, as part of our learning project, MasterClass on TransformingSystems with Arun Maira. The project is based on Maira’s book ‘Transforming Systems: Why the World Needs a New Ethical Toolkit’. The other two themes are: Creating Ethical Leaders of Tomorrow, and Building Purpose-driven Networks.

A note on the theme by Arun Maira: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are inspiring many people around the world. They aim to solve global problems of poverty, environmental degradation, and social inequities. When problems are large and complex, a human instinct is to turn upwards for solutions—to God, to the United Nations, or to a powerful government. When confronted with large-scale problems, the default theory of effective management, of command-and-control, becomes very tempting to apply. Governments construct centralised, top-down programmes. International NGO programmes, and large scale philanthropy, are managed centrally to achieve scale and to improve efficiency by deploying best practices.

This approach does not work because problems such as persistent poverty and inequality, environmental degradation, etc., are systemic issues. They have multiple interacting causes. They cannot be solved by any one actor. Nor are they amenable to silver bullet solutions. Though the problems appear everywhere, they come together in different ways in each place. Another problem with this approach is that people who must be the ultimate beneficiaries of solutions, and who can contribute to their design and implementation, have inadequate voice.

Local solutions are required, but they must be systemic too. Systems thinking must be applied by local change agents to the challenges in local environments. For example, solutions to improve livelihoods must improve the condition of the natural environment too. Solutions to improve skills must go hand-in-hand with solutions to create more jobs. The need for empowering local governance is often touted. For example, it is enshrined in the Indian Constitution through specific amendments. Even business organisations want their frontlines to be empowered, innovative, and responsive.

So, the first question is, why does the established system not let go of control? An explanation, or excuse, often given is that the locals will make a mess of it. So, the second question is, how can the capacity of the locals be improved to manage systems problems? 


For close to 20 years now, my husband and I have been deeply engaged in addressing the challenges and opportunities of India’s urban transformation. Over this period, we have set up multiple institutions, each focused on addressing a unique dimension of the vast urban canvas. Our problem-solving approach reflects our practitioner strengths—we learn by doing, reflecting on what worked and what didn’t, then modifying our approach and repeating this iteratively.  

Along this journey, we have come to realise that urban challenges (and therefore solutions) are ‘systems based’, i.e. there are multiple components to any issue, sometimes visibly so, but more often invisible. Solving urban issues therefore needs a very strong conceptual ‘systems framework’, which then needs to be applied in solving practical, everyday issues. We have developed such a framework that we have called ‘city systems’. Our city systems framework has four broad inter-related themes: urban planning and design, urban capacities and resources, empowered and legitimate political representation, and transparency and participation. Each in turn has multiple sub-themes.  

Take garbage as an example. It is an issue that plagues virtually every city in the country and is a classic “systems” problem: on the first theme of urban planning and design, we haven’t thoughtfully located nor designed landfill disposal sites in regional master plans, with considerations towards local environmental issues or pollution of groundwater, etc. Instead, every few months we predictably witness epidemics around disposal sites and villagers protesting and preventing entry to garbage disposal trucks.

On the second dimension of urban capacities and resources, we don’t have qualified human resources—environmental engineers and public health experts—in our city governments to handle solid waste; on the third, we find that most city councillors are either directly or indirectly related to garbage contractors, which is a big chunk of municipal expenditures. These political representatives therefore have no incentive to change the status quo

And finally, on the fourth dimension of transparency and participation, everyone knows that the garbage solution starts at the first mile of doorstep segregation. But why will cynical citizens or local communities segregate unless they have ‘line of sight’ to what happens to their garbage? What if it is getting re-aggregated a mile from their home, because the system hasn’t been organised to retain the segregation all the way through? And participation cannot be mandated—citizens will need to be fully informed of all aspects of the garbage issue, from the daily pickups to the cost being incurred, to the performance data on a daily basis. Participation is directly proportional to transparency.

The garbage problem that we see today is the result of many aspects of the city system being broken. Solving this will therefore require a systems-based approach, addressing all these aspects. Attempting only one solution (segregation, for example)—even if it is a legitimate part of the larger set of solutions—will not only be ineffective, but actually create greater resistance to future change, since people will have the memory of past failures. What I have described for garbage is true for all urban issues—water management, transport and traffic, urban poverty and livelihoods, air pollution, and so on.

These issues are all deeply local. Chennai is different from Mumbai, Delhi from Trivandrum, and so on. But all solutions will need to use the same city systems framework, adapted for their specific local contexts, thereby finding unique solutions.

This gets me to Arun Maira’s two questions, which he has articulated in the note preceding my essay: why do established systems not let go of control; and how can capacities of locals be improved to manage systems problems.

The first question has three inter-related answers: Firstly (and most obviously), the system has resistance (existing rents and benefits) or inertia (established old ways); second, answers need a fresh perspective, which generally comes from outsiders—but governments in India haven’t developed ‘collaborative muscles’ to engage and partner with those outside the system; and third, our collective risk appetite for innovation in public goods issues is low—the fear of failure. This is ironic, since the existing system is failing anyway. But somehow, we have a collective tolerance for existing failures, but not so much for new failures.

How can capacities among local stakeholders be improved? In his seminal book Theory U, Otto Scharmer wrote of ‘letting go to let come’. Capacities will grow in a manner similar to how children learn—they need the space to iterate, to fall and stand up again. The good news is that because the frame of the problems is local, the canvas to experiment and attempt new localised systems solutions is very vast—across the thousands of neighbourhoods in hundreds of cities. The spark to catalyse such localised ownership and change can come from anywhere—a passionate community, an energetic civil servant, a committed corporator, an enlightened local business, and so on. Each experience not only builds the immediate community’s capacities, but acts as a lighthouse to inspire others, to learn and adapt, and find their own solutions.

The most exciting thing for me is that this form of localised application of systems thinking, is the future. The top-down, one-size-fits-all approach has run its course.


Local Systems Solutions: A way for India to provide universal healthcare

By Nachiket Mor | Healthcare in India urgently needs locally appropriate but systemically consistent solutions. There’s much to learn from how other countries and sectors have gone about it

In the next few days, we will publish essays by thought leaders on the other two themes in this learning package: Building Purpose-driven Networks: Why Their Time Has Come, and Creating Ethical Leaders of Tomorrow: Why Management Education Needs to Rethink Its Role.

You can see all the articles in this package here.

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About the author

Swati Ramanathan
Swati Ramanathan


Jana Group

Swati Ramanathan is co-founder of Jana Group, a clutch of social enterprises aimed at urban transformation in India. These include:

Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, committed to transforming India’s cities and citizenship. Janaagraha takes a systems approach to addressing urban challenges, working both with citizens at the grassroots, as well as with all three federal tiers of government. Ramanathan leads Janaagraha’s innovations in the use of social media and mobile and internet technology for civic participation. She has received international awards and recognition for ipaidabribe.org on retail corruption in 25 countries; and for ichangemycity.org on hyper local citizen participation, including Google’s Global Impact Challenge, 2013, ICIF Australia 2015, and Manthan Award in 2015.

Jana Urban Space Foundation, of which she is chairperson, is committed to improving urban planning and urban design in India, and is engaged in both planning and design practice and policy reforms.

Over the past 15 years, India’s urban reforms and policies on a variety of fronts have been substantially shaped by the work of the Jana Group.

Ramanathan has prepared the ‘National Urban Spatial Planning and Development (USPD), 2013 Guidelines’ for planning India’s cities, at the behest of India’s Ministry of Urban Development, and the Planning Commission. Ramanathan was the co-convenor of the Urban Planning Group of the Planning Commission’s 12th Five Year Plan. She is currently member of the Rajasthan government’s Chief Minister’s Advisory Council. She is undertaking the development of a Spatial Development Plan 2035 for Sawai Madhopur, and transformational projects for the city that are related to mobility and conservation of the city’s water system and protection of the forest and tiger sanctuary.

Ramanathan’s work on urban design standards for city roads has been adopted as the desired standards by the state of Karnataka (Tender SURE – Specifications for Urban Road Execution), with the state government allocating Rs.500 crore over 2012-14 in the state budget, towards model Tender SURE roads for the CBD area of Bangalore city. The Tender SURE project is a visible success in the city, and the chief minister has announced 50 more roads will be included in the 2016-17 budget.

In 2007, Ramanathan was named a Young Asian Leader by the Asia Society. In 2008, she was honoured by the Rajasthan government with the Rajyotsava Puraskar for her work on the Jaipur 2025 Master plan. In 2013, Ramanathan was honoured by the National Democratic Institute in Washington DC, with the Democracy and Civic Innovator Award. In 2013, she and her husband were honoured with as the Social Entrepreneurs of the Year Award by Forbes India.

Ramanathan holds a BS from India, and an MS from Pratt Institute, NY.

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