BLOG: Housing systems, systems thinking
Published: 13 Feb, 2024

The challenges facing our housing systems are manifest and manifold.

There is a global crisis of housing affordability, particularly – though not exclusively – affecting cities with relatively strong economies.

In the UK we can add to that global challenge a litany of issues, both acute and chronic. The strain on household budgets has been compounded by high interest rates and much-increased utility bills. There are seemingly perpetual shortfalls in new housing supply; divergence in intra- and inter-generational housing opportunities leading to markedly unequal housing outcomes; problems of poor housing quality in the existing housing stock; lack of energy efficiency and low uptake of retrofit across tenures; widespread precarity, particularly among private renters; and a growing problem of homelessness and reliance on “temporary” accommodation, which is threatening the financial viability of many local authorities. And that is just to be getting started. Anyone familiar with the UK system could no doubt draw up a similar list.

It is by no means a novel observation that while these issues might appear distinct they are, in fact, inter-related. We might think of them as symptoms of a more fundamental malady afflicting the housing system. We might also spend some time exploring how the housing system interacts with other systems such as health, education, social security, transport, the labour market, and the macroeconomy.

These observations are not, I would hope, hugely controversial. But the way we approach the analysis of the housing system less frequently wrestles with their implications. While many scholars have used the term ‘housing system’, it has been used in a multitude of ways. Relatively few have drawn explicitly on the body of knowledge associated with the field of “systems thinking”. What does it mean to think and act systemically, in this sense, in relation to the housing challenges we face?

Systems thinking invites us to place interconnection, feedback and complex causation at the heart of the analysis. Beyond that, however, to talk of “systems thinking” is a little vague. There is a multitude of schools of thought, models and approaches. This diversity reflects different positions on fundamental social scientific questions including differing ontological and epistemological commitments. These are rich and subtle debates that are yet to be fully explored in the context of housing concerns.

The diversity in approach also reflects differences in purpose: some systems approaches aim to assist in making sense of opaque and uncertain ‘situations’; some seek to assist in improving system performance, be that process efficiency, value for money or effectiveness of control systems; others are primarily concerned with problematising a situation and challenging the status quo with a view to opening up space for its reform.

There are, thus, diverse ways in which systems thinking can contribute to social and policy analysis. But it has limits. Some argue that system thinking has less traction in relation to, for example, attempts at genuinely radical social transformation. Others would, in contrast, see systems thinking as having useful things to contribute even in highly political and conflictual situations.

Systems thinking is by no means new. Many of the methods used most frequently today – for example, for system mapping – have their origins in the 1970s and 1980s. And the application of systems thinking to policy questions is not new. There are areas such as public health research or sustainability transitions where it is absolutely integral to the conversation. And it is being more frequently applied to housing-related questions. This is in part occurring where housing concerns intersect with disciplines in which the use of systems thinking is better established: the TRUUD project, looking at how to get health concerns integrated into decisions on new urban development, would be an example. However, the work of organisations such as the Centre for Homelessness Impact has been strongly and independently influenced by systems thinking.

One of the key objectives for the current phase of CaCHE’s work is to explore the application of systems thinking to housing issues and policies. We are currently in the process of framing systems-inspired projects that will be key to our work programme over the next two years.

In addition to those projects, we are seeking to provide a forum for the broader discussion and exploration of systems approaches and their application to housing issues. As interest in thinking systemically about housing grows, there is much in the systems literature that can and should be drawn into the conversation. We can benefit from existing learning, avoid repeating mistakes, and spend less time reinventing the wheel.

As one element of fostering this broader discussion, we are starting an occasional series on aspects of systems thinking and housing. We start our series this week with a blog post by Faye Sanders that focuses on how we think about housing quality. Faye’s post provides a great illustration of the difference that systems thinking can make. It invites us to think more expansively about how we might understand housing quality by recognising the importance of broader connections that shape residents’ experience of housing and home.

Keep an eye out for further instalments in the series over the coming months.

If you are researching housing using a systems perspective or have an interest in applying systems thinking to housing and you would like to propose a post for this series, then please get in touch with your idea. The best way to do so is to email me at alex.marsh@bristol.ac.uk.

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