Panel Paper: The Flint, Michigan Water Crisis: Using Systems Thinking to Understand Complex Problems and Identify and Rectify Critical Failures

Friday, April 7, 2017 : 2:15 PM
Founders Hall Room 475 (George Mason University Schar School of Policy)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jessica Sokolow, Cornell University
The Flint, Michigan drinking water crisis began in April of 2014 after the water system—in an effort to balance its checkbook—switched its water source from treated water purchased from Detroit, Michigan to their own source, the Flint River. This event, and the decisions and activities that followed, exposed Flint residents to high levels of lead leaching from the pipes for more than a year. This is not the first time a city has faced lead contamination in their drinking water. Thirteen years before the crisis in Flint, lead contamination occurred in the Washington, D.C. water system.

In Systems Thinking Made Simple, the Cabreras lay forth four simple rules—making distinctions and recognizing systems, relationships and perspectives (or DSRP)—that help “focus on predicting the structural possibilities of ideas, rather than the content information that maps onto those structures.”[1] Using systems thinking, cognitive structures can be applied to complex problems like the Flint water crisis to expand our thinking about the problem. These structures can then help to identify critical points of failure in existing mental models and to remedy these shortfalls to prevent history from repeating itself. DSRP can be used to analyze the comments, press releases and memos of state and local officials involved in the crisis to better understand these models.

Through this analysis, one distinction made by these officials stands out: between regulatory requirements and water quality. These officials structured their mental model based on this key distinction. From the perspective of state and local officials, it was their duty to meet state and federal regulatory requirements to causally address Flint residents’ need for safe drinking water. In this model, state and local officials are not in fact viewing Flint’s actual water quality, as safe water is assumed if officials meet the regulatory requirements. Instead, officials are only viewing a representation of the water quality by way of the water quality samples taken for regulatory testing. The events in Flint demonstrated that mental model of Flint regulators, based on a representation of reality, was flawed.

Using DSRP, we can rectify this critical failure in the Flint crisis by creating a new mental model for regulators that improves upon the old model. In this new mental model, policy makers at EPA must strengthen the causal relationship between the state and federal requirements and the public’s need for safe drinking water. The new mental model must also widen the perspective of regulators to include the public need. Finally, we need to make sure that there is a relationship between the public need and the duty of the regulators that serves as a mechanism for feedback. This new mental model can improve the actions of all regulators, not just those involved in the Flint water crisis. We want our public servants to be adaptive thinkers that consider multivariate factors, particularly in today’s complex world.

[1] Cabrera L, Cabrera D. Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems. Ithaca: Odyssean Press; 2015; Page 117.