My Journey of Systems Thinking – Part V

There is a famous saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”. This week I saw it in action. What I also saw was the relatively inefficient and purposefully expensive way of bringing up children in urban ecosystems back home. I then took help of systems thinking to synthesize my observations and feelings. Some of them I am writing down here below…

In the hills of Devprayag there is a small village called Kim Khola. Until last month it would take a 45 min trek to climb a mountain to reach this village. But I was lucky. There is a road under construction which goes right upto the village. The taxi guy was generous enough to drive the car into the kachcha road. He took us as far as he thought was safe, not for us but for the car. We got down on the top of the mountain. We then went downhill to reach the village and went to the house where I was to spend two nights and two days.

Early Morning View from the Porch


It was in a nice setting. East facing porch, toilets, a traditional kitchen (with a wood stove) and one new kitchen with LPG. Two nice big rooms and a breathtaking terrace.  The owner of the house also maintained a garden with newly planted Rosemary. He was a nice progressive chap. The house cooked amazing food. I ate with great satisfaction. Pleasant weather made my stay even more comfortable. It was a relief to be away from Delhi heat.

I was there for a purpose. My job was to uncover the reasons for disappearance of water springs of Kim Khola and how it has affected life of villagers, what they are thinking to do now and what kind of future do they envisage. I should say I was able to uncover some key things that I would not have if I was in Delhi reading on internet about Kim Khola and its springs. What I understood would be out in the publications as part of the project and I would share those when ready.

Apart from all the intelligent stuff, for which I get paid, I also observed social and cultural dynamics which were not part of my questionnaire or so called research scope. The home I was staying in was of a family having two teenagers, one boy and one girl. I would see the girl in house more often than I would see the boy. She would assist her mother in household chores with great skills and purpose. My mind first went towards categorizing this in the gender imbalance research theme, which we researchers jut love to spot every now and then. Its kind of that we are programmed. With some difficulty I tried to unlearn the gender stuff and started observing the structure more closely.

First, I think what I saw was a gender system evolved over time. It was not that the village was trying to copy an alien culture. Second, I think the boy use to be out of house through out the day but I did not feel any sense of discomfort in the family. They were at great peace with his behavior, partially because they were focused on doing what they do and more importantly they knew that the whole village is one big family. In cities we call them care takers. They are now increasingly being found inside day care set ups. One has to pay hefty money to be partially sure that their kid is in safe hands. Forget about things like learning by doing, interacting with nature, socializing etc. just finding a safe place to park your kids is enough. And this does not guarantee that the parents and family would feel no sense of anxiety.

How does systems thinking help understand what I observe? At a meta level, I am essentially comparing two systems here, village and city. The former acts more like a coupled system of Nature and Humans. Both interact and shape each other. Eg. The forests change in response to humans (massive deforestation for wood) and humans change in response to forests (loss of livelihood forcing out-migration). In between these interactions evolves the culture of the human network of friends and family. Cities act like a coupled system of Economy and Humans. Both interact and shape each other. Eg. The jobs change in response to humans (higher spending creates more jobs) and humans change in response to jobs (high paying jobs lead to increased spending). In between these interactions evolves the culture of the human network of friends and family.

If you observe, both the examples I give are reinforcing in nature. If forests go up the livelihood opportunities go up and so people help the forest grow. While if forests go down the livelihood opportunities go down and people start consuming the forest for sustenance. Similarly more spending creates more jobs leading to even more spending while fewer jobs create poor business growth further weakening the job market. The place based culture evolves through a combination of multiple such reinforcing and balancing processes. It is the combination of such processes that leads to the behavior of the system. Raising children in cities is becoming more expensive, high paying jobs are few, simultaneously social fragmentation is increasing leading to more spending on buying social services. Depleting forests and loss of traditional springs is leading to spatial fragmentation of the households causing increase in labor. The gender dimensions in the village or cities are not isolated events of this system. They also get affected and evolve over time with its changing environment.

Using such multi loop reflection I told myself that what I see, observe or collect information is just tip of the iceberg. Drawing conclusions based on that would be silly. Even though I may be able to jot down a hell lot of facts (like the time spent by boys and girls on household chores etc.). But reaching conclusions based on data/information that we are able to measure or see at a point in time is not uncommon. We are always tempted to run campaigns based on facts and data, often leaving out the deep structures, the reinforcing and balancing processes, whose interactions lead to events that we see.

“It takes a village to raise a child”. Of course it would, where else would a child be able to learn through the dance of interactions between human, economic and natural systems in a safe environment.

That too for Free!


Weatherproofing Farmers Through Climate Services

Unpredictable weather variations and extreme events are now being seen as signs of the coming of climate change. This variability in climate, as also highlighted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), poses risks for food security. This calls for evaluation of various adaptation and mitigation options that can secure farmers’ livelihoods and provide food for all.

Our farmers’ presumptive analysis of the weather through traditional knowledge and age-old experience has long held them and their crops in good stead. Today, climate information and advisory services sent to farmers, on their mobile phones, are helping make agriculture more resilient towards the impacts of a varying climate.

The 2 Ts boost – technology and telecom

In India, these services have seen a giant leap of a change in last 10 years. The traditional “Farmers’ Weather Bulletin” and TV broadcasts including All India Radio have now evolved into sophisticated climate products and services delivered using ‘techno-social’ tools – smart phones and mobile apps.

The years 2006-07 saw a surge in agro-met services with companies like Nokia Life tools and Reuters Market Light (RML) entering the Indian market, which for a long time was served only by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). Today, weather information is also accompanied with market-related information, helping farmers get fair bargains for their produce.

The growth in number of farmer subscribers for climate services has been overwhelming. Over 50 lakh farmers have been reached in the state of Maharashtra only, while the number across India is in excess of 1.5 crore.

Technologies for effective dissemination and outreach are kicking in and are being implemented at scale by IMD’s Agro Meteorology Programme, GKMS (Grameen Krishi Mausam Seva). Innovations at local levels are also being experimented with. For e.g. Watershed Organisation Trust’s (WOTR) Agro-Meteorology program uses Automated Weather Systems (AWS) to improve the effectiveness and accuracy of local weather information. The farmers are informed about their local weather conditions almost real time through AWS, allowing them take more weather informed decisions.

Scaling and Downscaling

Scaling up of such experiments is a must but it poses several challenges. Since India has diverse topography and climatic conditions, the extent of village-level, farmer -specific data available is very limited. Also, there are limitations for downscaling district level or block level weather forecasts right up to the village-level.

What makes scaling further complicated are the institutional challenges that arise due to the amount of coordination required for generating and delivering advisories. The climate services sector in India is an example of a consortium of knowledge networks made up of private, public and not-for-profit institutions, including universities. This means that every advisory service requires collaboration between at least 3-4 different institutions!

Bottom up Responses

Farmers at their end are also using technology to battle the forces of weather variations. Using their smart phones they have formed crop-specific Whatsapp groups, which act as hyper-local communication platforms for and by farmers. This is an example of a bottom-up process of development and implementation of adaptation measures. Farmers can self-advise and readily share information among peers, such as response to pest attacks, differences in market prices etc.

TERI has been studying climate services system in India through its Indo-Norwegian Research Project on Governance of Climate Services. The project is a three-year study that analyses conditions for effective governance of climate services in India. It compares 4 Indian agro-meteorological service systems, both public and private to study how they are governed and if they provide rural farmers with tailored and participatory services in Maharashtra.

The project’s findings would be up for discussion at this year’s World Sustainable Development Summit from 15th to 17th February 2018. Do join us!

For more information visit –

Challenge of Policy Making for Climate Change Adaptation

Farmers in India and across the world are witnessing new variations in weather and seasonal changes. The challenge to take decisions under these variations gets compounded because often there is no precedent to it. What decisions work best can be known through experimentation and mostly in hindsight. This makes adaptation to climate change a complex process. The cause-effect conundrum, i.e. which solution gives what result is almost impossible to predict with certainty. Thus, human decision making under such unforeseen situations needs to be aided by additional information or decision support systems. Climate Services, the delivery of weather based agriculture advisories using ICT, help aid farmer’s decision making process by providing timely weather forecasts and corresponding advisories on agricultural practices.

The information farmers receive on climate services provides them with an option of incorporating it into their agriculture decision making. But it is almost impossible to measure with certainty how much of this information do they incorporate, in what form and when. This makes impact evaluation of adaptation solutions, like climate services, a very challenging exercise. At times even the farmers are unable to clearly demarcate the important variables they use for their decision making process. This is so because in order to cope with weather variations there are many possible actions and solutions to be experimented with. But the most effective solutions may not be known to them at the early stages and thus their decision making keeps evolving as they experiment with a set of solutions. Through this process of iterative decision making they learn to adapt to weather variations. This makes adaptation a highly localized and continuous process with no clear traces of solution impact pathways. But a set of good practices evolve over time.

Challenges to measure or generate evidence of adaptation further hinder the uptake and popularity of good practices. There is also a theoretical difficulty in establishing units for measuring adaptation and establish monitoring systems for its evaluation. This makes communicating adaptation through evidence a very difficult task. It also challenges the imagination of policy makers who mostly rely on numbers for estimating impacts. For example, the climate mitigation negotiations use the 2°C limit of temperature rise as the reference for determining how much emissions need to be reduced to achieve this climate goal. But in case of adaptation there is a dearth of quantifiable numbers which could guide the policy planning process. Thus, policy making for adaptation requires a shift of two kinds

1)   Moving away from relying only on numbers, and

2)   Decentralization of policy making to account for localized adaptation processes.

This shift further brings up two challenges

1)   How to measure what is intangible or un-measured, and

2)   At what scale should the policy making process be localized.

Unless research on climate change adaptation focuses to find answer to these two challenges, policy making for adaptation to climate change would remain a very challenging task.

Note: This article was first posted on my linkedin on October 3, 2016 for TERI’s World Sustainable Development Summit 2016. Link:

Drawdown, A Book on Reversing Climate Change

Dear Friends,

I am very pleased to share with you the release of book Drawdown by
Paul Hawken. The book analyses and simulates climate impacts (reduction in atmospheric CO2 eq ppm) of 100 climate solutions which if implemented at scale could reverse global warming. I was fortunate to be part of the project and did a fellowship to contribute to two chapters 1) Reducing Food Waste (#3 in climate impact ranking) and 2) Family Planning (#6/7 in climate impact ranking). It was a wonderful experience to be part of the global fellowship and do the number crunching exercises with technical writing.


The book is a first of its kind and a must read for everyone who is interested in sustainability, climate change, business, environment and even those who are climate skeptics. The solutions go beyond just climate change and offers future scenarios which could be useful for development of green businesses. The scope and potential is immense and the time to act is “Now”.

You can know more about the book, its solutions and buy a copy of it from

Please circulate it widely and we welcome your questions, thoughts and critics on the work.

Thank you,

Are you too young to be worried about climate change?

Ayesha Banerjee |  Updated: Jul 15, 2016 19:15 IST

Reposted from Hindustan Times:

Mihir Mathur demonstrating solar parabolic cookers to villagers in Maharashtra. (Handout)

In the last few years the climate change threat has started to get a little too real to us. Temperatures have more or less stayed above 50 degrees C this summer in parts of India. The country has also been affected by drought for the second year running. “We have already done enough emissions which shall make the (global) average temperatures go up. Climate change is not something which will happen in the future. It is happening right now. April 2016 was one of the hottest months on record. Earth’s average surface temperature has already increased by around 1 degree C compared to pre industrial times and it is estimated that we are headed for up to a 3 degree C rise which could lead to dangerous climate change impact.”

The warning comes from climate change researcher Mihir Mathur, associate fellow, Earth Science and Climate Change Division at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Delhi, who is picking up danger signals from planet earth and wants to mitigate the impact. For Mathur, climate change is a personal as well as global issue. Every individual has to worry. “Those who think that it is the responsibility of only governments and researchers to learn (about) and find solutions to climate change are not thinking right. There is no point in having a national or a state level climate policy when people don’t understand its importance or rationale.”

20160105_123513 (1)
What is the world going to look like in 2050? Mathur works on developing future scenarios using computer modelling (simulating what happens or will happen in a situation) to understand how policies can bring about desired changes. (Handout)

Surprisingly this researcher in climate change adaptation for policy formulation at the local and macro level comes from a finance background. He received his bachelor of commerce in accountancy from Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara (his hometown), following it up with a master’s degree in finance from the Sadhana Centre for Management and Leadership Development, Pune.

What led to the switch? While working in the stock markets Mathur discovered how fossil fuel depletion would put a limit on economic growth. He asked himself deeper questions: was the nature of this growth sustainable? As he found out more about the interconnections between fossil fuels, emissions and climate change, he felt a “deeper calling to research upon sustainability issues rather than only use my skills in stock markets”. The turning point came when he discovered the issue of oil depletion (popularly known as Peak Oil) which could hit the world much before climate change. Research on peak oil (point in time when oil production peaks and then begins to terminally decline) made him realise that the world was very close to reaching the peak globally and that a systemic shift was needed if the world had to sustain itself. That discovery drove him to take up research on finding solutions to peak oil and climate change.

For field work, Mathur has to interact with farming communities to find out how weather variations challenge their agriculture decision-making. He studies how weather forecasts and agriculture advisories (sent by the India Meteorological Department and other private players) are helping farmers cope with these variations. He also works on developing future scenarios using computer modelling (simulating what happens or will happen in a situation) to understand how policies can bring about desired changes. A modelling project was recently completed where he developed an urban model using system dynamics modelling (understanding complicated problems using mathematical modelling techniques) to understand city futures, how cities would grow in future and factors limiting their growth.

Solutions for human beings to adapt better to the changes in weather and climate could be social, financial, environmental, economic etc, so his research is, in a sense, interdisciplinary. His research findings help improve the body of knowledge on climate change and are likely to contribute as inputs for development planning and policy planning.

Mathur has been part of one of the biggest climate change adaptation programmes in India, implemented by Watershed Organisation Trust in Maharashtra, MP and AP, covering more than 50 villages. For him it was an experience to learn how rural India understood climate change and the practical challenges it faced while moving towards adaptation and mitigation measures. He feels the whole project was a success as they were able to implement renewable energy solutions at scale, generate livelihood opportunities, do watershed development work, promote water budgeting and management, develop biodiversity registers, create disaster risk reduction plans, install automated weather stations for real time weather data at village level etc.

Mihir Mathur: Happy to make the switch from the stock market to research on finding solutions to peak oil and climate change. (Handout)

More recently, Mathur has been practicing system dynamics modelling to better understand how social, economic and environmental systems function and interact with each other. The idea is to understand and present the complexity of real life systems to academia, policy makers, researchers and everyone else. “Through the modelling,” he explains “ I am able to show how seemingly different sectors interact with each other and intervening in one sector could create a cascading impact on other sectors. An increase in the water supply for a city would lead to increase in demand for electricity (through pumping etc) which in turn could lead to increase of power supply which again could lead to increased water consumption for electricity generation. And that’s not all, increase in water consumption could lead to increased waste water discharge and without any increase in sewage capacities it could lead to water borne diseases. This is a hypothetical scenario but it’s clear that it is impossible to understand the dynamics of the real world without going through the process of studying their interlinkages.”

When it comes to global negotiations on climate change, Mathur says India is not going wrong as the country’s per capita emissions are very low as compared to developed nations. It is not fair to expect India to go on an aggressive mitigation strategy at the cost of development which has yet to cover all of its people. However, a low carbon development vision would definitely mitigate emissions and achieve sustainable development. As India’s geography, cultures, ecosystems, agro ecological zones are very diverse it is almost impossible to have one strategy that fits all. To have bottom up development planning and integrating it with the top down climate change vision is a challenge. India has developed State level Action Plans on Climate Change and also has City Resilience Plans which are to get integrated with City Development Plans and Master Plans. Results, however, will only be visible in the future. India does have policies in place but to implement it and achieve the desired results at scale has been a problem. Mathur feels India’s greatest strength is its network of villages and if sustainable development is achieved in the country’s six lakh villages then the country could achieve its development and climate goals with much ease. Along with India’s focus on smart cities, it is important that the villages are not left out as they form the base of the country’s pyramid.

Models of a city that he has put together reveal that the quality of life in cities is going to deteriorate very soon (in some places it already has) mainly due to rising environmental pollution. While many of them may continue to choose to live in cities with a deteriorating quality of life, there would come a tipping point where cities become unattractive and people would start searching for other places to relocate. “I have heard of such discussions already taking place among people living in big metropolises,” Mathur says.

Mihir interacting with farmer on field
Mathur interacting with farmers as part of his field work. (Handout)

Thus, he hopes that through his modelling work someday he will be able to develop tools to enable effective decision making (at the government or global level) for climate change planning.

Climate change, in 20 words is

Non normal variations in rainfall and temperatures with shift in seasons and increase in frequency of extreme weather events

Institutes where you can study

TERI University (

Indira Gandhi National Open University (

Indian Institute of Forest Management (

Centre for Environment Education (

Skills needed for the job

Liking for quantitative and qualitative analysis, good communication skills, openness for learning new things, honesty, curiosity.

Envisioning Carbon Neutral Villages

I am very pleased to share my paper on Envisioning Carbon Neutral Villages published in Current Science Journal. 

This is an outcome of my 5 year engagement of working closely with rural communities in India for a climate change adaptation programme. It had 10+ thematic areas of research and intervention. I focused on local money flows, climate risk impact assessment, carbon neutrality, livelihood resilience and alternate energy. 

This paper integrates all those thematic interventions, through a systems thinking approach, and positions them as enablers for transiting towards carbon neutrality. These interventions qualify as mitigation and adaptation both. Thereby, it also breaks the stereotype of ‘either/or’ and highlights the synergies between mitigation and adaptation.

It presents a scenario where social, technological and environmental interventions could potentially mitigate emissions, strengthen sinks and ultimately enable them to reach equilibrium.

With the risk of ‘runaway climate change’ increasing, I personally think lot of bottom up pilots need to be done in order to demonstrate that carbon neutrality could be achieved. Relatively soon and we need not wait till year 2100 (as science and models suggest). 

It is the need of the hour! By design or destiny… 

I hope you like reading the paper!.

Paper Link: