What can a Californian ferret teach us about the design challenges of today?


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As the new head of ATO Design, I’ve been looking at the ways in which systems-thinking can provide us with invaluable new insights across a range of fields. And believe it or not, I think ferrets and firefighting have a lot to teach us about systems-thinking, and why this approach is so important for design.

In the forests of California there lives an adorable critter called the American pine marten. A red-headed cousin of the ferret, this furry little fellow caught my eye recently while I was reading about firefighting practices in the state. While warm temperatures and sea breezes are Californian trademarks, they’re also a perfect breeding ground for some of the world’s deadliest bushfires. Throughout the 20th century, the default policy for firefighters was to extinguish individual fires as soon as they sparked. This makes sense, right? Spot a fire; put it out.

But while that approach seems sensible on first blush, it had an unexpected side effect — over time, it creates a build-up of dry brush and deadwood that when left uncleared has the potential to trigger even bigger, more destructive blazes.

In California, it even led to the creation of a new term — ‘megafires’ — to designate these abnormal blazes. These megafires were taking out thousands of hectares of woodland, wiping out entire towns — and reducing the population of the pine marten.

Why do we care about a ferret?

While the pine marten isn’t endangered, its population levels have long been used as a proxy measure of forest health — so when the numbers reduced, people took it as a hint that something in the system wasn’t quite right.

After some investigation, the Forest Service realised that the forest ecosystem was far more complex than their earlier policies had considered.

“Turns out, the best way to stop fires is to start them.”

The Service realised they needed to try something radically different if they wanted to tackle these fires head on, and that they didn’t possess all the tools they needed to enact long-term, sustainable change.

This problem illustrates what I like to call our VUCA world. The environment they were operating in was too volatile (with rapid unexpected change and feedback loops), too uncertain (unpredictable, especially when looking at the microenvironment), too complex (with interconnected relationship and actors), and too ambiguous (with too much information and too many signifiers).

The problem was — literally — that no one could see the forest for the trees.

The brainwave came when the Forest Service brought the expertise of multiple diverse disciplines together, workshopping the problem with fire and environment experts, activists, animal conservationists, and even loggers and mill owners. By consulting a diverse group of people and looking at the forest from every perspective, they were able to create a comprehensive and unexpected solution to their problem. Turns out, the best way to stop fires is to start them — by burning off the dry brush and reducing the fuel available to spark destructive blazes.

So what does this teach us about design?

To me, the Forest Service’s method is a perfect analogy of the systems-led design approach we’re embracing here at ATO Design: a trans-disciplinary approach to problem solving bringing together systems-thinking, design approaches, behavioural insights, and innovation.

Sometimes governments create policies that have unintended consequences or attempt to incentivise certain behaviours in ways that create unwanted impacts elsewhere. This is why it’s important to consider ‘the bigger picture’ — the Forest Service could only find the solution to their problem by inviting groups with different perspectives.

The other big lesson from this example is that they never lost sight of their overarching goals ­– not to stop fires, but to protect human, animal and tree life. This was why they were able to work so well with so many other disciplines, including traditional enemies like loggers and mill owners.

In the same way, governments can never lose sight of the overarching goals that drive our existence. By focusing on how our work is part of a broader ecosystem, we can support end-to-end change that ensures policies and solutions are tailored to their environment, while still creating necessary shifts to the eco-system that are conducive to success. This means talking to our users, analysing our data, thinking big, and looking out for the pine martens — the little signifiers that might give clues towards the larger system.

That’s why I truly believe that for the design and system thinkers out there, this is our time. My burning platform for ATO Design is to champion large-scale, broad-minded systems-led design to inspire a government-wide shift in thinking. It’s ambitious, yes, but we need to do it in order to keep pace in this rapidly changing and demanding environment.

So how can we do it? I’ll share that in my next piece — that is, if you liked this article. Let me know! And if you have your own examples, I’d love to hear them.

Misha Kaur is the assistant commissioner – ATO Design at the Australian Taxation Office.

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