Systemic failure and the ‘Iron Triangle’ of conservation practice

Reynolds, M.; Lyons-White, J. and Knight, A. T. (2020). Systemic failure and the ‘Iron Triangle’ of conservation practice. In: Wyborn, Carina ed. Seeds of Change: Provocations for a new research agenda. Geneva: Luc Hoffman Institute, pp. 138–142.




Existing biodiversity conservation practice systems are not fit for purpose. The term “systemic failure” is often used to describe such dysfunctional systems, but often with little insight as to which attributes contribute to the failure. Drawing on a tradition of systems thinking in practice, viewing conservation practice through the idea of a ‘system of interest’ can illustrate where failure of practice may be present, and where action might be directed to correct the failure. Conservation practice is here rendered as an iron triangle; a malign system that perpetuates failure. One of the dysfunctional attributes of conservation is the propensity for practice (‘doing’) at the expense of thinking (‘knowing’). A core attribute of systems thinking in practice is the duality between being systemic (thinking holistically) and systematic (enacting systems amongst practitioners). In this essay, notions of knowing and doing are examined as synonyms for thinking and practice. One aspect of a malignant iron triangle might be characterised as manifesting a dualism rather than a duality. A dualism exists when there is a focus on either ‘knowing’ or ‘doing’, thinking or practice. Good systems thinking in conservation practice ought to exhibit a continual duality between being systemic and being systematic. The essay invites suggestions on what may constitute a more benign systemic conservation praxis.

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