How paper beach flowers made VITO / Vlakwa expert Dirk Halet look at our water system differently.

My grandparents are from Westkapelle. So it often happened that in our childhood we spent time on the coast, and yet something crucial must have passed me by at the time. It was only during the last summer holiday that my "image" of the coast changed dramatically. We rewound back to the end of August when we went on holiday to the Belgian coast for a few days with our 5 and 3 year old daughter and son.

On a sunny afternoon we happened to pass by a stall of beach flowers made of crepe paper. My little daughter asked if she could get one. The answer was clear - "59 shells, please". A rule invented there on the spot which, as will be shown later, had an enormous impact on my experience of the coast :).

59 shells, no problem, shells in abundance! In no time at all, son and daughter had collected the necessary shells. However, it was not long before my son came to me with his head against his shoulder and his lip in pouting mode to say that these shells were not good. Upon enquiry, they had to be so-called couteauts and so Mum and Dad were engaged in finding these rare shells and my gaze was diverted from the sea towards the square metre of beach in front of my moving feet.

On a much larger scale and with much greater impact, throughout the course of history, mankind has also undergone an evolution of different "worldviews". Going from a deocentric worldview (in which man is accountable to the god(s)), to a homocentric worldview (in which God disappears from the stage and the free will of man is central). From this homocentric worldview came movements such as capitalism, communism and Nazism, which in the last century fought an important battle to prove themselves right (Second World War, Cold War).

In the 21st century, a new worldview may emerge that assumes that all living things are nothing more than biological algorithms that can be hacked, controlled and upgraded. Each of these worldviews is also linked to invented rules (in our regions, for example, this was the 10 commandments; the customer is king / the voter is always right; data are free...). Rules that have had a not insignificant impact on the social and technological innovations in a certain region/time period (the trebuchet, the steam train,... up to genetic modification and artificial intelligence as a tool for e.g. upgrading (biological) algorithms).

In the above story it is important to realise that a dominant world view that manifests itself in a certain region/time frame is the result of a series of coincidental events. Yuval Noah Harari expresses this very nicely in his book Homo Deus:

"We forget that our world was created by a series of chance events and that history is responsible not only for our technology, politics and society, but also for our thoughts, fears and dreams. The cold hand of the past rises from the graves of our ancestors, grabs us by the skin of our necks and focuses our gaze on a single future. We have felt this grip since birth, so we assume it is a natural, inescapable part of ourselves. As a result, we seldom try to shake loose to see alternative futures for us.

Studying our history is meant to loosen the grip of the past. It allows us to look left and right and see opportunities that our ancestors could not, or did not want us to, imagine. By observing the random sequence of events that brought us here, we realise how our thoughts and dreams are formed and we can suddenly start thinking and dreaming differently. The study of our history cannot tell us what to choose, but at least it gives us more options..."

This is certainly true today when we are faced with global challenges in the areas of care, access to water, etc., and it is also true today. In defining possible solutions to meet these challenges, we often start from these existing worldviews, paradigms, beliefs and attitudes. Whatever happens, we continue to push the known solutions forward and do not see the light of real transformative innovations.

If we want to change the course of a system (such as the health system, the water system, etc.), we must not only clarify the underlying beliefs/conceptions, but also dare to question them. This is an important competence within systems thinking. Moreover, we can only conclude that only this kind of 'out of the box' thinking leads to thorough innovation.

Within its operation, "system focus" is already one of the three pillars around which Vlakwa sets up initiatives. It is also promising to read in the advice of the Flemish Relance Committee that this meta-competition of systems thinking is best anchored in the final attainment levels of the various courses and that the government should evolve towards a systems thinking government. Also in the recently published advices of SERV "Advice on water scarcity and drought recommendations for smart and circular water use" and MINA "Recommendations for strategic water resource management" this is strongly emphasised. It is also the focus of the European Partnership Water Security for the Planet (Water4All) within the framework of the Horizon Europe Programme.

For me, systems thinking means that I can free myself from the invented rule "you can buy flowers in crepe paper with Couteau's scallops" and I can raise my gaze back to the wide horizon.

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