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NEXUS: Somerville’s Network for Exploring & Understanding Systems

Nothing happens in a vacuum.  We never act purely on our own.  We’re constantly interacting with the individuals, businesses, institutions, and physical environment around us.  These unending interactions are what make our community complex.  This complexity is an asset—it makes our community vibrant, dynamic, and unique, a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.  But complexity also makes our community difficult to understand and change.  As a result, we too often see well-intentioned policies fail or generate unintended consequences.  Whether it’s obesity, a flu epidemic, or riots, community connectivity means that all sorts of things are complexly interrelated, and therefore seemingly unpredictable.

With NEXUS, we want to work together to understand Somerville’s complexity and develop policies that enhance its strengths and remedy any weaknesses.

What is NEXUS?  NEXUS is a policy approach rooted in systems thinking, a tool for tackling complexity. Systems thinking is both a world view and a process.  It’s the view that a system can only be understood when viewed as a whole, and not merely a sum of its parts.  It is also the view that unexpected behaviors and unintended consequences result from the many interactions between the parts of a system.  Systems thinking is also a methodical process for understanding problems and identifying solutions.[1]  With NEXUS, our goal is to use this process and perspective to craft better public policy that will enhance our community.

How will NEXUS work?  What will we produce?  We will pilot our systems-thinking approach by examining the family development system, drawing on the vision of making Somerville a great place to live, work, play, and raise a family.

Step 1:  We’ll gather data so we can understand what the family development system currently looks like.  We’ll do this by engaging residents, service providers, businesses, and city employees to tell us how they view the system.

Step 2:  We’ll synthesize this data into a map of the family development system, which will show its key elements and how they interact to affect family development in Somerville.  We’ll get some help from experts who specialize in systems thinking during this step.

Step 3:  We’ll use this map to identify leverage areas in the system—those places “where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.”[2]  Our hope is that the systems map will reveal new and exciting ways to spur positive change in Somerville.

Step 4:  We’ll design policies to influence these leverage areas.

Step 5:  We’ll evaluate the NEXUS approach and the policies we produced through it, asking questions like: What worked well?  What didn’t work?  What adjustments should be made?

Interested in learning more?  Contact the NEXUS team:

Meghann Ackerman

John Harding

Emily Monea



[1] Edson (2008)

[2] Meadows (1999)

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