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Centre for Building Sustainable Value · Abby Litchfield, Lexi Wright

Relational Systems Thinking: Innovation Lab Explores Accessing Knowledge from the Land

Jun 2, 2021

Employee Sustainability Activist Alliance

When has the land been your greatest teacher? Session seven of Ivey’s Innovation Learning Lab began with this question. Participants recalled camping memories and the joys of being outdoors, while others identified with the sheer power of nature and its capacity to make us feel humbled and vulnerable by its force. The session was led by Melanie Goodchild, moose clan, and member of Biigtigong Nishnaabeg First Nation in Northern Ontario. She is the founder of the Turtle Island Institute, an Indigenous social innovation think & do tank (a teaching lodge) and currently completing her Ph.D. in Social & Ecological Sustainability in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo. 

Melanie explored Relational Systems Thinking and an Indigenous approach to knowledge creation and sharing. In this brief four-minute clip, she reinforces the importance of language in how it shapes our relationship with each other and the land, with an introduction by Dr. Tima Bansal. For a different perspective on the session, read the blog post from a recent graduate, Abby Litchfield, and undergrad student Lexi Wright. 

Abby Litchfield is a recent graduate from the Ivey HBA program with a Certificate in Sustainability. Lexi Wright is an undergraduate student studying Global Development and Environmental Studies. Abby and Lexi work within the Network for Business Sustainability to support its mission to bridge research and practice and make business more sustainable.  

How can businesses incorporate Indigenous knowledge into their practice?  

While, as students, we often discuss questions like this with our peers and classmates, it was exciting to engage with the perspectives of today's business leaders on this topic at the 7th Ivey Innovation Lab.  

Melanie Goodchild from the Turtle Island Institute led the community in a workshop and introduced us to Relational Systems Thinking. To us, Relational Systems Thinking is a framework that encourages strong relationships with each other and the land – an idea grounded in Indigenous knowledge.  

Understanding the complex interconnections in our world is more important than ever, which demonstrates we can only succeed against global challenges by working together after the year we've had.   

Some eye-opening topics that resonated with us include:  

AbbyMaintain a North Star and Sit in Paradox  

Melanie shared a story about developing the logo for the Turtle Island Institute. Naturally, the designer used a turtle. The initial concepts didn't include a tail on the logo to keep its design simple and symmetrical. When Melanie shared the logo with community elders, they pointed out that the turtle's tail is essential: it's the rudder that helps the turtle move in the right direction. Similarly, the Lab's new name, Innovation North, refers to maintaining focus on our internal compass, or north star. After a year spent behind screens, it can be easy to feel disconnected from meaning, but refocusing helps find hope and excitement for what's to come.   

Navigating different knowledge systems requires "two-eyed seeing". Melanie referenced this concept, saying it is not a matter of prioritizing Western knowledge or Indigenous knowledge but "sitting in paradox" with both. The idea of paradox was initially surprising because it contrasts the ideas presented in the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which describes how traditional Indigenous wisdom and (Western) botany can intersect and intertwine. However, upon further contemplation, this contradiction is a clear example of when we can use two-eyed seeing: we don't need to either weave together different knowledge systems or sit in the paradox between them. There is a time and a place for both approaches.  

 LexiQuestion Assumptions and Consider History  

Through a case study, members of the Lab reflected on how business interacts with Indigenous communities. We considered the impacts of deploying Internet infrastructure in a community and the unintended consequences that can arise. Potential repercussions include effects on familial connection or disruption of the land, which must accompany a perceived solution.   

Though we touched on some critical aspects of Indigenous culture and values, I believe something left out of the conversation is historical context. For me, participating in the KAIROS Blanket Exercise in school helped illustrate the shared history between Indigenous peoples and settlers like myself. This interactive experience used visuals to symbolize the shrinking of both Indigenous land and populations. It continues to impact the way I approach Indigenous issues and reminds me to consider complex histories. Business often focuses on looking ahead and taking steps forward, but reflecting on the past and looking back through experiences like the Blanket Exercise and Melanie's talk is essential to co-create plans and mitigate unintended consequences adequately.  

Optimism for Future Decision Makers  

We are grateful to start our careers with Relational Systems Thinking in mind and the knowledge that leaders at today's influential companies – which we may well work for one day – have been open to these discussions.