Somerville NEXUS Fellowship Program first to bring formal systems thinking to the
municipal realm to complement data-based problem solving
SOMERVILLE – Does workplace safety
affect substance abuse? How does access to a means of transportation weigh upon how quickly someone becomes proficient in English? The City of Somerville doesn’t know yet—but is launching a new program to explore those possibilities and more, fundamentally changing the way the City approaches policy-making.
Somerville’s NEXUS (Network for Exploring and Understanding Systems) Policy Fellowship Program will bring six systems thinkers trained at Harvard University to Somerville, where they will work with stakeholders over the next year to holistically examine complex, seemingly intractable issues the City and residents face, beginning with English as a Second Language (ESL) programming and opioid treatment and prevention, then moving on to student achievement and housing affordability.
The program will include meetings where NEXUS fellows and staff from the City’s SomerStat and Communications Offices work directly with residents to gather information and develop system maps— visual representations of how various factors relate to each other within a larger issue. This systems-thinking approach seeks to combat the so-called law of unintended consequences and to identify and target leverage points that produce positive, catalytic change. Every three months, NEXUS fellows will report their findings, which will include policy recommendations that could capitalize on the identified leverage points.
“Like cities across Massachusetts, the nation and the globe, Somerville faces problems that are systemic. The problems we want to solve cannot be drilled down to a single cause—systemic problems require systemic solutions,” said Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone. “We have to think holistically and intuitively if we’re going to tackle these problems. It can’t only be number-tracking and data-crunching, although that’s an important and necessary part of the solution, because that can tell us something happened but not necessarily why or how. We need to complement our data-based approach with intuitive, long-term thinking.”
The Policy Fellowship initiative began with a collaboration between City staff and students in Professor Mark Esposito’s internationally acclaimed Harvard University Systems Thinking Course, used in 2013 by European Parliament President Martin Schulz as an incubator for ideas on solving the EU financial crisis. Students in the 2014 class tackled a few key systemic policy challenges in Somerville, including housing, education, social cohesion and opioid overdoses, and a report on the students’ findings will be published in early 2015. Professor Esposito along with class teaching assistants Ayesha Khalid and Miroslava Parsons will serve as special advisors to the City’s NEXUS Policy Fellowship Program, which will run as a one-year pilot.
A data-based approach to management has been used in Somerville since the founding of SomerStat during Mayor Curtatone’s first year in office in 2004. The NEXUS program’s systems framework for policy development complements the City’s data-driven approach and builds on previous systems work by the City, including the City’s national award-winning Shape Up Somerville healthy living program, its comprehensive rodent control efforts, and its first-in-the-nation Happiness Survey, which each address the whole environment that affects how people live, work and play in the community.
For more information on NEXUS, contact John Harding, NEXUS Program Director and Community Analytics Manager with SomerStat, at or 617-625-6600 ext. 2107.

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