News from the front desk, Issue 466: Collective eyerolls are the order of the day in recent weeks, as we watch governments claiming emissions targets will be met while also approving expansion of emissions-producing industries. It’s like the various moving parts of policy and research just don’t connect even when they are in the same departmental body.

If this summer has made anything clear it is that siloed thinking and siloed responses are not capable of addressing the massive challenge of the climate emergency.

Leading sustainability advocates and practitioners have been saying for a long time now we need systems thinking, we need holistic approaches and we need joined-up analysis and application

It’s a bit like applying permaculture principles to the big challenges of water, energy, transport, settlement and food production.

In permaculture one of the fundamental tenets is everything should serve more than one purpose.  The same principle underlies the work of many talented design and engineering practitioners – anything in a building must deliver multiple functions or benefits.

Stairways don’t just connect parts of a campus-style floorplate, they also encourage collaboration, and they stimulate workers to move around which helps their health and productivity.

In the best urban planning, joined-up thinking, systems thinking, is already becoming normal. We also see it at play in new toolkits, such as the Australian Urban Observatory platform launched this week by RMIT.

The Healthy Liveable Cities Liveability Index assesses cities and urban settlements across a wide range of interconnected variables including health, social infrastructure, transport, food, education, employment, open space, walkability and housing and maps them.

The various factors are also aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, also an exemplar of joined-up thinking.

The early work around our cities led by the Major Cities Unit under the Rudd and Gillard governments set the trajectory – but while successive governments have now and then made the right noises, the follow-through has been erratic and lacklustre.

It’s back to “build this big road here” and “approve this mine for its 80 jobs there” type approaches. It’s also a rapid-fire rollout of badly-conceived social policy, such as the Indue card.

The card quarantines 80 per cent of a social security payment on a card which can only be used for a narrowly defined range of purchases such as rent, energy bills and food from participating retailers.

It is slated for rollout to all social security recipients under the age of 65, including disability pensioners, students and sole parents.

While the language of ensuring people are responsible with their money might sound good, it will effectively lock a large percentage of the population out of the growing sustainable consumerism market. Indue can’t pay for an Uber. Indue can’t be used at a farmer’s market, or an op-shop, or for paying the local bicycle mechanic.

During the bushfire emergency, some already on Indue cards found it also couldn’t be used to pay for emergency accommodation, fuel or food from many outlets. And if the NBN acts up – as it is prone to do – Indue cards won’t work at all.

The other issue with the cards is they are provided by a private company that is paid a large fee per card recipient each year.

If we took a joined-up thinking approach, a more logical solution might be to increase social security payments by the amount of that fee, making it easier for recipients to afford housing and energy bills.

We could even go one step further and recognise the spending power of those people, and look at how it can be encouraged to support sustainable products and services.

Perhaps the public dollars used to turn Indue into a tidy little earner for the private company operating the cards could instead be allocated to environmental job creation by paying welfare recipients to do the thousands of tasks that need doing as part of repairing and sustaining our planet.

There’s no shortage of options that also teach employable skills such as citizen science surveys, Landcare, open space enhancement, boosting circular economy, increasing the capacity of the repair sector, and so on.

Another example: this week saw Indigenous fire management front and centre on QandA when Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen said it was time to let Indigenous people be in the driver’s seat for a change. See our story on Steffensen here.

If we apply joined-up thinking to this idea, it’s possible to see there could be benefits for landscape management, benefits in terms of meaningful recognition of Indigenous Australians and their 65,000 plus years of ecological knowledge and custodianship, and benefits for job creation and connection to country that address issues around closing the gap on Indigenous health, education and employment.

That’s a whole bunch of separate areas of research, advocacy and public finances can be linked together to deliver a beneficial outcome for everyone – a synergistic approach, rather than a series of separate and less effective individual interventions.

We are limited only by our imagination – or lack thereof.

We need to apply the same approach being applied to our cities across all sectors – water resources, energy, transport, regional economic development and food production.

It’s not airy-fairy mumbo-jumbo to say all things are connected – it’s just good science. And there has never been a more critical time to have good science and systems thinking informing holistic and forward-looking policy making.