Systems Dialogues with Eruera Tarena

This conversation is part of our Stepping into Systems series, an introduction to fundamental systems change topics and concepts. Here, Saskia Rysenbry is joined by Eruera Tarena, Executive Director at Tokona Te Raki, Māori Futures Collective in Aotearoa.

Getting started

Eruera Tarena is Executive Director at Tokona Te Raki, Māori Futures Collective in Aotearoa, an indigenous social innovation lab housed under the mana of Ngai Tahu and based in Otautahi/Christchurch.

In this beautiful conversation we talk about how the Māori worldview is shaped by interconnection and interdependency, where natural landscapes are ancestors, about the future making space in Aotearoa, and more.

Jump to the bottom of this article for a glossary of Māori concepts used in this conversation.

Saskia Rysenbry and Eruera Tarena

What is a system? What metaphors do you use to help describe systems?


Let's get started. I'd love to hear from your perspective, what is a system and what are some metaphors that you might regularly refer to in this work?


I think when we look at our traditions in terms of Māori, the paradigm of our worldview is whakapapa, or genealogy. Our culture is based around the ability to recite your lineage. So as people, we are families, we are sub-tribes or clans, but everyone can recite their lineage and knows how we interact with each other. 

When you take that whakapapa backwards further, we can trace our descent from the gods. It's not just people that have a whakapapa or genealogy. We can trace that to our natural environment, to our landscape. And even intangible things like knowledge, like thought, have a genealogy. So when I think of a system and a Māori worldview, everything's connected and that kind of mauri, that life essence, is connected as well.

So it shapes more of a systemic view of interconnection and interdependency, where what happens to a natural landscape impacts the people. It's a way of looking at the whole as opposed to looking at the parts.


I love what you said around raising your gaze. I think that's a really nice thing to think about. I had the experience of going down the Whanganui River earlier this month and just knowing that the Whanganui Māori had actually been able to create a legal personhood for the river, as their ancestor, gave me that real sense of interconnectedness and history and whakapapa. It was a very moving experience.

Could you tell me more about some of those metaphors that you referred to - the gods as the ancestors? Are there some metaphors that you refer to in the Māori worldview for systems? Is it kind of all interconnected?


We talk a lot around Ki Uta Ki Tai. My tribe, we're Ngāi Tahu, we're tangata whenua of Te Waipounamu, or 80% of the south island of New Zealand. We have this long skinny island with a big mountain range in the middle. And so we have in our psyche this idea of mountains to the sea, which for us is encapsulated by this idea of Ki Uta Ki Tai. 

Most of us live on the coast. We’d live there but, traditionally, we would move seasonally into the mountains. A lot of our art, our rock art, where we were teaching our young people or ancestors were passing on, that knowledge happened on those trails inland, when we go to find enlightenment on those journeys up to the mountains. And so we talk about that in terms of that idea moving upstream.

When you are living on the coast, you can see the visible symptoms of an issue but to understand what's really going on in that ecosystem, you need to head back up into the mountains, to the headwaters of that river and move upstream. And so I think that's a key thing for us - how do we have that concept of Ki Uta Ki Tai, that you have causes and impacts, that addressing symptoms won’t really shift what's holding a problem in place. You have to move upstream and understand that causal factor.

I always love that quote of Desmond Tutu who must have been Māori because he’s got a very Māori way of thinking - there are only so many times you can pull a people out of a river before you start to wonder who's upstream pushing them in. 

I think that encapsulates for us as Māori that you can get tricked into dealing with the consequences of decision making rather than tackling the problem at its root cause. Ki Uta Ki Tai is a real simple way of explaining it in a way that is anchored in our landscape and concepts that our people know and understand. 

We once ran a bunch of systems thinking wānanga on our marae. When you talk about complexity, systems, nodes, connectors, flows - everyone just gets angry. That's one of the challenges of systems: how do you come up with stories to communicate these ideas in ways that are not just meaningful but human.

My favourite descriptions are the ‘water of systems change’, where you have two fish talking about water, five blind men talking about an elephant and then an iceberg. If we talk to our communities about an iceberg, everyone would be like, well, we don't have icebergs, we don't have elephants, and what was with the fish?

We have to anchor those stories in our own worlds and landscapes. I think of friends who say: ‘Well, I don't really get the system stuff but I know I'm getting paid by the government to do planting along our waterways and clean up pollution, and I know I can't keep pace with the intensification of dairy farms that's happening inland.’ It's like, yeah, that systems change, that's systems thinking. Our people understand ecosystems, understand our natural environment and it's really starting to extend that knowledge into other spaces as well.


Yeah, thanks. And that kind of reminds me of a very simple approach I think I learned on the Regenesis program, which is about how to navigate complex family relationships - how we are always navigating different people's relationships with each other.


Tribes are like that. Indigenous communities are like that. They’re not like these binary approaches where the left and the right hate each other's guts, tribes are communities and they're way more complex. You're tied to each other, you are interconnected, so you may have very different views, but you have to navigate that complexity because you're still going to be related. There's only one way you leave: in a coffin. 

And so I think understanding interdependency and navigating some of the complexities and tensions that brings is really powerful because, again, you can't have a binary or an absolute view of things. While we navigate multiple perspectives, multiple agendas and priorities, we have to find some way in which we can achieve a commonality of purpose and vision. That's really hard work, but as I said, communities are working on that all the time.

What object or prop would use to help describe a system?


If I asked you to bring an object or a prop to the conversation that would help describe what a system is, what comes to mind?


I think of a spider’s web, where it's all about interconnectedness.  

I'm by no means an expert in whakapapa, but that's the way in which we can order our universe, both tangible and intangible, from people to the natural landscape. And so for me that's a good metaphor in thinking about the complexity of systems and trying to understand how when something happens in one place, the impacts of that and the consequences of that can be felt in other areas and in quite unpredictable ways. So I suppose that would probably be my main thing - trying to find ways in which you can visualise interconnectedness.


And I love the way that you were able to use something tangible like the spider web to describe whakapapa being intangible. That's beautiful.

How do you understand how systems change?


So, how do you understand how systems change?


I suppose it’s sometimes easier for me to think about this in terms of what doesn't work. 

I came to systems through programmatic work, spending 10-15 years working on different projects that were all really positive and meaningful and impactful. But as soon as you turn the tap off, everything stops. And when you really look at that, you see we're not really manifesting changing the conditions. We are helping people to survive conditions rather than changing the conditions themselves.

And I heard this phrase: a programmatic approach is about helping people overcome barriers to beat the odds, a systemic approach is about removing barriers to change the odds. And so I landed at more of a systemic and collaborative way of looking at things because I could quite evidently see that programmatic approaches, while meaningful and visible and easier to package and explain, don't really have long-term sustainable outcomes, nor can they kind of lead to outcomes at scale.

So despite the seduction of a silver bullet, the desire to have that one solution that will rule them all, in terms of that deep sustainable scalable change, that's never worked. 

And so we talk about weaving as a way of thinking about the layers of change. We talk about kawa, which is kind of your foundational principles, your mindset, your ideas, your beliefs, your values. Tikanga is the processes, the strategies, the structures, the systems within. Kawa is kind of a societal level, what's that big societal narrative? What are the institutional strategies and systems and structures? Ritenga is the human behaviours and practice and then putunga, visible outcomes you can see in the real world. We ask, what are the real world outcomes? 

And so we try to think about it like a chain where, particularly in our context when we have a history of racist ideas, racist policies and racist practices that created racial inequities, how do we work our way backwards to the source and understand that there are several threads to this: there's data, there's practice and training, there's systems and structures and flows of money, and then there's just big ideas.

When we try to understand our current state, how do we unweave everything? When we look at things like racial inequities, it's always like ‘oopsadaisies, somehow our indigenous population are at the top of every bad statistic and the bottom of every good one’. How do we unpick the cause of that? What are the ideas, policies and practices that created those outcomes? 

And again, you can have people that can have good intent, but we'll still kind of have a racist idea that Māori are inferior, Māori aren't capable of leading a solution for themselves. And so we have to understand and unweave those bad ideas, bad policies and bad practices in order for us to create new ideas, new policies, new practices, and then weave those together so that they are bound nice and tight.

I suppose if we look back at our history, when we try to tackle complexity with a blunt instrument, where we use cultural competency or we tackle it at only one layer, it doesn't work or it doesn't hold. Really we need a multi-dimensional approach to change where we see shifts in mindsets, systems, structures, practices and in many ways how data is measured, recorded and valued. And that's how we think we have the best chances of change. 

So rather than a silver bullet, change requires multiple shifts at multiple layers in order to be successful. That's a lot harder to explain, but in our view of things, that's how change can support itself to be mutually reinforcing. Rather than having one initiative on its own in this big behemoth of an institution, how do you have multiple interventions to get people participating in change, so that they can build that change into a movement within that community, organisation or sector.
We create the best chances of change with a multi-dimensional approach


You also made me think about the dominant mindset - having this very linear approach to time and very much wanting to look forward rather than going back to the origins of that weaving.

What is your definition of systems change?


Next question - do you have a definition that you use for systems change? 


I think we need to get a lot better at communicating the need for more systemic approaches in really simple ways. So yeah, we've talked about systems change, social innovation, collective impact... ideas that really come off as gobbledygook to most of our community. So we just use the term future making and Māori future making as ultimately that's what we're trying to do.

We are trying to reclaim our ability to be self-determining, to determine our own future and to choose our own path. And again, we have to acknowledge that requires systemic shifts and transformational shifts. 

One of the challenges we have is with the idea of innovation. Sometimes people associate innovation with new technology: the iPhone, Uber. We say if we want to make our own future, it requires innovation and, in particular, transformational innovation. We don't want to recreate or add to what already exists or recreate a new western solution for broken western systems that don't work for our communities. We need to have a transformational approach, which is around achieving an alternative future state to what we have experienced to date.

That's where we see that the fusion of complexity, systems thinking innovation and our own cultural worldviews is where we can achieve the best chances at creating our own future. And so as I said, we largely try to talk with that as future making. We have lots of youth that we employ and we train in these types of techniques and they refer to themselves as future makers. I think that makes a lot more sense, even though it can sound a bit airy-fairy, it makes a hell of a lot more sense than "systemic change" or "social entrepreneur", "intrapreneurial innovator" in a lot of our communities. So trying to keep it simple.


That, and that reminds me of what I saw on your website - Te Korekoreka being a way to reconnect and reclaim the future making mindset of our ancestors. 

What are your lineages into systemic practice?

So we've talked a little bit about lineages into this practice. What are your lineages in systems change? What are the divergent and different histories of systemic practice?


How did I get into this stuff? Probably through organisational design, co-design, Stanford dSchool and I somehow bumped into things like collective impact, systems practice, social labs. 

We actually did a map of this once - how we got into this via different frameworks - it started getting a little bit too much for my brain to compute! We sort of said, well, geez, how about we just scrap this and think about our own approach. And then we mapped our own lineage. 

When we think about examples of systems change, I think of the treaty settlement. For every dollar of land we lost, we got less than one cent back. It wasn’t insignificant, we got $170 million. That settlement was transformational and it affected more than just systems change.

It totally changed the way our society viewed us as a collective. It changed from no one having a concept of a tribe as a political entity or an organisational entity. They were just those sort of brown people you ignored in that community, you marginalised. 

It shifted from them becoming a corporate identity, which has all sorts of complications in our communities, but it created a centralised political voice that could take people to court, that could build a collective economic base. And so when you look at those things, we have elders that really changed the fortunes and destiny of our people. 

That was never viewed through the lens of systems change. That was just them settling our land claim, re-establishing our face in the landscape. And so I think really, again, coming back to that, the further back we look, the more examples we can see of those game-changers, those ancestors, great grandparents that really changed the destiny of our people.

How do we reclaim that type of leadership and spread it? How do we grow that times a thousand? Because it's that when we look at these big global challenges that both our tribe and our nation and our planet are facing, we need people that are wired to tackle complexity and to tackle these big grand challenges that are becoming more and more interconnected. And at the pace of that change is exponential as well. 

I always say to our young people: problem solving is a growth industry and if there's one thing we know is that we are going to need our youth to be really good at collaborative problem solving, to be able to make sense of complexity and to identify the changes that are going to make the biggest difference.


I love that. Yeah, problem solving is a growth industry is a really good way of putting it.

What are your best examples of systemic transformation?

We talked a little bit about them. What are the best examples or stories you have of systemic transformation?


We've tried to map some of them - like our tribal land claim, which was a major systemic shift. Sometimes we have quite interesting ones like corporal punishment. Our teachers used to hit children, the thought of teachers being able to strap and discipline children today is just abhorrent, but it was just a societal norm. There was a prime minister who said, yeah, we're not doing that anymore. 

We've tried to understand when you get those shifts that kind of seem quite subtle, what is the whakapapa, the genealogy, how did that come about? Because it looked like it was just one person - that prime minister - who created an edict and now suddenly everything has shifted. It’s the same with wearing seat belts, we've tried to look at examples of that and understand, and in those cases where it looks really simple when you look at the detail of it, there's a whole bunch of things going on - the mechanics of policy, laws, funding, organisational shifts, social norms.

How are you seeking transformation?


And how are you seeking transformation or creating transformation?


I'd say half of our work is focused around equity for Māori. And the way I think about that is that it’s about removing barriers and, where possible, boosting protective factors. So that's our external focus at a societal level - trying to identify those big changes that will make the biggest difference. 

The other half of our work is tribal stuff, and that's really probably my passion, though I’m passionate about both. That's really about that future making space. How do we build a clear, coherent, shared vision of the future and the capabilities within our own communities to make that happen? The two are different but they go hand in hand. And as I say, one is more around equity, which is really important for a just society. 

We have to acknowledge that as an indigenous community we don't just want to be the same as everyone else, but middle class. Yes, we need to alleviate poverty and social harms. But we also want to chart our own destiny, and that could be quite a different alternative future to what we see today. We would call that rangatiratanga, self-determining space. 

And I think again, the mindsets and tools you need to affect systemic change at a societal level to alleviate harms and amplify good are the same mindsets and tools you need to design indigenous solutions that work for us to advance our own aspirations and our own way, by our own people.


How do frameworks come into this? Is this something that you teach through the Te Korekoreka framework? This is collective and social transformation, but are there frameworks that you use as well?


Yeah, we have a beautiful elder Sir Tipene O'Regan and he always said that our tribe was good at radical adaptation so that when we adopt something, it's not to assimilate ourselves, it's to become more us. So we don't have a problem with drawing upon global knowledge. And people often get annoyed at me because I spam everyone with, oh, read this, read that, here's a new framework. 

I think we did kind of get to a framework overload. So we said I think we need to come at this from our own angle. Yes, it's about drawing upon the knowledge of the world, but then internalising that and then coming up with our own cultural ways of innovation, of systems change, and sharing that back as our gift.

But yeah, the practical reality of change is hard. If you look at a lot of our political leadership, it's trying to recreate the 1950s or recreate the world as it was because they're scared of the future. Our approach was that we need to grow a generation of future makers and that they're going to need to be equipped with strategies, tools, and processes to pull that stuff off. We can't be too rigid with them, they will evolve. 

And we've always been clear with our rangatahi, our youth, that go, well, you'll rip everything we give you apart at some point. And it's totally cool that every generation defines success on its own terms and we need to build that intergenerational legacy where we can understand each other and can work together.

A lot of that systems thinking it sits in an academic space. How do you connect that think tank with a do tank? How do you apply this stuff in the real world? And so our idea was to run an apprenticeship in changing the world. That means there's a bit of theory and then a bit of doing.

We've found that some people are more doers, some are more thinkers, but the reality is that your understandings and practice are enhanced by both. It's not till you apply change that you really figure out whether you were right, and understand what's really going on for the humans involved in those communities and ecosystems.

So yeah, frameworks, we teach frameworks, we use frameworks, but in many ways they’re just props to help humans on their learning journey and to guide our young people through an apprenticeship in change, and leading change.


It reminds me of that saying, all frameworks are wrong but some are more useful than the others. And I love what you say around knowing when to stay with the knowledge of where you are and knowing where to seek it from other places. 


We kind of found that most frameworks were really useful at a point in time, but it was kind of like someone comes up with their framework and tries to use it as a proof point to solve everything. And so as you said, we were sort of framework agnostic, we were quite happy with stealing and borrowing whenever we needed it. 

But what we found was that we needed an arc, a way of working through different phases over a longer period of time. And so that's the stuff we tried to figure out, a meta process to guide us through the different phases of change. 

Innovation always sounds sexy. We've found it to be quite scary. You're sort of in the dark, you got to be comfortable with that ambiguity. And I think some of that broader process and arc of where we are going, what's coming up next gives people just enough structure to have confidence that we're going to be okay, we're going to get there, we kind of know what we are doing. And so just to trust that process, to trust the kawa.

We can't be too rigid with frameworks: things are evolving all the time

How is your practice systemic?


My last question seems really obvious, but I'm going to ask it anyway. You're working on systemic transformation. How is your practice itself systemic?


It's kind of like Neo in the Matrix, when he gets the red pill or the blue pill. Once you start to use systems thinking, you can't go back. You're constantly looking at that kind of layering. You're constantly trying to understand, well, what's the root cause of this? What are the mindsets, the structures, the practices, the outcomes? What are the factors that are holding a problem in place, and what are the conditions I would need to create in order to loosen all of that stuff up to free things up for change to occur? 

An interesting part of our mahi is that when you confuse innovation with invention, you just end up adding more things on top of what people are already doing.

So I suppose one of the big shifts for me, and one of the things I always look out for, is how do we navigate loss and how do we identify, well, what are the things we need to let go of? In order for new to emerge, some things need to die.

n Maoridom, we have concepts like kia tukunga kua mai, that we release something for it to be laid to rest, to replenish. There are just ways in our language and in our culture, which acknowledge and let go of things with respect. I think that's one of the big challenges - how do we let old ways that aren't working for us die off, so that we can free ourselves or to embrace new ways of thinking and doing? 

When you look at the example of global political leadership at the moment, people are trying to take us back to this romanticised view of the past rather than actually letting go of the past and being able to embrace a new future.

When I think how my practice is systemic, well with everything I look at, I start by orientating towards the past to understand the lineage of the problem we're trying to address, and then use that to orientate towards alternative futures, futures we wouldn't have imagined possible before. And so I think that's just something that's built into my DNA now that, as I said, like the Matrix, I don't think I could go back to a simplistic, narrow, linear control, and programmatic approach because I just know that shit doesn't work.


That reminds me of how natural ecosystems let things die for other things to live. That’s how everything has come about. And that's the end, Eru. Thanks so much for being a part of this conversation - it was so rich.

Glossary of Māori concepts

Kawa - foundational principles, mindset, ideas, beliefs, values

Ki Uta Ki Tai - from the mountains to the sea

Mahi - work

Maoridom - the world or sphere (of Māori people)

Marae - a meeting ground that belongs to a particular iwi (tribe), hapu (sub-tribe) or whanau (family)

Mauri - life essence, life principle

Ngāi Tahu - the Māori iwi of Te Waipounamu (South Island) 

Putunga - visible outcomes you can see in the real world

Rangatahi - youth 

Rangatiratanga - self-determination

Ritenga - human behaviours

Tangata whenua - people of the land (referring to Māori of the land Aotearoa)

Te Waipounamu - Māori name for the South Island

Tikanga - processes, strategies, structures, the systems within

Wānanga - discussion/seminar/talk from the perspective of Mātauranga

Whakapapa - genealogy, the core of traditional mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge)

Enjoyed this Systems Dialogue? Meet the rest of our contributors or dig deeper with our Stepping into Systems film series.

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