Systems Thinking: Shifting parts changes the whole


Angela Leong’s suggestion for Macau to become an eco-tourism destination (The Times June 13) has power to create a vibrant and liveable city. It is not sufficient to promote Macau as an eco-tourism destination based upon stand-alone places, tours or exhibiting natural species from the commons. It will require an integration of systems across the GBA to nurture a Macau that truly lives up to that moniker.

Eco-tourism is environment-friendly tourism, but in this case, the term environment is broader than commonly understood. Engagement in economic, ecological and socio-cultural activities by visitors gives a fuller understanding of its scope, otherwise known as Community Conscious Travel.  This form of tourism provides protection of the balance between resident quality of life, traveller experience, and the environment within which tourist activity occurs.

The conundrum is how to maintain the local economic ecology without destroying the unique nature of Macau’s socio-cultural, SME-facing economic and ecological experience. 

An unfortunate current biproduct of growing integration in the GBA exists partly due to the considerable ease of access across borders for the general populations of Hong Kong and Macau. It is exemplified in the closures of many local small businesses around the Red Market and northern neighbourhood areas of Macau. These businesses are the lifeblood of the interactions that make Macau such a special destination. Visitors do not wish to experience a city that lacks genuine local experiences. They want to encounter local residents interacting with each other and visitors alike within the broad range of environments and ecologies that constitute the real Macau. Should residents routinely seek better deals at Gongbei markets, Sam’s Club and Costco, stopping for a weekend RMB42 hot-pot on the way and then relying on Taobao for most everything else, our streets will become devoid of community life – a huge loss to the socio-cultural integrity of Macau’s eco-system. This risks streets becoming a theme park of almond biscuit makers, Portuguese tart sellers, pork-jerky shops, pork-bun and curried fish-ball stalls, while little authentic local trade occurs. This might prove entertaining and provide visitors with requisite souvenirs, but it will not deliver the deep socio-cultural elements of eco-tourism.

Sustainable economic development in Macau will require a process of transition as GBA integration progresses. To do so requires a comprehensive vision of what is achievable, and an in-depth understanding based upon robust research as to what will excite our target markets. And then, to act decisively, consistently and holistically in a staged process over time.

Should the vision be one based upon eco-tourism, then we have a viable pathway to link all elements that create a hearty Macau story. Firstly, however, the measurement of success of communities tends to lopsidedly focus on measures of the market economy, as is seen in government policy announcements. We tend to discount the critical role of the household and the commons which are embedded into society. In turn, society is embedded into place: those built and natural environments that support the economy and society. Each element supports and is supported by other elements that constitute a sustainable “Embedded Economy”. This is the broader ecosystem that may showcase the whole of Macau as an eco-tourism destination, should Macau choose that pathway.

Let us take the role of the household as part of this Embedded Economy ecosystem, as defined under an eco-tourism destination model. What is it about Macau families, their behaviours, histories and the values held by them that may spark interest and determine what we are happy to share with our visitors? Not just in museums, but how Macau people interact with and value the streets, marketplaces, trails, our natural and man-made environments. For example, there is a little-known wisdom preserved by elders of our community of the seasonal comings and goings of natural medicines, herbal teas and food found among vegetation on our hills. Or, family recipes created for specific species of fish preferred in our markets. The protection and promotion of local ways are assets that build community and prosperity – we can showcase to the world these Local Futures.

The state can also drive vibrant interaction between community and visitor engagement. The reserve of government-safeguarded land in Macau is an example of a potential eco-tourism asset which may promise to deliver all three economic, ecological and socio-cultural activities. While these plots sit idle waiting for more permanent allocation of use (The Times June 14), they could be temporarily converted into urban farming centres, even for just one growing season: They would be places for people to gather, learn, upskill, educate others, produce fresh food preferred by local residents and provide further community and visitor amenity whilst encouraging a renewed appreciation for what sustains life and how waste is used in a circular economy. These sorts of locally grown productive joint community and state initiatives have proven successful across the world, providing a multitude of wellbeing benefits to local residents. They also nudge a population to value the circular nature of life-giving human and economic activity, and to demand environmentally protective decisions from all players in the economy. Such an embedded economy is truly conducive to being an eco-tourist hub with larger aspirations than simply exhibiting local wetlands.

An Embedded Economy model is a useful way to grasp the concept that when any one element in the model or system is changed, it shifts the whole. Should there be an articulated and clear vision as to what the whole looks like – a clear and crisp story – then when each element is changed, removed or added, it can be assessed against how it will contribute to a realisation of the whole, whether that be eco-tourism or another story. Should integration into the GBA shift the vibrancy of our SME retail trade or other elements in Macau, a vision for an alternative story – another integrated and whole system – may guide what is to be done with our built, communal, human and natural assets. By Leanda Lee, MDT

Categories GBA Views