Obesity Prevention Using Systems Science in school children and adolescents (OPUSS-schools)

Boyd Swinburn
University of Auckland

In 2017, Cure Kids collaborated on a joint, contestable funding round with The National Science Challenge, A Better Start. The aim of the partnership was to fund high-quality, mission-led research focused on child and youth well-being, specifically in the areas of childhood obesity, early literacy and learning, mental health problems, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In July, 2017, ten projects were funded across the four specific areas.

What is the problem and who does it affect?

As the rates of obesity increase, so too does the complexity of the different mechanisms involved in the epidemic. Myopic solutions, that fail to recognise the dynamic interplay among various causal effects in the system, will be costly and ultimately ineffective. Well-meaning, yet poorly designed, trials will be destined to experience unintended consequences.


What does this project hope to achieve?

Prof Boyd Swinburn, from the University of Auckland, will undertake a project in four Papakura schools which will pilot test a series of systems-related approaches to addressing obesity.

System approaches acknowledge the dynamic interplay and feedback loops of various factors in a system. The approach has long been used in fields such as engineering, but its use in obesity prevention is relatively recent.

This project will focus on three specific areas in schools; (1) food and physical activity environments (2) the use of indigenous knowledge in the curriculum through the Atua Matua framework and; (3) implementation of monitoring and timely feedback to key influencers who can make a difference.

An important practice in systems models is the use Group Model Building (GMB). This involves engaging key stakeholders (principals, teachers, students etc.) in the process of creating their own system maps, which bring together various components in a system and demonstrates how they interact with each other.

The team have already identified a number of stakeholders who are key to upscaling this work if it were to prove successful. Healthy Auckland Together (HAT), for example, is a multidisciplinary team who are dedicated to improving diet and physical activity to reduce childhood obesity. HAT will be involved throughout the process, including GMB, and will enable a smoother transition of successful interventions to wider communities.