Exploring systems thinking

Systems thinking is the opposite to the way we currently divide issues up into separate topics and disciplines. It is a way to remind us that everything is connected and part of something else and that decisions in one area have consequences elsewhere. This is hard for governance structures: as one former colleague thoroughly rooted in the present system ironically often stated ‘but you can’t join everything up…’ The Brundtland report called on institutions to tackle underlying causes of unsustainability rather than staying within their narrow confines and simply passing negative impacts onto others.

At its simplest, systems thinking can begin by considering how issues are linked, drawing simple diagrams with feedback loops between topics that grow every wider from the chosen starting point. They allow you to see different drivers of an issue – which may well lie outside your conventional responsibility or viewpoint.

At more complex levels, systems theories consider how systems, especially natural systems, react over time. This is not a new understanding but dates back to work undertaken in the 1930s. It is important when governing for sustainable development to reflect on complex interactive socio-ecological systems and questions of what is meant by social or ecological resilience.