Skip to main content

Want to Change the World? Learn to Think in Systems

Want to Change the World? Learn to Think in Systems



The latest IPCC Report came out last month and, once again, the message is clear: Things are worse than previously thought, the communities least responsible for climate change will be the most impacted, and our window of opportunity to correct course is rapidly closing. While leading climate scientists are sounding the code-red alarm, humanity, or at least those who have the privilege to pay attention, is desperately seeking ways that can help us collectively address this gargantuan crisis. Avoiding the worst impacts of climate change requires a complete transformation of the way the world currently works, and we need to transform it swiftly, with equity and justice at its core. The question is, how do we even begin to address this issue? 

Over the last 6 years of working on corporate social responsibility programs that aim to shift public perception, drive technological innovation or generate disruptive business models, there’s one approach-concept-tool (it would be called any of these things) that I continue to see as applicable no matter the project: Meet systems thinking - a discipline that aims to understand problems with a holistic approach, with special attention to the interdependent relationships and sub-components within that problem and beyond it, be it a social issue or a human body. A simple analogy goes as follows: systems thinking aims to study not only the tree, but the forest, as well as the mycelium that isn’t visible but connects the trees to its roots and the roots of other trees. Another metaphor to understanding systems thinking is visualizing a spider web. Pull a single strand in the web, and it will affect the rest of the delicately intertwined and interdependent structure. Again and again, I see the most impactful sustainability practitioners and organizations as experts at systems thinking, and in this era of a global polycrisis, it’s a tool more crucial than ever. 

Renowned systems scientist and lecturer at MIT, Peter Senge, says “Vision without systems thinking, ends up painting lovely pictures of the future with no deep understanding of the forces that must be mastered to move from here to there.” It’s an approach that can be used in various settings - from organizational management to engineering to the human body - and is a particularly helpful framework for anywhere where there is a high degree of uncertainty or complexity, hence its relevance to the “real world,” where both are abundant.

Systems thinking calls us to go beyond the face value, to look past the greenwashed label. (Yes, that little recycling sign on most of your products does not mean it’s getting recycled, or even recyclable.) Here are some specific examples that demonstrate the revolutionary benefits of systems thinking.

First, let me preface this by saying that my love for systems thinking should not be confused as a perpetuation of the false dichotomy of individual versus systemic action. Both are needed and they reinforce each other as an inseparable feedback loop. Any notion that one is better or more effective than the other is falling into the trap of misunderstanding the “forces that must be mastered to move things from here to there” as Peter Senge states. 

Back to the examples. Example 1: Doughnut Economics. Kate Raworth, Co-founder of Doughnut Economics Action Lab and professor at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute, reframes how our society can meet its basic needs while remaining within Earth’s planetary boundaries and it is a beautiful example of systems thinking. Her framework combines the fundamental social needs for humans with the Earth’s ecological limits, forcing us to think about both simultaneously, and the interconnectedness of it all. In April 2020, Raworth was invited by the city of Amsterdam to help plan the city’s post-pandemic recovery. 

Speaking of Oxford University, this brings us to Example 2: Map the System, a global social entrepreneurship competition put on by the University of Oxford’s Saïd School of Business and the Skoll Center of Social Entrepreneurship. What makes the program unique is that it calls out a trend that is often seen happening in the social impact education space, which is the overemphasis on “heropreneurs.” This particular brand of entrepreneurship centers on someone whose focus and sole end-goal is becoming a social entrepreneur, rather than placing their efforts or emphasis on impactful, system-changing solutions. The program teaches systems thinking as the framework for participants to delve into social or environmental problems, and encourages participants to “take the time to explore, probe and research all its connecting elements and factors — later sharing their findings in a way that people can meaningfully understand, share, and learn from.” In short, the program is described as, “not a pitch competition, but a discovery process.” Imagine the potential of a world where we give our youth the time, space and resources to deeply understand the world’s problems, and then have them think about solutions. This is Map the System.  

If you’re still not convinced how powerful systems thinking can be, consider what’s happening in the plastics industry with Example 3: Design to Recycle initiatives. Forty years after the recycling symbol was first introduced, the recycling rate in the U.S. still has not exceeded 30%. Realizing that the tide is turning from the overemphasis on individual consumer’s recycling efforts, the industry’s focus is moving upstream. For too long the narrative has been that we need to get consumers to recycle, but a systems approach recognizes that one recycling centers' capabilities drastically varies from the next, so what is recyclable in one city might not be recyclable in another. With the momentum created by the UN's Plastics Treaty and others, industry members are responding in earnest, developing containers that are designed to be recycled, regardless of where it ends up. This is the type of innovation we need. 

As with any tool in our sustainability toolbox, systems thinking isn’t a silver bullet to the challenges we confront today. But learning how to think in systems, manage the unknown, understand the relationships between the parts rather than focusing on singular outcomes or siloes are approaches we can employ to succeed in an increasingly complex and uncertain world. If we are going to transform our linear, extractive economy into one that is circular and regenerative, we must start thinking in life cycles, embrace complexity, and leverage the wisdom of thinking in systems to guide our actions.