Systems thinking and sustainability: A logical connection

By Carlo Cuijpers
Located in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Sustainability/corporate social responsibility consultant at KPMG

European Master in System Dynamics, Class 2012-2014
Interests: systems and sustainability thinking, modelling sustainability issues

The average person has most likely never heard of ‘’Limits to Growth’’(Meadows, Meadows, Randers, & Behrens III, 1972), or the Club of Rome. Nevertheless, every systems thinker is familiar with the book and the story behind it – from reading it, watching the film (Last Call, 2012) or from their studies. It is possibly the systems thinking study which has received the most attention. As a consequence, the study caused a spike in interest in the field. Ever since there has been a strong link between systems and sustainability thinking. I would like to argue why this is a logical connection.

Sustainability thinking can be defined as: thinking of how to design or organize the world in order to create a situation of welfare which can last indefinitely. This definition covers an enormously wide collection of issues, and creates a vast field combining environmental, social, and economic sciences. Because the field focuses on large and challenging issues such as climate change, resource scarcity and overpopulation. It crosses and combines different scientific fields in order to gain a full understanding.

This is where systems thinking steps in. Systems thinking, as the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole, provides inspiration and solutions to combine knowledge and insights from different fields in order to gain such a full understanding.

System dynamics in particular provides solutions which can help sustainability thinkers to gain valuable insights on the issues they study. Sustainability issues generally cross traditional scientific fields and often cross timescales and spatial scales.

An example would be climate change: (1) the causes are both technological and economic, and humanity currently implements technological, economic, and social solutions; (2) while the causes date back over a century, the consequences only have started to reveal itself recently and are expected to develop more strongly in decades to come; (3) causes and consequences are not only located in different regions but the consequences also differ per location.

The solutions that system dynamics offers for gaining an understanding of such issues are that it:

  • Allows to create models which act as a map or boundary object to combine knowledge from different disciplines in the same language.
  • Allows to develop quantitative models which can be simulated at different selected units of time, possibly creating different insights on the short- and long term.
  • And allows to develop models which can be segmented into- and cross spatial scales.

Because of these solutions it is logical that sustainability thinkers seek systems thinkers to support them with their thinking. The other way around systems thinkers look to sustainability thinkers as people with whom they share lines of thinking. In addition they look at sustainability issues as cases which fit their methods perfectly and on which they can build a profile as scientists, consultants, or analysts just as the field itself did.


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One comment on “Systems thinking and sustainability: A logical connection
  1. Reblogged this on dynamic applications. and commented:
    excellent description.


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