System thinking for sustainability from a business perspective

by Nov 8, 2021Sustainability0 comments

System thinking is a powerful tool that can help businesses better navigate the complexity of sustainability issues and the related changes they will have to go through in order to adapt to the challenges posed by climate change. If businesses want to become resilient and to be able to withstand the shocks and stresses in their value chain they must apply a systemic perspective.

System thinking

Most of us probably know by now that, if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change and natural resources depletion, we need to rethink and deeply transform our political and socio-economic systems, our businesses and our individual behavior. 

This set of processes and pathways to achieve a more sustainable world is referred to as sustainable development. It is generally defined as “the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Brutland Commission)

Transitioning to sustainable ways of living and doing business requires addressing extremely complex problems and tapping into very delicate equilibria, which calls for a new way of thinking about these challenges.

To create products and services that do good for people, the planet and businesses, we need a shift of mindset. More specifically we need to start thinking about sustainability issues through the lenses of system thinking. System thinking is a powerful tool that can help us untangle the complexity of our world and navigate the intricate interactions between our socio-political and natural systems.

But before we start diving deeper into what system thinking is and how this framework could help us deal with sustainability challenges, let’s take a step back and try to define what we mean when we talk about systems.

How can we define a system?

A system can be defined as a set of things interacting in a way that produces something greater than the sum of its parts. All systems have a function or purpose that is brought about by the very nature of how the system is built.  

When we talk about systems, we need to keep in mind that they aren’t objective things. They are rather subjective ways of thinking that humans have come up with to make sense of the complexities of our world.

Systems and their composite entities can be ecological, social, financial, and more. But not all systems are the same and their degree of complexity can vary greatly. Let’s make some concrete examples, so we can better understand this concept and the different degrees of complexity that the systems can have.

Examples of systems

An airplane, with its thousands of parts that fit together and the interaction between all these components, is a perfect example of a system.

Our economic system is also a system. An economy is the set of rules, behaviors, and institutions that govern how people within society exchange goods and services.

Now, try to think about building an airplane. It might seem like an extremely complex challenge. It surely is, but over time we gained sufficient practice and technical knowledge that we are able to build airplanes fairly easily. Moreover, we learned to predict with a very high degree of certainty what will happen when you press a button on the control panel.

The same does not hold true for every system though.  Our world – for example – is an extraordinarily complex system, formed by an interaction of other complex systems (our economy, political system, religion, natural environment) that interact with each other forming intricate patterns. The vast amount of detail and an enormous lack of predictability make our world an extremely complex entity, where cause-effects relations are very difficult to predict.

For example, a drop in the water supply would probably reduce food security and increase carbon emissions, but this, in turn, might reduce population growth in the long run, taking pressure off water resources.

Example of the cause-effects relations

These are the kind of intricacies and interconnections we have to deal with when it comes to sustainable development. Why is it so important to understand this complexity? Well, the realization of this complexity is necessary if we want to manage these processes in the best way possible and create a stable and sustainable society.

What is system thinking?

“System thinking means thinking about how everything fits together, and the implications this brings to shaping the future.”

Tim Tompson, 2019

Now that we know what a system is, we can finally get into the concept of system thinking. This idea has been around for centuries as it is an innate way of relating to the world around us. It was already present in ancient India and among Greek philosophers, but the concept of system thinking as we know it today was first articulated by the American electronics engineer Jay Wright Forrester in the 1950s. Since then, it has increased in sophistication and has been applied across a variety of sectors, from economic, environmental healthcare to military applications. System thinking means thinking about how everything fits together, and the implications this brings to shaping the future.

System thinking implies thinking in terms of relationships between parts of a system and wholes rather than looking at isolated parts. Fundamental characteristics of this approach are:

  • Looking at the big picture
  • Taking a wider perspective
  • Considering multiple perspectives
  • Peeling back the layers of the onion
  • Examining how things relate
  • Looking for root causes and improvements
  • Challenging and changing our paradigms

To sum up, system thinking is a way of breaking down barriers, seeing the bigger picture, exploring possibilities, and relearning much of what we’ve already known.

What is system thinking?

System thinking and sustainability

“A mature understanding of sustainability management requires studies to adopt a multidisciplinary systemic lens capable of appreciating the interconnectivity of economic, political, social and ecological issues across temporal and spatial dimensions.”

Journal of Cleaner Production

Overpopulation, resource scarcities, degraded ecosystem functioning from pollution and biodiversity loss and anthropogenic climate change are very complex problems that require new ways of thinking about how to address them. System thinking could be an ideal problem-solving framework for such challenges and face the tradeoffs that dealing with such issues entails.  Tackling these problems requires looking into the far future, looking beyond ourselves and understanding how our world and the systems that compose it function. And system thinking is the perfect framework for this.

Why should businesses implement system thinking for sustainability?

As system thinking is an extremely useful framework to deal with environmental issues, businesses that are striving to become more sustainable should consider implementing system thinking both in their value chain and in their day-to-day operations. Climate change will inevitably impact businesses and their operations. Thus businesses who continue to focus on making profits in a business-as-usual way will find themselves unprepared for an immediate and real threat to their value chain. In order for any business to withstand the shocks and stresses in their value chain coming from external forces, such as climate change, they should apply a systemic perspective to understand the delicate balance of natural ecosystems and sociopolitical systems within which they operate. A business’ operations have impacts on a broad and extremely complex system, composed by the industry they operate within, their employees, the customers, the socio-political climate, the economic system and the natural ecosystem.  

Adopting system thinking could mean a number of benefits and competitive advantages for businesses, like:

  • Better understand the business’ impacts on the planet and people without compromising profit
  • Avoid unintended consequences related to their activities and take responsibility for the way they operate, produce, and create
  • Explore new opportunities for innovation

How can your business apply system thinking for sustainability?

Now, the question might arise spontaneously: what do businesses require to implement a systemic approach to sustainability? This question does now have a univocal answer as there are a number of ways to implement system thinking depending on the characteristics of a specific business, the circumstances in which it operates and the end goals it’s trying to reach through the implementation of this framework.

  • Create strong partnerships and collaborations
  • Continuous sharing of knowledge
  • Make system thinking an integral part of the company’s sustainability and engagement plan
  • Engage employees (at all levels), for example through 2030 Builder’s practise sessions, which allow employees to exercise system thinking

Give your employees a unique opportunity for a system-thinking practice in a safe set-up. In 2030 builders we provide space for them to experience sessions, where sustainability decision-making and understanding the connections between sustainability concepts comes from playing with fun exercises. They will understand the trade-offs and dilemmas behind sustainability decisions and will be able to frame the impact of their actions. If this all caught your interest, feel free to book a demo with us.

Written by Silvia Candotti


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