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Systems thinking: what does it mean and why is it needed?

Article explores the concept of systems thinking

It might seem late in the course to introduce the concept of systems thinking but actually, you’ve been doing it all along!

Systems thinking is not a single academic field. It comprises a diverse set of approaches from several disciplines including biology, social sciences, maths, computer science, engineering, and management science1.

In a nutshell, systems thinking is about taking a bigger-picture approach to problem solving by considering multiple perspectives and values of stakeholders, thinking about causes and consequences over larger spatial and temporal scales, and incorporating insights from considering the broader social, political, economic, environmental, legal and technological context.

Systems thinking considers multiple framings of situations and the relationships between key actors and processes in a system, often considering more complex feedback processes than normal reductionist or ‘linear’ thinking allows.

Diagram containing 4 nested rectangles. The outer one is labelled ‘environmental system’, the next one in is ‘social system’, the next one in is ‘economic and technological system’ and the one in the centre is labelled ‘policy and legal system’. Arrows representing dynamic feedbacks span all 4 rectangles. Within the central rectangle it says ‘Plurality of understandings and values from stakeholders’ and ‘Policy intervention’ and ‘other interacting policies’ have arrows pointing to a box labelled ‘multiple desired outcomes, eg. UN SDGs, 25 Year Environment Plan, Clean Growth Strategy, National Infrastructure Strategy’ which spans all 4 rectangles. Outside the rectangles are 3 boxes under a heading ‘Whole-system approaches to consider:’ The first box is titled ‘Multiple stakeholders’ with bullets under: Purposes, Values, Boundary judgements. The second box is titled ‘Multiple spatial scales’ with bullets under: local, national, international. The third box is titled ‘Multiple time scales’ with bullets under: months, years, decades, generations. Click to expand.

Key elements of a systems thinking approach (taken from Oliver, T. H. et al. 2021. Knowledge architecture for the wise governance of sustainability transitions. Environmental Science & Policy 126:152-163.)

Systems thinking approaches are particularly valuable for helping to tackle complex environmental issues2,3 because they often have relationships between cause and effect that are unpredictable. For example, the many interacting socio-ecological factors that affect agricultural land use include (but are not limited to): land tenure, food prices, patterns in farmer behaviour, new technologies (eg, renewable energy generation, precision farming, etc), climate impacts on crop yields, new government regulation and consumer demand. A systems thinking approach to understanding land use must consider every one of these factors and the relationships between them.

Some complex issues are described a ‘wicked problems’4. Examples include biodiversity loss, climate change, high obesity rates and food security. Wicked problems have characteristics in common which contribute to making them difficult to solve, such as:

  • the challenges seem intractable with root causes that are hard to identify
  • key processes and interrelationships are only partly understood and evidence is often fragmented
  • different actors have their own perspectives or interests which influence their understanding of the situation and the solutions they propose (i.e., solutions are contested)
  • coordinated action is needed across different sectors and there may be no central authority
  • those seeking to solve the problem sometimes exacerbate the issues.

These types of wicked problems particularly need systems thinking. They often require engagement with numerous stakeholders, with decision makers learning and acting as they go5. Systems thinking is not only valuable for governments, policy makers and organisations, some of the principles and methods can also help manage our own lives. In the next Step, you’ll explore some common systems thinking methods which are already helping to tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis.


  1. Systems thinking and practice for action research. Ison, R. (Ed.) SAGE Publications Ltd. 2008
  2. Governing in the Anthropocene: Contributions from Systems Thinking in Practice. Ison, R. & Shelley, M. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 33, 589-594. 2016
  3. The Role of Systems Thinking in the Practice of Implementing Sustainable Development Goals. Reynolds, M. et al. In: Handbook of Sustainability Science and Research. World Sustainability Series. Springer 2018
  4. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Rittel, H.W.J. & Webber, M.M. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169. 1973
  5. Integrating a Systems Approach into Defra, Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs. 2022
© University of Reading
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Using Systems Thinking to Tackle the Climate and Biodiversity Crisis

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