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Systems Thinking Is Critical In Developing Solutions to Sustainability Challenges Essay Example

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Systems thinking approach is extremely valuable when handling sustainability problems since it looks at things macroscopically instead of looking at a shorter picture. These days, systems thinking is utilised by different practitioners and academicians. As it will be evidenced in this essay, systems thinking concentrates on how one component of the system interrelates with other components. More importantly, the nature of system thinking enables it problem that the society is facing. For instance, systems thinking can be used to solve problems associated with the interrelationship between various actors with the objective of solving the complex problems. Systems thinking can also be utilised to solve recurring problems that are yet to be solved by the formulated policies. The essay will focus on homelessness, which is a wicked problem that has existed in Australia for many years and is an ever-growing and a dynamic problem. Even though homelessness exists worldwide, its comparison to the living standards of many people in Australia has made it socially ostracising for the affected persons. Basically, the homeless people have a low life expectancy and quality of life as compared to the rest of the population. Homelessness is normally triggered by domestic violence, child abuse, frequent relocations, mental illness as well as substance abuse. Drawing on homelessness in Australia, this essay seeks to justify that systems thinking is critical in developing solutions to sustainability challenges.


Globalisation has led to numerous complexities; therefore, systems thinking may be utilised to manage the complex problems. According to Pandey and Kumar (2015, p.81), the most important application of systems thinking is the system test, which has three crucial parts: functions, to solve complex elements and purpose. Technology and computers have offered computational solutions to some of the world’s most complex problems. However, Pandey and Kumar (2015, p.81) believe that sustainability challenges must be solved differently. Therefore, a system approach is useful for examining the interrelationship between environmental impacts, human behaviour and technology. The contemporary society has opted for system thinking rather than computational thinking. System thinking places much emphasis on how the system’s constituents interact with one another while computational thinking focuses on utilising algorithms and programming so as to find a solution for all the complex problems. System thinking can be used to solve the homelessness menace in Australia since evidence-based approaches have been incompatible with the nature of the problem. Despite its limitations, the government is still promoting the evidence-based policy; therefore, the government as suggested by Canty-Waldron (2014, p.62) should espouse new approaches that provide a high-level of direction and comfort while trying to solve the uncertainty brought about by the wicked problem. Given that the evidence-based policy has proved not to be a talisman, a system thinking approach could adequately be systematic and rigorous to bring change.

Without a doubt, homelessness is a major issue in Australia considering that as of 2011, the country had over 105 000 homeless people (Wood et al., 2014, p.9). Approximately 20% of them were staying in shelters (homeless supported accommodation) while 17% were hosted temporarily by other households (such as family and friends), and an additional 17% were staying in the boarding houses (Wood et al., 2014, p.9). Furthermore, almost 40% were staying in houses that were severely overcrowded while 6% were sleeping rough or in makeshift dwellings. The 2011 Census as cited by Wood et al. (2014, p.10) established that the majority of homeless Australians were young, and almost half of them were aged below 25 years. For this reason, Mission Australia decided to launch an Action Plan that could help reduce homelessness in Australia. The action plan intends to eliminate homelessness completely by 2025 (Butler, 2016). Moreover, Mission Australia intends top reduce the number of low-income Australians facing rental stress by 50 per cent. They plan to achieve this by constructing over 200,000 new social homes, increasing rental help to families that are struggling and so forth (Butler, 2016). In their Calhoun County, Michigan, Stroh and Zurcher (2012, p.32) posit that a system thinking-based approach was used with the objective of ending homelessness, and the system managed to overcome the drawbacks that faced the other initiatives. This was achieved through a proactive effort of community development that involved leaders from different sectors together with individuals affected by homelessness, in addition to a systems diagnosis that allowed every stakeholder to settle on a collective representation that explains the persistence of homelessness and where to find the leverage that could end it. The approach integrated processes that were more conventional with the objective of facilitating systematic acting with tools that enable stakeholders to rise above their self-interests by also thinking in a systematic way. According to Stroh and Zurcher (2012, p.32),
successfully solving the homelessness problem in Calhoun County, Michigan exemplifies how using systems thinking may facilitate foundations to make sound decisions regarding how to utilise their limited resources for high-sustainable impact.

As mentioned by Stroh (2009, p.121), good intentions cannot sufficiently generate positive outcomes because non-obvious system dynamics normally entice people do what is convenient but eventually ineffectual. Therefore, systems thinking facilitate the tracing of a problem from its manifestation as a disturbing trend or specific event to finding and solving its main root causes. The analytic reinforcing tools together with the balancing feedback and the persisting system archetypes offer facilitators for comprehending the frequently non-obvious interdependencies, which shapes the performance of the system in due course. Systems thinking have numerous complementary approaches, which includes the dynamic feedback, general systems theory, as well as complex adaptive systems. The dynamic feedback is the most utilised approach, and has a number of tools, like the iceberg, which is utilised to differentiate the symptoms of the problem from the root causes. Other tools for dynamic feedback include archetypes, reinforcing and balancing feedback, and mental models, as well as system goals and purpose. Complex systems thinking according to Zellner and Campbell (2015, p.465) is more expansive as well as ambitious, and it aspires to solve the individual cognition and knowledge limitations by collaboratively exploring the collective learning, group knowledge, and adaptation. Importantly, complex systems tools may be utilised by individuals to trace the implication of their decisions and allows them to know whether the planning strategies should be modified and if the preferred direction must be improved or removed completely.

The Calhoun County case study provided by Stroh and Goodman (2007, p.39) clearly shows how Australian national and state governments can utilise system thinking to solve the homelessness problem completely. In the Calhoun County, theMichigan Coalition against Homelessness (MCAH) together with other local organisations had been meeting for some years with the objective of ending homelessness. However, their objective of serving the homeless was constantly challenged by differences concerning the suitable alternative solutions, lack of understanding regarding best practices and unending competition for limited funds. Even though the majority comprehended the significance of a collective effort in offering the homeless people housing, critical services, as well as jobs, they failed to create a collective capacity and will to put the approach into practice. However, after Michigan state government promised funding if only they come up with a 10-year plan for ending homelessness, the use of systems thinking enabled them to burst through the years of unfulfilled efforts. The Coalition successfully created a set of task forces and committees in addition to a detailed and clear planning process. In order to articulate a shared vision of bringing homelessness to an end, they had to gain knowledge about the system dynamics perpetuating the wicked problem. For this reason, consultants were hired to help the group apply systems thinking with the objective of understanding the local homelessness dynamics, finding out why the homelessness problem persisted in spite of efforts by different groups to solve it, as well as identifying high-leverage interventions which may shift the dynamics and act as the heart of the 10-year action plan. After collecting insights that undermined the collective ability of the community to espouse sustainable solution, the county with the help of the consulting team was able to formulate goals, which created the basis for the 10-year action plan. The formulated goals included ending the funding for temporary shelters, coming up with a community vision where every resident has supportive housing that is affordable, safe, and permanent. Other goals included aligning the resources and strategies of ever stakeholder and redesigning provisional support and shelter programs. Thanks to the systems thinking approach, people are currently living in their homes longer and homelessness has been reduced significantly
(Stroh & Goodman, 2007, p.39).

The systems thinking offered the Calhoun County tools and frameworks for achieving long-lasting systems change results. According to Lönngren and Svanström (2015, p.4), systems thinking does not replace certain solutions meant to reduce homelessness, instead, it complements these solutions as well as other efforts. Systems thinking approach can enable Australian governments and other partners to collectively examine the homelessness problem across different domains and scales, thereby identifying the feedback loops, inertia, and cascading effects associated with the sustainability challenge. Drawing on literature from organisation theory, operations research, as well as systems theory,
Porter and Córdoba (2009, p.328)created a framework to systems thinking that involved: complex adaptive systems, interpretive and functionalist approaches. According to Porter and Córdoba (2009, p.328), thesystems thinking’ functionalist approaches apply a systematic, systems analytic perspective, which hypothesises that systems could be grouped into single constituents that may independently be analysed as well as optimised from the other systems. The functionalist approaches; the objective is calculating the most effective and efficient solution for a wicked problem. On the other hand, the interpretive approaches apply a perspective that is more holistic, which in complex situations acknowledges that the whole is better as compared to the sum of its parts. In this perspective, systems are considered to be the observers’ mental construct. The perspective assumes that conflict amongst the stakeholders may eventually be managed and addressed using the rational dialogue. Therefore, this approach does not refute the proposition that systematic and rational insight and inquiry could ultimately result in a workable understanding of all the situations (Porter & Córdoba, 2009, p.334). Lastly, the complex adaptive systems acknowledge natural systems as both adaptive and complex, and these systems are exemplified by numerous characteristics such as emergence, self-organization, as well as bottom-up change. Such characteristics as opined by Porter and Córdoba (2009, p.328), makes them uncontrollable and unpredictable.


In conclusion, this essay has focused on homelessness in Australia with the objective of justifying that system thinking is critical in developing solutions to sustainability challenges. As mentioned in the essay, systems thinking enable problem solvers to expand their time horizons by approaching engaging various stakeholders such as partners in unbroken learning process. As evidenced in the provided case study, when system thinking is integrated with a resilient community organising approach, which promotes collaboration amongst stakeholders, may enable stakeholders to move from having knowledge about best practices into a collective commitment to put these practices into action. System thinking allows for the creation of a shared picture of what is taking place, why it is happening, and develops a collective commitment to a potential solution. Clearly, homelessness in Australia is an exceptionally complex problem that has been characterised by predominantly problematical value conflicts. In this essay, it has been demonstrated that systems thinking are a valuable tool that facilitates a completely integrative approach to the problem of homelessness. Evidently, system thinking is important for solving wicked problems, but it depends on the type of approach to system thinking that is applied(interpretive, functionalist, or complex adaptive systems) considering that the impact of approaches while addressing the wicked problems are not the same. More importantly, the nature of system thinking makes it suitable to solve complex problems such as homelessness, which is currently a major problem in Australia. Australia can utilise systems thinking to identify high-leverage interventions which may shift the homelessness dynamics in Australia and act as the basis of Mission Australia action plan.


Butler, J., 2016. Australian Homelessness Problem Far Bigger Than Expected. [Online] Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2015/10/01/australian-homelessness-problem-far-bigger-than-expected/ [Accessed 24 August 2016].

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Zellner, M. & Campbell, S.D., 2015. Planning for deep-rooted problems: What can we learn from aligning complex systems and wicked problems? Planning Theory & Practice, vol. 16, no. 4, pp.457-78.