• Home
  • Business
  • Systems Thinking is Critical in Developing Solutions to Sustainability Challenges

Systems Thinking is Critical in Developing Solutions to Sustainability Challenges Essay Example

  • Category:
  • Document type:
    Research Paper
  • Level:
  • Page:
  • Words:


Systems Thinking is Critical in Developing Solutions to Sustainability Challenges

Systems Thinking is Critical in Developing Solutions to Sustainability Challenges

It is not a surprise that sustainability revolves around the interrelationship between the economy, society as well as the environment (Allison and Hobbs, 2006). Sustainability is a very important component of development. System thinking can be described as a framework of viewing an element in terms of other elements or issues to which it interacts. Since every societal element contribute to the social system, for one to learn about an element, it is very essential to observe how such element responds when put together with other elements (Bosch et al., 2013). There are two factors that determine the growth and sustainability of a business: consumption and available resources. In order for a business to have the capacity to cater for its customers, its human and natural resources should be optimum (Doppelt, 2012). Furthermore, for a business to make a profit, its consumption level should not decline. Nevertheless, this cyclical interconnectedness between businesses and customers exists within a complex social system where more variables like social issues, government regulations and changing customer needs should be considered (Bosch et al., 2013). For instance, social issues like poor infrastructure and education etc. are potential constraints to business success.

Strict environmental regulations can potentially reduce an organisation’s access to raw materials. From this illustration, the degree of complex interactions between different variables of business activity becomes clearer (Jackson, 2003). It is seen that a business exist within a vigorous social system and thus it is highly susceptible to any changes that may involve any element that make up the social system. Overall, business cannot stay independent to susceptibility in economic, social as well as environmental factors (Jackson, 2003). Therefore, it is important to design the most effective and efficient strategies that enable businesses stay ahead of looming situations. This paper will assess the viability of the statement: Systems thinking is critical in developing solutions to sustainability challenges.

System thinking is termed as the art and science concept of making consistent inferences about behaviour by means of developing a deep understanding of fundamental structure (Maani and. Cavana, 2007). This leads to the use of proper mental models that view the globe as a complex system with behaviour controlled by its structure. Although system thinking is a “traditional” concept, it is today considered as “a new way of thinking” in understanding and managing complex issues at local and global level. In order to steer through corporate sustainability challenges, businesses must by-pass the traditional way of analysing business sustainability challenges that highly concentrates on solving the obvious features without looking beneath the surface (Mingers, 2006). For instance, ocean contamination has been a sustainability challenge in many regions. Oceans are polluted by a number of contaminants such as pesticides, heavy metals and spills from industrial production (Sharma, 2005). When considering contaminants from a systems viewpoint, the collective influence is not the contaminated water alone but the contamination and distruction of an interdependent social-ecological structure. Pollution degrades the aquatic life and only most tolerant species survive.

In addition, contaminated fish are harvested and eaten and these pollutants tend to travel from ecological structure all way through to the social system. This has been termed as a wicked problem with no evident explanation since the convolution of the social system hardens the establishment in advance if a particular answer will enhance sustainability or will worsen things (Sharma, 2005). In terms of ocean pollution, system thinking will assist in understanding the ways policymakers can assess and evaluate the costs, benefits as well as the short-term and long-term impacts of the intervention for reducing ocean pollution. Rebuilding, Designing and planning ways of solving ocean pollution remain a challenge (Cheung, et al. (2009). Solving this wicked problem means rebuilding the most affected regions to be resilient to pollution. System thinking is far from being an altanative to major problems. It is a technique used to identify areas that need intervention owing to prospective solutions to improving sustainability. Whether its understanding how pollution of oceans can be reduced or how to minimize consumption of polluted fish, system thinking is an important concept in establishing environmental problems (Nguyen and Bosch, 2012). Until people understand the world they live in is a highly connected socio-ecological system, they will endevour to employ creativity and innovation in enhancing elements instead of structures of the system itself.

Also, business issues have become more complex as a result of globalisation. Therefore, businesses cannot still use the solutions that worked in the past to solve these issues (Nguyen and Bosch, 2012). With challenges now becoming more complex, the approach of solving these challenges must also be dynamic enough to utilize multiple approaches. In addition, the influence of several elements on business issues makes it hard to adapt a soloist problem—solving initiative. It is very fundamental to involve different parties in the problem-solving process since a problem shared is solved easily and effectively. It is difficult for one organisation to address business changes successfully (Nguyen and Bosch, 2012). New relationships with government, local community and other business organisations must be established in order to offer a more stout proficiency pool of resources. For instance, in order to solve pollution of oceans, social change is required. It may be difficult for it to be achieved since our behaviours and those of the community are tied to the behaviour of the country system. Thinking in systems give people a chance to recognize the significance of a social system thus changing physical infrastructure only will not create system-wide resilience (Sterman, 2000).

It is important to evolve from solving vulnerability challenges to advocating for societal transformation which attempts to collectively develop a long lasting solution to business challenges that promote sustainable growth (Nguyen and Bosch, 2012). Evidently, whether in manufacturing, power sectors or financial sector, system thinking represent an evolves and effective tool for addressing the complex nature of sustainability challenges that have the potential to affect business’s product and service delivery attempts (USAID, 2014). Even more important is its capacity to assist organisations to project potential challenges and develop a range of solutions that solve them. This can be due to the fact that system thinking is a framework for seeing interconnectedness rather than things or static snapshots (Nguyen and Bosch, 2012). Thus, system thinking is able to framework an issue in relation to pattern of behaviour over a long period of time beyond the details to the relationship framework in which they are embedded, instead of focussing too much on a particular events.

System thinking tool has the ability to challenge the inherent process of solution searching. Instead of just reacting to challenges and issues that are outside our realm of our thinking and actions, system thinking teaches people how to adapt to the endogenous worldview whereby people think of how their own actions contributes to the very challenges facing us today (Sterman, 2000). Therefore, partnering between different shareholders in an organisation that challenge each other can lead the way to transformative agenda of sustainability. From consumer-facing brand revolution to valuation metrics, business organisations are developing and implementing different effective and innovative tools in order to tackle sustainability challenges. Nevertheless, no matter how these strategic tools are, business organisations are faced with the imprudent limitations of what they perceive to be the best initiative in identifying challenges, implementing solutions and evaluating success (Sterman, 2000).

Just like our human intelligence depends on the people around us, different players in business have different needs. Aside from the benefits that come with the involvement of more minds, partnership and the involvement of more parties in problem solving allows for the shift in conversation and higher degree of accountability (Sterman, 2000). Partnership arises from the need for common goal and is of course effective in implementing solutions. For the first time in a while we have the most influential, intelligent and very effective individuals from business organisations, the government and civil society all assembled in one place (Sterman, 2000). This creates an excellent opportunity to develop new partnerships in solving sustainability challenges. Decision-makers and policy makers require a better tool that can assist them comprehend the global changes that occur at increasing speed (Sterman, 2000). These tools will assist them in developing informed policies that will deal with emerging uncertainties. We can no longer plan to achieve sustainable growth and development without considering issues concerning energy policies and environmental regulations. Therefore, integrated system approach support a dynamic understanding of development process. It therefore enhances the ability of policy makers to develop and evaluate sustainable and better policies (Sterman, 2000).

Inherent complexity nature of development process limits the ability to observe and interpret and thus limit the ability of policy makers to develop and implement effective strategies and policies. This can potentially lead to development failure. Well-intentioned policies that addressed the symptoms of a challenge lead to short-term benefits that can be overwhelmed by the long-term reaction of the system. It is therefore right to conclude that system thinking is an essential tool required by the decision-makers. The tool give space for the discovery of the root causes of sustainability issues denotes them in a visually instinctive manner, and look for possible leverage ideas for policy implementation. System thinking enables a multi-stakeholder initiative approach and the integration of knowledge that supports broadly shared decisions (Sterman, 2000). Through this tool, initiatives and better policies can potentially be developed, evaluated and implemented and assessed over time.

However, just like any other problem-solving approaches, system thinking has a number of criticisms. Critics argue that system thinking is fundamentalist and exemplifying a technocratic framework of business challenges (Cabrera, Colosi and Lobdell, 2008). This assumption argues that system thinking dependency on concepts and the lack of actual solution for problems threatens its legitimacy. However, in an attempt to approach a challenge, one is expected diagnose a problem so as to figure out the ways of solving it and implement a solution for the problem (Cabrera, Colosi and Lobdell, 2008). Therefore, system thinking is important in solving sustainability challenges since it advocates for diagnosis and implementation of a solution. Most sustainability decisions are taking place through quick fixes as it appears as the easier way out. However, they do not offer sustainable solution. System thinking embraces some level of thinking by shifting decision-makers from deeper level of thinking and offering a model to deal with complex challenges.

So can systems thinking really solve sustainability challenges? My answer is yes but the journey to going about it is not straightforward. In order to solve the complex challenges presented today, system thinking should be used (Bosch, Nguyen, et al., 2013). To increase the operational leverage on sustainability approaches, we need to take system thinking seriously. System thinking has grown out of the aspiration to understanding dynamic processes and is suited to assist in navigating the vagaries of dynamic development (Bosch, Nguyen, et al., 2013). System thinking is effective in supporting the development of sustainability. As seen earlier, society-environment is very complex. When challenges in the system are identifies, they deserve a serious thinking in order for their solutions to be developed.

In conclusion, sustainability changes have been the subject of many organisations for many years now. Sustainability revolves around the interconnection of economy, society we well as environment. This means that for any element to survive, it must work in parallel with the others. System thinking is a problem solving tool that views an element in terms of other elements. Consumption and resources are two major factors that are responsible for organisational growth. In order to be able to solve sustainability challenges, we must evade the traditional means of evaluating and analysing sustainability challenges that entirely focus on addressing obvious traits without focussing beneath the surface. In addition, globalization has led to more complex business challenges that cannot be solved by tools used in the past. Solving this require a dynamic approach employing multiple approaches. Sustainability challenges cannot be successfully solved by one organisation. Partnership should be developed to spearhead societal transformation. Whether is in manufacturing, financial or extractive sectors, system thinking is a more revolving tool for quantifying the complexity of sustainability issues that have the potential to affect organisations. In addition, system thinking has the ability to assist organisations project potential issues and design solutions towards solving sustainability issues. We can conclude that system thinking actually solve sustainability issues.


Allison, H. E. and R. J. Hobbs 2006, Science and policy in natural resource management: Understanding system complexity, UK, Cambridge University Press.

Bosch, O. J. H., N. C. Nguyen, T. Maeno and T. Yasui 2013, «Managing Complex Issues through Evolutionary Learning Laboratories.» Systems Research and Behavioral Science, vol.30, no. 2, p. 116-135.

Cabrera, D., L. Colosi and C. Lobdell (2008). «Systems thinking.» Evaluation and Program Planning, vol. 31, no. 3, p. 299-310.

Cheung, W., et al. 2009, «,Redistribution of Fish Catch by Climate Change. A Summary of a New Scientific Analysis» Pew Ocean Science Series. Retrieved from http://www.seaaroundus.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Pew-OSS-Final-climate-change-and-fisheries.pdf

Doppelt, B 2012, Business leaders need systemic thinking for sustainability, The Guardian, retrieved from, http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/business-leaders-systems-thinking-sustainability

Jackson, M 2003, Systems thinking: creative holism for managers, Chichester, UK, John Wiley & Sons.

Maani, K. E. and R. Y. Cavana 2007, Systems thinking, system dynamics: Managing change and complexity, Auckland, NZ, Prentice Hall.

Mingers, J 2006, Realising Systems Thinking: Knowledge and Action in Management Science, New York, USA, Springer.

Nguyen, N. C. and O. J. H. Bosch 2012, «A Systems Thinking Approach to identify Leverage Points for Sustainability: A Case Study in the Cat Ba Biosphere Reserve, Vietnam,» Systems Research and Behavioral Science, Vol. 2, no. 2, p. 104-115.

Sharma, R 2005, «Deep-Sea Impact Experiments and their Future Requirements», Marine Georesources & Geotechnology, vol. 23, no. 4, p. 331–338.

Sterman, J 2000, Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World, Boston, USA, Irwin McGraw-Hill.

USAID 2014, Local Systems: A Framework for Supporting Sustained Development, Retrieved from https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1870/LocalSystemsFramework.pdf