What is Systemsthinking for Sustainability?

System-thinking for Sustainable Development

One of the greatest challenges of sustainable development are the various interpretations of the term and hence, versatile problems and solutions perceived and suggested by a mix of individuals, groups, entities and even regions. A question asked frequently is “how can I become more sustainable, if I don’t actually know what it is?”. This uncertainty and the need to act, often results in us finding and developing quick solutions, without being fully aware whether these solutions can be adopted and how efficient they are in the short and even long-term. We may also believe that our solution is most suitable for various sustainability problems, but it could fail as we are unaware about its acceptance and adaptation by a wider business and customer circle, regions and even family and friends.  

Hence, what could help us to find answers to those bizarre sustainability problems and how do we know whether those solutions could be a success in the future? What are we forgetting when thinking about sustainable solutions? In many cases, that is the systems-perspective.

A system

Just as with sustainability, there are various interpretations of a system. It is defined as “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole; a group of body organs that together perform one or more vital functions; a group of devices or artificial objects or an organization forming a network especially for distributing something or serving a common purpose”.[1]

Based on these definitions, we could say that it is something that is close to us, like our home or business environment, and something that is based on different interactions that are in our control, time and space bound. That also means that we are unable to control what we are not directly engaged with – outside our system – such as us being unable to change the climate as an individual right now. But we can contribute to the latter such as by biking to work and not taking the car or washing our clothes at 30 degrees instead of 40 degrees – simply expressed.

A lacking systems-perspective   

Now imagine you are the owner of a company, which you would like to become more sustainable. For you that implies to decrease your carbon footprint (environmental sustainability) from employee commute and to support your employee’s mental health (social sustainability) by promoting physical activity. You are generous and provide each employee with a voucher of 50 Euros to buy a bicycle instead of using their car to drive to work. Quickly you realize that everyone still drives their car. You lost money and your carbon footprint remains the same.

We need to define the system before developing solutions

When we look at innovations or ideas for sustainability, it is difficult to look for a quick fix, hereby to mitigate a company’s climate footprint and increasing the physical activity of its employees by cycling to work. Asking employees, why they would not want to bike to work, although you generously provided a voucher, you may hear different answers like “The road to work is hilly and exhausting, but for 50 Euros, I cannot buy an E-bike, which I definitely need because I never exercise”, or “in summer its too hot and we don’t even have a shower at work”, “it takes me far too long because I live in the country side” and “did you know that the roads in the country side are terrible and I’d likely be covered in dirt if it rains and I arrive at work?“ oops.. many and more aspects we forgot.

Thinking in multi-level perspective

So how can we make ourselves more aware about ideas and their success for sustainable development? One way is to think in multi-level perspective – a unique way to understand systems.

It helps to understand how an idea or innovation can contribute to a transition of a system to a more sustainable state through the interaction of specific processes in three different levels: the micro-level: niches, meso-level: regimes and macro-level: landscapes. The micro level consists of multiple innovations or new processes or ideas which are protected from the regime in niches. The regime consists of the configuration of actors, institutions, infrastructures and practices that maintain and stabilize the current system. Unlike niches, regimes are rather constant and do not change radically but incrementally, like most people use the car to go to work and not a bicycle, although the car itself might develop. The landscape-level includes long-term developments like demographics, politics or the climate and the existing infrastructure, and other aspects that are difficult to influence (Geels, 2005).

Merging multi-level perspective with system thinking

The multi-level perspective can help to understand and analyze the system in which our innovation, solution or idea can develop and turn into a success. Looking at our company as a system which we want to become more sustainable, we could try to find out what infrastructure is there to support my employees to bike to work (macro-level); how do the roads look like, are they paved and flat and if not, how likely is it that our employees will go to work? Will there be bicycle roads in the future?

Another question that could be asked is how the “regime looks like” (meso-level)? What practices do my employees follow and why do they use the car or public transportation? And then I can ask myself what support they would need to use the bicycle: Would they use an e-bike more often? What do they need for that e-bike? Could they charge it at the office? And, if all of those factors come into play, how could the “bicycle” (micro-level) replace the “established” driving by car to work behavior?

Broad scope of sustainable development and system thinking

By identifying the system that we can have an influence on, we are able to develop and up-scale ideas efficiently. There are of course always landscape developments, that may change certain aspects like Covid-19 encouraged digital communications and remote work. Thereby promoting a huge decrease in emissions related to work travels, but these remain difficult to predict. However, we can be aware of such trends and what people and the economy need and hence, develop an idea most suitable to the development.

And you?

How about you? Have you made experiences with system-thinking or can you think of a system that you would like to share with us? I would be happy to hear from you.


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