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Can a systemic approach really help us to understand and address the challenges we face globally?

Following on in our series of articles regarding the UN’s SDG’s we thought we would address the subject of systems thinking as a possible approach to understanding and addressing the challenges we are facing globally.

In a recent article by Stephanie Draper, Chief Change Officer at Forum for the Future she suggests that “There’s a missing piece in all this SDG activity, and it’s the glue that holds it all together: systems thinking. Systems thinking identifies the interactions between different parts of a system – a city, a society, a sector – and ensures they deliver more than the sum of the parts. In today’s world, we’re pretty good at setting goals and then slavishly working to achieve them. But if the SDGs are really going to shift our whole system onto a sustainable path, we need serious amounts of joined-up thinking that goes deeper to address underlying causes. Successfully delivering the SDGs requires a really strong systems approach. 

For organisations rising to the challenge, that means operating on three levels – joining up with others’ efforts to achieve individual goals; looking at the inter-relationships between all the goals; and finally delivering the goals in a way that models the characteristics we need for a sustainable society.” Read the full article

On reading David Stroh’s latest book ‘Systems thinking for Social Change’ I thought he posed an interesting perspective on this question. In the following systems map he demonstrates how he believes the 'climate change' system can be represented:

This map certainly suggests that this approach can be applied to the complexities of Climate Change, however, Andy Lane from The Open University suggests that whilst a systemic approach is powerful for some situations, it’s hopeless for others. He believes that it is now clear that climate change induced by human activity is likely to have major impacts on the planet, its physical environments, and its living organisms, including people. But all of these effects are so interdependent it is impossible to discover what the effects are likely to be by breaking the situation down.

I personally believe that Systems Thinking is a great way to understand complex issues but I also think that we need to start looking closer to home. We can try and fathom the bigger picture but as the SDG’s state we need to concentrate on what we can do individually, every day. I believe that is vital that we recognise that we are living within a living system that has become out of balance and personally start to take responsibility for our role.

You and I (and future generations!) are already paying the price for having grown up in a materially orientated society that values people in terms of their products, their achievements and their ability to consume, instead of cultivating the quality of their being. The ambition for independence and individuality has alienated us not only from our deeper being, from family and community but also nature. I believe that whilst we still consider ourselves the masters of or external to nature we will keep on down this road to ruin – our egos and arrogance leading the way.

Einstein said that “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels” and systems thinking is a good example of how we can at least understand the complexities and interrelationships, however, I would argue that we need to do less thinking and commit more action on a more personal level. Perhaps it’s time to amend the old adage to ‘Change begins at home’ and that Systems thinking is just that, thinking and whilst it aids and guides our understanding we also need to take action in the everyday.

Check out www.ecoedgame.com which aims to play a pivotal role in teaching the SDG's and helping people of all ages change their daily habits and inspire action, on an individual basis, every day.

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