Agenda 2030 involves 17 SDGs, each pointing at a global wicked problem. How can we possibly address even one of these challenges? Systems thinking is a way of seeing – creating simulacra of real world complex systems and the problems within them. The tried and tested strategy for effectively leveraging substantial systemic change is intervention.

6 min read | Last updated 4 June 2021

Wicked Problems

Extreme poverty, the core concern of the sustainable development agenda, is a wicked problem. Wicked problems are big, complex and hard to frame. They involve many stakeholders with different perspectives and occur within systems that are under severe, constantly changing constraints.

Super-wicked problems have the added complexities of time running out, no central authority and those seeking to solve the problem are also the ones causing it. Climate change and biodiversity loss are super-wicked problems.

The UN 2030 Agenda comprises 17 SDGs that point at global wicked and super-wicked problems. These sustainable development issues cannot be resolved by 2030, but each SDG has several targets – 169 overall – to be met. The question is, how?

Problem Solving

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development assumes that all sectors – government, civil society and business – will work on all goals, so that all the targets are being worked on simultaneously.

Businesses and civil society organisations (CSOs) approach the SDGs from entirely different perspectives. They see the world differently; not only through their missions and values, which affect which issues they choose to tackle, but also through their approaches to problem solving. Businesses deconstruct problems methodically, breaking down major challenges into a programme of finite, achievable projects with definite targets and clear boundaries. Civil society organisations are also programme focused, but must accept less control and more ambiguity in the projects and campaigns they work on.

Approaches to Problem Solving

BusinessCivil Society
The problem can be defined and a solution designedProblems are hard to define and can’t be solved, only impacted
Seek system inefficiencies to make gainsSeek system weaknesses to gain leverage
Projects finishStrategies evolve
Success = bottom line + outcomesSuccess = impact
Outputs (actions, products and services) are a deliverableOutputs are steps toward creating impact
Social and environmental outcomes occur in the near term and are clearly attributable to business actionsSocial and environmental impacts may be time-distant and difficult to attribute to CSO actions
Focus on factsFocus on connections between facts
Linear: cause and effectLoop: cause, effect, cause
Models are assumed to be truths, to be validated with dataModels are hypotheses, to be discarded as knowledge grows

CSOs have been making inroads into global wicked issues for decades, often with very few resources, and sometimes battling and winning against well-resourced businesses. To make an impact on sustainable development and participate successfully in cross-sector partnerships, could businesses learn something from the civil society approach?

The keys to the CSO approach are systems thinking and intervention. They examine the systems in which problems are occurring and attempt to identify system weak points where they can intervene using the least resources to gain the greatest leverage toward durable, scalable change.

Here, below, is a very brief overview of intervention strategy and systems thinking.

Intervention Strategy

Faced with a major problem and not enough clout, time or money to control and fix it, what strategy works? All systems are vulnerable to small nudges that have the potential to bloom into larger change. Systemic intervention is a key strategy for leveraging large scale change using few resources.

Intervention is employed throughout civil society, from street demonstrations to social media campaigns and political lobbying.

Tactics include:

  • protesting to halt environmentally and socially harmful projects
  • health and education programmes to bolster those provided by governments
  • advocacy
  • health research, eg cancer studies
  • helping communities build infrastructure to meet their basic needs
  • lobbying for policy change
  • bringing lawsuits against those who have caused societal and environmental harms

The diagram below depicts how interventions targeted deeper into the belief structures of a system (further to the right) have the potential to lever greater systemic change.

Points of systemic intervention to achieve leverage (Donella Meadows)

The WWF noticed the heavy governmental data burden involved in meeting the goals of overlapping multilateral agreements (ie the SDGs, biodiversity targets and climate goals), so it proposed ways in which policy synergies (an intervention to information flow structures) could make the most of scarce resources, promote efficiencies and increase information sharing, thereby improving outcomes for those agreements (WWF, 2017).

Youth activist Luisa Neubauer campaigned to influence German company Siemens to reconsider providing rail signalling technology to the Adani Carmichael coalmine project in Australia (Recharge News, 2020). The coalmine is projected to have a 60-year life, with immense carbon emissions ramifications. Siemens’ group revenue in 2019 exceeded €86.8 billion, so its €18 million contract with the coalmine project was financially immaterial and not on the CEO’s radar. Neubauer saw this as a weak point in the implementation of the coalmine’s infrastructure and tried to pressure Siemens to pull out in order to hobble the project (an intervention to system structure). Siemens, in the end, chose not to withdraw from the contract, citing legal obligations, but Luisa succeeded in drawing the Siemens CEO into the uncomfortable position of having to explain the company’s involvement in the coalmine project vis-à-vis its stated position on climate change. As a result, the company has established a sustainability committee (Siemens, 2020). Meanwhile, similar campaigns have prompted more than 70 other companies (insurers, finance providers, constructors and coal haulage companies) to rule out involvement with the Adani Carmichael project (Market Forces, 2020).

Greenpeace has been getting in the way of whaling and many other ‘problems’ (interventions to stocks and flow structures) since 1971.

Systems Thinking

To figure out where, when and how to intervene to leverage change to overcome a problem, it is necessary to understand relevant elements of the system or subsystem in which the problem is occurring, whether it is policymaking, coal mining infrastructure or whaling. Everything is part of a system. Democracy and central heating are systems. Society is a system comprising a multitude of interconnected cultural, social and economic subsystems. The Earth System is an amalgamation of many interdependent subsystems – geological changes, biogeochemical flows, ecosystems, farms, human waste flows and plastic pollution.

Systems thinking is an approach to exploring the connections between subsystems and the boundaries of whole systems.

‘Systems thinking is a context for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things; for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots.’

(Peter Senge, systems scientist, MIT Sloan School of Management)

A system is a collection of parts that interact with each other to function as a whole. The defining features of a system (think of a person riding a bicycle, for instance) are that it has a purpose, all its parts are present, the organisation of the parts is important and the system attempts to remain stable through responding to feedback.

System elements include:

Inputsresources used
Outputswhat is produced
Processhow inputs are transformed to outputs
Controlthe measurement of inputs and outputs
Feedbackoutput characteristics are measured against standards, then inputs are adjusted to ensure outputs achieve standards
Boundarydefined system limits
Environmentthings outside the boundary that can affect the system
Interfacesconnection points between any of the above

The six fundamentals of systems thinking are:

  1. Interconnectedness
    All parts in a system are linked to all other parts, and all systems are subsystems of larger systems. In nature’s circular cycles, ‘ends’ are linked to ‘beginnings’, so system stocks (of inputs and outputs) are continually flowing and there is no waste. In business, growth is desirable, but from a systems perspective, growth without circularity leads to an overstock in outputs (eg landfill, ocean plastic, atmospheric carbon), resulting eventually in instability and chaos.
  2. Synthesis
    Synthesis is seeing the parts, their interconnections and the big picture, all at once. This can look messy at first because systems are complex. Synthesis brings minds together to develop shared understandings of the system. Analysis is the opposite of synthesis. It decomposes the whole into simpler segments. Analysis can lead to task division and silo thinking.
  3. Emergence
    Outputs (eg heat) emerge from systems (eg central heating). Outputs lead to outcomes (eg comfort, health) that are not simply a sum of the inputs (fuel, water, boiler, pipes and radiators). The difference between outputs and outcomes represents added / lost value.
  4. Feedback Loops
    Messages from later stages in the system’s processes are sent back to earlier stages in a feedback loop. Balancing feedback reduces or increases inputs to keep outputs within a set range. This maintains stability. For instance, a thermostat signals a heater to switch on and off to keep a room at a set temperature. In contrast, reinforcing feedback keeps inputs constant, letting outputs grow exponentially. This causes instability. For example, over the past century economic growth has been a reinforcing feedback loop for the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels, but this has also caused a build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which has led to global heating.
  5. Causality
    Actions cause results. It’s not always obvious, however, which actions cause which results because actions can correlate with completely unrelated results, leading to wrong assumptions and poor decision-making. Cause and effect aren’t always proximate.
  6. Systems Mapping
    Mapping how parts of a system connect, relate and act is a skill that requires practice. It can reveal patterns, hidden structures and belief systems, that may lead to epiphanies about where interventions can be made to leverage desirable change. Mapping usually starts with a problem – a single or recurring event. Systems thinking aims to see what underlies the event. A typical method is to map the behaviour over time (BOT) of several variables (eg sales, costs, inventory) on one chart.