Systems thinking — you’ll hear us talking about it a lot, but what does it mean?

Mar 14, 2024

The importance of exercising systems thinking is a key takeaway from all of the courses in Evolveable’s Impact Academy. 

But why are we so focused on systems thinking and what does it mean? 

There is no single definition of systems thinking, and many discussion of the topic quickly get overly academic, but at the core of systems thinking is a simple message: We operate in a highly complex and interconnected world, and all of our actions have multiple layers of impact. Sustainability professionals need to be able to look at the system they are working within as a whole, not just certain parts of it, in order to deliver successful, long-term impact. 

Let’s look at a short story that explains this well. 

The Macquarie Island Story: A Cautionary Tale in Ecological Intervention

Credit: Mike Preece

The story is of conservation actions undertaken on Macquarie Island, a sub-Antarctic Island owned by Australia. 

First discovered in 1810, the Island was visited for the hunting of seals and penguins. 

Sound like a good idea? This was just the beginning of the ecological disaster story and a systems thinking precautionary tale. 

Very soon, rats and mice had entered the island and prospered there due to the lack of predators. Cats were quickly introduced to keep the rodent population down and stop them eating the hunter’s food stores. Rabbits were then introduced to provide food for passing sailors.  

For decades, feline and rabbit numbers boomed, killing birds and decimating the island’s vegetation. Then in the 1970s, rehabilitation efforts commenced.  

Myxomatosis was successfully introduced to control rabbit numbers, and the population plummeted in a decade. The island’s vegetation began to recover and there was the glimmer of a success story.  

However, this was where the real precautionary tale began. 

What was good news for the island’s vegetation was actually bad news for the island’s bird population. With less rabbits around, the cats started to eat more birds, leaving multiple species on the brink of extinction. Rehabilitation efforts were again commenced, with a cat eradication program introduced in 1985. 

But, there was yet another systems thinking plot twist.  

Why Piecemeal Solutions Fall Short

With the complete success of the cat eradication program, the rabbit and rat numbers resurged. The vegetation began to suffer again, leading to soil erosion and cliff collapses which destroyed important breeding colonies. 

Many more years of rehabilitation efforts ensued before the work commenced in the 1970s could be declared a success. 

Good Intentions, Unintended Consequences

The point of this story is that when we fail to look at the system as a whole and instead focus only on fixing certain parts of it, we, at best, only fix part of the problem. More often than not, we can also set ourselves up for causing catastrophic unintended consequences. 

Mastering the Crucial Mindset for Sustainability Success

See our following post for how our sustainability business simulator helps professionals understand systems thinking, practice using it in a business context, and become comfortable applying systems thinking to design solutions to complex sustainability problems.  

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