A systems approach, grounded in data science.

The social and environmental problems resulting from our economic system can often feel independent from one another. At Metabolic, we take an integrated view of these issues – from climate change and biodiversity loss to human health and economic stagnation – acknowledging that many of these challenges are inextricably linked, and stem from a few key root causes.              

We approach all of our work – be it strategic advice, the development of tools or technologies, or the creation of new organizations – from a systems perspective. Rather than trying to understand the world by reducing it to its individual elements and looking at them in isolation, systems thinking focuses on the relationships between elements and how these result in emergent outcomes over time.

We use data-driven analysis and systems modelling to identify the dynamics between complex interactions in a system (such as a supply chain or an economic sector) and provide insights about the root causes of key impacts. Mapping systems in this way reveals leverage points: places in a system where one small change can create big changes across the entire system. These insights helps us create impactful projects, in which we put interventions into practice so they can scale up and generate results. 

Our methodology combines systems thinking and data-driven analysis to arrive at actionable solutions.

To illustrate how systems thinking helps us drive forward our mission, here are some of the core principles we keep in mind when developing approaches to tackle complex sustainability challenges.

Everything is connected

Changing one element in a system will always lead to ripple effects somewhere else.
To produce furniture, a tree needs to grow. To operate our mobile phones, electricity needs to be produced. Every product or service in our economy is the result of an interconnected web of circumstances relating to resource extraction, processing, transport and many other behaviors. This means that changing something in the design of a product will affect each of these different elements in the chain, and thus products result from the way a system is designed. In order to transition a system from an unsustainable into a sustainable state, it is essential to look at the dynamics between elements in a system instead of each element in isolation.

Focus on the root cause

To change a system for the better, we must first understand what causes it to function the way it does.
If the kitchen is flooding due to a broken faucet, it is fruitless to start mopping the floor until you have identified where the water is coming from and found a way to stop the gushing tap. Most complex societal challenges result from deeper structural challenges, and tackling their surface-level symptoms with 'end-of-pipe' solutions is ineffective. Instead, meaningful, lasting change relies on an understanding of where the problem truly stems from, which might not be as obvious as one originally expects.

Beware of unintended consequences

When not considering problems in the context of a broader system, attempts to fix them can often result in unintended consequences or ‘burden shifting’. For example, one mechanism to reduce energy consumption is to make heating and lighting more energy-efficient. However, we find that as energy-efficiency increases, it becomes cheaper to heat and light our homes, increasing accessibility and thus having the opposite effect. Other unintended effects include the toxic contents of Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs, which pose a danger to human health in the home, and a rapid increase in the use of LED lighting to illuminate outdoor areas, which has led to exponentially increasing light pollution.

Acknowledge trade-offs

Understanding the holistic effects of changes to a system can help us achieve the best possible outcome.
We need to evaluate all of our actions not just on one parameter, but on a complete spectrum. With a holistic understanding of a system, we can anticipate whether or not interventions will lead to better results across a broad range of impacts, rather than just optimizing for one issue at the expense of other areas of performance. If we use more oil to recycle plastic bottles than we would use to create new bottles, this is not a sustainable or circular solution. Similarly, if recycling practices are dangerous and lead to health impacts for individuals, we should not pursue these activities as a steadfast imperative.

Would you like to work with us on driving systemic change?