Lessons in systems thinking – exploring unintended consequences

Published on the 24th of October 2016

Erin Kennedy outlines how a systems approach is the only responsible pathway to sustainability decision making.

At a Circular Economy conference in Brussels this month, organised by the Socialists and Democrats party of the European Parliament, it was evident how enthusiastic the party is about pushing forward a circular economy. There has been a shift in policy focus away from end-of-pipe solutions on waste management and recycling towards solutions for design and product life extension, although recycling still plays a large role.

Amongst the conference speakers was Walter Stahel, whose ideas around the service life extension of goods helped lead to what is now known as the circular economy. While the main theme of the day was how policy can promote a circular economy (which Stahel discussed by bringing up the recent tax breaks on repair services in Sweden), he also stressed the importance of personal decision making. Consumers, he said, are the ones who decide whether we have an economy where we purchase, lease, or share goods.

For me, the presentation that stood out was from Patrizia Heidegger, executive director of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform. She presented a passionate story of ship recycling, which is largely done on tidal beaches in Southeast Asia under deplorable conditions. Both high levels of environmental degradation and inhumane and unsafe working conditions result from these recycling practices. While policies regulate high standards of recycling in Europe, shipping companies find a way around these costs, for example by registering ships in other “flag states”. She proposes an alternative policy, based not on flag states but on port entry, to ensure ships trading with Europe are recycled sustainably at end-of-life.

Heidegger’s presentation reminded me of Metabolic’s core philosophy. At Metabolic, we promote a holistic, systems-thinking approach in all of the work we do. We have worked with NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and Smart Freight Centre (SFC) to examine the global food sector and the global freight sector from a systems perspective. Too often, policy fails to produce the intended outcomes, and sometimes  even leads to negative ones. For these types of organizations, a systems perspective is vital to identifying where leverage for change lies in a system and helps to foresee potential unintended consequences.

We apply this systems perspective to other work we do as well. Over the summer, we worked with the engineering and environmental consulting company Antea Group to create an indicator framework for circular construction projects and tested it for a project currently underway in Amsterdam. We looked not only at materials, energy, water, and impacts such as climate change, but also at human health and wellbeing, culture and heritage, and adaptivity and resilience.

What you learn from this type of thinking is that there are almost always tradeoffs which must be made. Producing renewable energy requires the use of some amount of materials, for example. Only when looking at the potential tradeoffs can you begin to optimize interventions across the board. If you only focus on one issue, you will often make mistakes that lead to greater problems in another area.

For this reason, we often bring up the example of recycling. Can we consider it a circular economy if, for example, all of our electronics are recycled by children in developing countries? This isn’t a form of circular economy most people want to promote.

Personal, professional, and political decisions we collectively make do lead to these types of developments if we fail to see the systemic consequences of our decisions. While it is impossible to predict the outcome of every decision, working towards a systemic framework for strategic decision-making is the only responsible pathway forward both in politics and in business.

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