Systems Thinking

To change a system for the better, we must first understand what causes it to function the way it does.

Systems thinking is an effective approach for tackling the complex, interdependent challenges that characterize our modern world. Instead of looking at individual aspects of a problem in isolation, a systems approach looks at how different parts of a system interact.

A systemic approach to sustainability

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.

Finding genuinely sustainable solutions requires a deep understanding of how different parts of a system – be it a company, city, sector, or the entire economy – fit together. Solving problems without considering the broader context in which they exist can trigger knock-on effects elsewhere, and often lead to new, more severe, problems.

Rubik’s cube

Explaining complex systems

A helpful way to understand complex systems is to think of a Rubik’s Cube. Moving one coloured square affects more than that square alone; it disrupts the colours on five other sides of the block. Our earth system is similar. While social and environmental problems can often feel independent from one another, issues like climate change and biodiversity loss, human health and economic stagnation, are all inextricably linked.

Four levels of thinking

Understanding root causes

Systems thinking can help us to understand and address the deeper structures and mental models at the root of a problem. Events represent only the “tip of the iceberg”. However, because they are most visible and immediate, attention is often directed at the “end of the pipe,” and interventions are aimed only at addressing the symptoms of a problem rather than its root causes.

Finding leverage

Systems principles

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.
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Sometimes we come across these great reports that explain a complex phenomenon, like systems thinking, in a simple way. This certainly holds for the report by Metabolic!  We now see so many ways to continue, and improve, our systemic change workshops with smallholder farmers, NGOs, private industry and the government in emerging economies.

Rob Lubberink


Metabolic encouraged and demonstrated the power of embracing a new mindset for solving systemic issues. By driving home the point of systems thinking, Metabolic has helped to instill a new core value in the decision making process: how sustainable is this project from a system wide perspective?

Giacomo Molteni


This report is one of the first steps in broadening the city’s focus from how we manage waste to how we manage materials. Boulder is a leader in waste reduction, however, in order to really address the climate crisis, the city needs to lead the way in implementing deep, systemic change through coordinated action to foster a circular economy.

Kara Mertz

City of Boulder

To truly ‘build back better,’ a systems approach is key

Our socio-economic system is complex, multi-layered, and deeply intertwined with the natural world on which we depend for our livelihoods. We need to take the time – especially now – to look at our world anew using the lens of systems thinking. Only by understanding the deep interconnections between institutions, people, and the environment will we be able to craft pathways toward a genuinely sustainable and resilient economy; one that works for all people and supports the flourishing of all living beings.