Systems thinking and the sustainability agenda

It isn’t easy to pin down a succinct definition of system thinking. Coined by Barry Richmond in 1987, and rooted in Ludwig Von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory and cybernetics, it has evolved over the decades and through many schools of thought. Systems are all around us – be they interpersonal relationships, engineering projects, economies, transport or school systems, or organisations and ecological communities.

everything is connected – Image: JJ Ying

Systems thinking provides means to view issues holistically, with insight to see unobvious connections between things while understanding why they behave a certain way. Although a caveat does exist, in that holistic thinking can never be infinite and complete – a boundary will be drawn somewhere (Cabera, 2015). A system as a whole will have properties, behaviours and characteristics that emerge from the interaction of the components of the system which are not predictable from an understanding of the components alone (IIBA, 2015). Several common themes which underpin this ‘seeing’ include synthesis, emergence, interconnectedness and feedback loops, all of which set it apart from ‘linear thinking’.

Systems thinking has been used in many fields, from medical, environmental, political, economic, to educational. There is increasing appetite for it in a world facing complex issues which exhibit uncertainly, ambiguity, emergence and non-linearity. There is a zeitgeist to reject the linear model approaches which have dominated since the beginning of the third industrial revolution. There is increasing acceptance that everything is connected ecologically and interdependently; that actions in one area frequently lead to problems in another. This is supported by other system thinking concepts such as Ashby’s ‘Law of Requisite Variety’ (1968) which governs the capacity of a system to respond to changes in its environment, and implies that only variety can absorb variety. Simply, ‘it is not possible to address any problem by addressing just one facet” (Kirby & El-Kaffass, 2021).

For us to achieve true sustainability, according to Bosschaert & van Zuthem (2018), a system must hit the right balance between resilience, autonomy (self-sufficiency), and harmony. Systems thinking nurtures a way of thinking, for some even a philosophy, that cultivates an ethic of integration and collaboration (Hammond, 2005). This has the potential to help modern humans live more harmoniously and sustainably. Despite the growth of Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) in helping measure the sustainability and societal impact of business, and the use of John Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line (TPL) based on People, Planet and Profit (3Ps) (FT Lexicon, 2020), accountants and reporting consultants continue to ‘bury the single bottom line paradigm’. As Elkington himself lamented, “the TBL was never intended as ‘just an accounting system’ […but] a triple helix of change for tomorrow’s capitalism, with a focus was on breakthrough change, disruption, asymmetric growth and the scaling of next-generation market solutions’.

New hopes arise from harmonious entrepreneurship entities and likes of those certified as B Corps, those who balance purpose and profit, and apply the tools and methods of whole-systems thinking around their economic, social and environmental practices. Despite the proliferation of positive entrepreneurship tackling daunting social, eco and humane challenges, systems thinking can be missing (Leonard, 2016). For maximum scale and scope of the positive impact, it is essential that the systems thinking mindset is incorporated from the outset, to understand and plan for the interactions and linkages within, and the connections between the enterprise and the different stakeholders with which it interacts. “It involves thinking about how an enterprise operates within a specific, broad system, such as the immediate ecological environment or the social strata present in a society, and interpreting the needs and limitations of that system in the decision-making process using an ESG lens” (ibid.). Failure to consider the broader system from an ESG perspective will reduce its positive impact whilst potentially limiting its success and growth.

(Abridged from: ‘Systems Thinking: a practice and mindset’, Felicity Healey-Benson Emergent, 2020)

© Felicity Healey-Benson and (2020). Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Felicity Healey-Benson and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Ashby, W.R. (1968). ‘Variety, constraint and the law of requisite variety’. In W. Buckley (Ed), Modern systems research for the behavioural scientist. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co.

Bosch, O., Nguyen, N., Van Nguyen, T, Malik, F., & Malik, C. (2019). ‘Systems Thinking For Everyone: The journey from theory to making an impact‘ (eBook), St Gallen, Switzerland: Malik Institute / Malik International.

Bosschaert, T. & van Zuthem, H. (2018). ‘Symbiosis in Development’a quick guide – Symbiosis in Development v10.1 Rotterdam.

Cabera, D. (2015). ‘Systems thinking is not the same as holistic thinking’ (online). Available:

Cabera, D. & Colosi, L. (2012) ‘Thinking at Every Desk: Four Simple Skills to Transform Your Classroom’, WW Norton & Company.

Elkington, J. (2018). ‘25 Years Ago I Coined the Phrase “Triple Bottom Line.” Here’s Why It’s Time to Rethink It’, HBR, 25th June 2018 (online). Available:

Financial Times Lexicon (2020). ‘Definition of ESG’ (online). Available: Financial Times Lexicon.

Hammond, D. (2005). ‘Philosophical and Ethical Foundations of Systems Thinking’, TripleC, Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society, 3(2), pp.20-27.

(IIBA) International Institute of Business Analysis (2015). ‘A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge, International Institute of Business Analysis, 3rd edition.

Kirby, D.A. & El-Kaffass, I. (2021). ‘Harmonious Entrepreneurship – a new approach to the challenges of global sustainability’, World Journal of Entrepreneurship, Management and Sustainable Development. Forthcoming.

Leonard, J. (2016). ‘Systems thinking in Impact Entrepreneurship’, Cornerstone Capital Group, 21st Nov 2016 (online). Available:

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