Tool Guideline

An introduction to systems thinking and systemic design – concepts and tools

Uploaded by RRI Tools on May 11, 2021

Will Allen & Margaret Kilvington - Learning for Sustainability (LfS)

Systems thinking and systemic design – are a way of collaboratively talking about and designing real-world solutions


  1. Introduction - Why decision-makers are moving towards a systems thinking approach to better deal with complex situations in health, environment, education, etc.
  2. Basics - Basics of systems thinking
  3. Systemic design - linking systems thinking and design
  4. Support systems - Introduction to range of tools/methods that support systems thinking and systemic design in practice
  5. Nurturing - Nurturing & supporting systems thinking in your practice


Systems thinking

Systems thinking is an approach to integration that is based on the belief that the component parts of a system will act differently when isolated from the system’s environment or other parts of the system. Standing in contrast to positivist and reductionist thinking, systems thinking sets out to view systems in a holistic manner. Consistent with systems philosophy, systems thinking concerns an understanding of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the elements that comprise the whole of the system. Systems thinking in practice encourages us to explore inter-relationships (context and connections), perspectives (each actor has their own unique perception of the situation) and boundaries (agreeing on scope, scale and what might constitute an improvement). Systems thinking is particularly useful in addressing complex or wicked problem situations. These problems cannot be solved by any one actor, any more than a complex system can be fully understood from only one perspective. Moreover, because complex adaptive systems are continually evolving, systems thinking is oriented towards organizational and social learning – and adaptive management.

When you encounter situations which are complex and messy, then systems thinking can help you understand the situation systemically. This helps us to see the big picture – from which we may identify multiple leverage points that can be addressed to support constructive change. It also helps us see the connectivity between elements in the situation, so as to support joined-up actions.

More resources:

  • You can start with these ppt & post that provide a framework for thinking about systems thinking in the context of a decision making cycle.
  • For other sources introducing systems thinking and how to manage and facilitate it to support a collective understanding of a problem situation - see here
  • For more information on how this can be used to support collaborative and constructive social change - see these pages on systemic design and systems thinking tools.








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