Systemic thinking is vital to tackle today’s non-linear challenges

When we first started analysing developments and signals of change to gather insights for our Future of Sustainability 2018 report, we were struck by the rapidity of recent changes, particularly in the climate system and in the vital ecosystems that support us.

Systemic thinking is vital to tackle today’s non-linear challenges

Things haven’t been happening in simple, predictable ways; instead, we have seen abrupt shifts,  and some have been in unexpected areas. Extreme climate events were commonplace last year – witness three hurricanes over category 4 strength in just one season. The 75% drop in the numbers of flying insects in German nature reserves was another one, indicating serious hidden issues with ecosystems that appear healthy. Catastrophes like the forest fires in Borneo now barely make the news – they have become the ‘new normal’.

The signs are that we are now in a period of non-linear change across natural and human systems. From the (linear) perspective that we usually take as humans this is really alarming. The erratic signals from natural systems indicate that we’re in a high-stakes race against time. Yet, despite scientists’ best efforts, we don’t even have sure knowledge of where the thresholds are, past which change will become irreversible and catastrophic. We could have already crossed some.

System-wide change is absolutely vital now.

Taking a systemic perspective gives us grounds for hope. Key human systems, including energy and transport, are showing signs of undergoing rapid, non-linear transition right now. This could be very positive in the race to stay well under 2 degrees of global warming, but these emerging trends need the right support from government, business and civil society leaders, and we need to approach them with the appropriate mindsets.

In order to navigate these uncertain times effectively, it’s more important than ever to not only understand what is on the horizon today that is poised to shape the future, but also to develop the knowledge of how to work with non-linear transitions to create positive impact.

In our Future of Sustainability report we take a look at seven dynamic areas that present massive potential for positive change in systems we all rely on, such as energy, farming, food, apparel and other industries.

For example the transport and mobility system could shift faster and more radically than the mainstream currently expects. Taking a system-wide view, many elements are coming together to provide the opportunity for rapid change – from exponential improvements in technical capability to a generational shift amongst consumers in attitudes to ownership. When you couple this with the advent of electric vehicles (EVs) – and even potentially autonomous vehicles (AVs), there is strong potential for a profound transformation. This has implications across infrastructure, jobs, public transport, the car industry and the energy sector, and needs intelligent support from policy makers, business and civil society leaders to get the best outcomes and mitigate the risks.

Likewise, action against plastics is an area that is developing very quickly. Research has revealed that plastic pollution is far more pervasive than previously thought, and public sentiment has been galvanised by a number of factors, including the widely-popular Blue Planet 2 TV series. From a systemic perspective, strong action by certain governments such as France, Kenya and Morocco on single-use plastics is linking up with grassroots and NGO campaigns (such as #OneLess). Businesses are beginning to step up too, with the likes to Sky and Iceland leading the way in setting ambitious targets to become plastic-free by 2020 and 2023 respectively. Global transformative action could take place if momentum continues to build across geographies, and leaders step up to seize the moment.

We’re also seeing another area of hope emerge as signs appear of a more regenerative approach to agriculture. As we approach a global population of almost 10 billion people by 2050, regenerative agriculture, in which farming methods help to put more back into the environment than is taken out, is absolutely vital to a sane future. It will play a major role in helping to sequester carbon, restoring ecosystems and producing food without contributing to further land and soil degradation. With strong support and a conducive environment to scale up the most promising solutions, regenerative agriculture also has potential for fast, positive change.

In seeking an effective way forward, leaders and decision makers must move away from linear, incremental mindsets. They don’t fit the world we live in now, and collective effort to achieve system-wide change is absolutely vital if we are going to make it to a sustainable future. More systemic thinking – more understanding of the complex interplay of relationships and interactions across all parts in a system – is needed in order to deal with both the risks and opportunities that lie ahead.

And those risks and opportunities are both great. Most hopefully, nature has a strong rebound capacity, when allowed to exercise it, and we are starting to learn to work alongside it. A world of beauty and plenty remains possible if we can shift away from extractive systems to replenishing ones.  Exponential developments in technology also present opportunity, and lie behind some of the coming shifts in human systems – but they are double-edged and need to be carefully managed with an eye to the systemic risks they also introduce. Another complicating factor is the fact that our political systems are in flux right now, although this also presents potential for rapid socio-cultural shifts for positive impact. We need to develop systemic mindsets to navigate this landscape safely and create an inclusive future we can collectively thrive in. In many ways the coming years of the next decade could be make or break – and they look likely to be extremely interesting.

Joy Green is a senior futures specialist at Forum for the Future

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie