The Role of Systems Thinking in the Practice of Implementing Sustainable Development Goals

  • Martin ReynoldsEmail author
  • Christine Blackmore
  • Ray Ison
  • Rupesh Shah
  • Elaine Wedlock
Part of the World Sustainability Series book series (WSUSE)


Implementing the sustainable development goals (SDGs) adopted at the UN Summit in September 2015 specifically invites the creation of “an integrated, holistic, multi-stakeholder approach”. This implies the need for systems thinking in practice, a tradition that draws on systems theories, tools and techniques able to facilitate better conversation and cooperation between agencies. As an approach it goes beyond development of competencies through formal education programmes. This paper focuses on SDG 17—the means of implementation—and the role of systems thinking in practice for supporting both competence and SDG implementation capability. Two inter-linked initiatives led by systems thinking practitioners in the field of sustainability science are reported; one is an action research inquiry exploring the praxis (theory-informed-action) challenges of applying systems thinking in practice in contemporary workplaces ranging from in-field development projects to government administrations and business ventures, and another which built on the findings from this inquiry—a proposal for developing an action-learning platform for SDG implementation. Experience suggests that implementing SDGs requires not only competence in systems thinking but a capability of putting systems thinking into practice in a dynamic way, as praxis. The proposed action-learning platform can also be regarded as a learning laboratory in the sense that it will offer learning support and a chance to collaborate and experiment. This platform aims to be co-designed with multi-agency practitioners from international development, government planning, business/social enterprise and NGOs. The proposed platform draws on open-source resources, and ideas of social learning, developmental evaluation and systems thinking in practice traditions.


Competency framework Capability approach Developmental evaluation Integration Learning laboratory Praxis Sustainable development goals Systemic sensibility Systems thinking Systems thinking in practice 



Appreciation is given to copyright owner The Open University (UK) for permission to reproduce Figs. 2, 3 and 6

The action research inquiry—Enhancing Systems Thinking in Practice at the Workplace—was funded by eSTEeM—The Open University Centre for promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) Pedagogy. eSTEeM is continuing to fund the development of a competency framework arising from this inquiry.

Appreciation is extended to academic practitioners Seanna Davidson, Ray Ison, and Phil Wallis, on the Systemic Governance Research Program (SGRP) at the Monash Sustainability Institute (Monash University, Australia) for their permission to use material including Fig. 4 in this manuscript, from their original concept note Proposal to create aLearning Laboratory’ (Ison et al. 2016).

The learning laboratory initiative—Facilitating effective implementation of Global Goals for Sustainable Development through Applied Systems Thinking—has involved active collaboration with the following colleagues to whom I’m indebted: Valérie Amato (Independent Consultant), Richard Pinder (OU Qualifications Director, Development Policy and Practice), and Ellen Scott (OU Senior Project Manager, International Development Office).


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Martin Reynolds
    • 1
    Email author
  • Christine Blackmore
    • 1
  • Ray Ison
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Rupesh Shah
    • 1
  • Elaine Wedlock
    • 1
  1. 1.Applied Systems Thinking in Practice (ASTiP) Group, School of Engineering and Innovation, Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)The Open UniversityMilton KeynesUK
  2. 2.Centre for Policy DevelopmentSydneyAustralia
  3. 3.Institute for Sustainable FuturesUniversity of Technology AustraliaSydneyAustralia

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