The importance of systems thinking in achieving a future vision for cities

Network Science Reading Group, Creative Commons (C)

Cities across the globe face unprecedented challenges. From modernizing water and transportation infrastructure, to creating conditions for friendly, inclusive, and diverse communities, cities are confronted by a plethora of social and environmental sustainability challenges.

The problems they face are intricate and immensely complex. They are products of interactions that vary with time and space, involving multiple actors and disciplines, composed of interconnected relationships often with nonlinear effects. Still, our efforts to solve them have been driven by oversimplified understanding and linear thinking asserted from simplistic causal relationships offering deceptive certainty and predictability.  Traditionally, our practices have been sector and compartment-oriented, leading to fragmented policy-making, and decisions that move problems in time and space, rather than solve them.

Our difficulty in perceiving the complex and unpredictable dynamics of these problems, limits our ability to make better decisions. Systems thinking, and its potential to help us address complexity, offers an alternative approach to traditional, top down, sectoral, urban decision making.

The Future

In a world increasingly complex and interconnected, changes in the future will occur faster than ever before. There is a clear need to realise how the decisions that we are taking now will affect us in the future. Identifying future challenges, and understanding how our economy, our society and our environment will need to adopt to these, should be a participatory process. Extrapolating from current trends, we must explore different scenarios that will able to cope with some of the known restraints of our future:    an interconnected world with more people and less resources, where quality of life continues to improve for everyone on the planet.

While historically our ability to prepare for the future has been dependent on our ability to predict how the future might be like, this is further complicated today by an additional question: is this a future worth preparing for? As a result, in urban management and planning, you can almost see an evolution in the need to predict, to prepare and now to design cities.

The need to have a clear vision for the future

This is not as simple as it sounds. That is why we need to talk about our tendency to reduce. This is a natural process, and therefore necessary for our understanding of the world. We are used to reducing, in other words simplifying things in order to understand them. Naturally our tendency to divide is stronger than our capacity to integrate. This is the way our minds usually work. Traditional reductionist applications and management practices have been ingrained within the command and control paradigm which has historically dominated our policies. This is based on the assumption that addressing individual elements or components could lead to an improvement in the system. Such practices have been widely acknowledged to fail in a dynamic and continuously evolving world, emphasising the need for improved inclusivity and multi-actor participation to provide a greater understanding of the plurality of processes associated with such complex problems (Monkelbaan, 2015; Sabel and Zeitlin, 2012).

Managing urban problems requires understanding them first, looking at system interactions and conditions rather than focusing simply on solutions. For example the perception that technological developments and advances will provide at the end solutions to our problems, is increasingly proving false, as new kinds of constraints are forcing our society to rethink previous assumptions about population, technology, planning, and types of development.

Solutions: A Systems Approach

The application of Systems Thinking has increasingly being considered in view of the limitations above, focusing on acquiring a more complete understanding of urban problems through the study of urban interactions. Problems can be viewed as products of the interactions within a city. Fundamentally, Systems Thinking embraces the union of interdisciplinary, integrated and holistic principles to create this mind-set that addresses whole problems and not just the parts (Voulvoulis, 2012).

Sustainable economic development and environmental protection cannot be in conflict, as both are needed for improved human well-being, particularly as it is now recognised that environmental degradation diminishes the capacity of the planet to sustain economic development. Having this mind-set presents an opportunity for urban management.

For example, a transition to a circular economy can be more easily achieved under this approach, leading both to a significant increase in economic development, as well as job creation while securing natural resources protection.  This way, more efficient use of water and land could lead to a more sustainable use of the UK’s natural resources, and help adapt to population growth and increased urban living. An improved understanding of our relationship with the environment will enable us to take action to reduce the impact that we have on it, and subsequently avoid its degradation. This in turn could lead to improvements in our quality of life, including our health and wellbeing. Our industries can become part of a greater ecology of materials and energy flows, which can be regulated and controlled to ensure they are sustainable. A symbiotic approach allows industries to reduce their costs, and deliver benefits to society and the environment.

Being able to progress towards sustainability requires a clear understanding of how our actions impact on the environment, without making decisions that will have unintended impacts on other areas. Taking a Systems Thinking approach to solving urban challenges such as focusing on the nexus between water-energy-land will allow us to implement strategies that have a net positive effect.

 A nexus approach through enhanced dialogue, collaboration and coordination is needed to ensure that co-benefits and trade-offs are considered and that appropriate safeguards are put in place. This way of thinking provides an informed and transparent framework for determining and resolving trade-offs across sectors and with other policy areas such as climate and biodiversity. The need for integration and collaboration between various sectors is a prerequisite for delivering interdisciplinary, integrated and holistic solutions that have the potential to achieve benefits across different sectors, disciplines, and systems, taking us closer to sustainability.


Nick Voulvoulis  BSc (Hons) MSc DIC PhD DMS is a Reader in Environmental Technology at Imperial College’s Centre for Environmental Policy. He is an international expert in environmental management, especially where science and engineering interface with public policy. He leads the Environmental Quality Research Group and is the Director of the internationally renowned MSc in Environmental Technology at Imperial.


Monkelbaan, J. (2015). Experimentalist Sustainability Governance: Jazzing up Environmental Blues?. Public Participation and Climate Governance Working Paper Series.

Sabel, C.F. and Zeitlin, J., 2012. Experimentalism in the EU: Common ground and persistent differences. Regulation & Governance, 6(3), pp.410-426.

Voulvoulis, N. (2012). Water and sanitation provision in a low carbon society: the need for a systems approach. Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy, 4(4), 041403.