In discussing climate change and other prominent issues, we often hear about ‘systems’, such as the frequent mention of “systemic problems”. This is tied to a concept called ‘systems thinking’, and it’s an important ideological framework for understanding the circular economy. 

What is systems thinking? 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy advocacy group, defines systems thinking as: “The ability to understand how the parts of a system interact to produce the behaviour of the whole.” The Foundation references systems expert Donella Meadows, who describes it as a “way of thinking that gives us the freedom to identify root causes of problems and see new opportunities.” 

Systems thinking challenges us to look at the whole picture and understand how things are interconnected. It relates to the economy – and subsequently, the circular economy – in that it identifies how our current systems are grounded in linear thinking. Currently, our economy is based on resource extraction and the creation of waste and pollution. It moves in a straight line, without thorough consideration of how to manage and offset issues that arise. The circular economy seeks to overhaul this linear structure, and applies systems thinking by working from an understanding of larger problems, rather than focusing on just one piece. 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation uses the example of ocean plastics to illustrate this. Plastic pollution in our oceans is a major global issue that relates to a variety of systems: overreliance on plastic, poor consumer education and awareness, lack of regulation, and so on. By seeing all the systems at play and using systems thinking, we can affect change by providing innovative solutions that address each part.  

Technical approach  

In order to facilitate systems thinking, there are a number of tools. The Circular Economy Practitioner Guide identifies a few of the most common ones as: 

  • Behaviour over time – This refers to trends in human behaviour over a certain time frame, as influenced by internal and external factors 
  • Policy structure – The political environment as it relates to a specific system or systems, and how it impacts decisions of individuals and groups 
  • Structure-behaviour relationships – This can be seen as a blend of the two above tools, looking at how behaviour changes in response to or within certain structures 

Many of these tools examine human behaviour and the impact of systems on people, and vice versa. Systems thinking itself requires a mindset shift for many, as our culture and economy has been so pervasively linear for so long. In a paper for Environmental Science and Pollution Research, the authors discuss this potential, stating that a systems thinking approach, “can build up the capabilities required to identify and understand persistent linear trends and, in turn, support forward-thinking and time investment in enabling sustainable transitions.”   

Overall, systems thinking within the circular economy helps us better understand where we are and why, in order to move toward a more sustainable future.