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Systems Thinking: In the Context of Societal Platforms

Societal problems are aplenty in the world. The challenge in resolving the problems has been the complexity associated with each problem. The complexity comes from problems being local, dynamic and multi-faceted. For example, low learning outcomes of students in a particular community may not always necessarily be a result of poor school infrastructure, or inadequate learning or teaching methods. Inadequate dietary intake may lead to lack of focus and concentration. The home and community environment may not be supportive of education. Discrimination by school employees or peers based on caste, religion, gender, race and other factors could result in depression, sadness, to name a few. On the ground, any of the stated or unstated conditions, or a combination of the conditions could be a reason for poor learning outcomes. The nature of the challenge is such that the causes could change every now and then, and could be different for every other student. Thus, it becomes vital to look at societal challenges from multiple perspectives of socioeconomic, political, economic, environmental and demographic factors.

The approach to addressing a challenge requires an understanding of the context of relationships between the entities in the concerned system. Donella Meadows defines a system as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised in a way that achieves something”.1 Systems comprise of sub-systems and components. Sub-systems such as political, demographic and economic systems interact to form larger systems. The purpose of the system decides the boundary of the system and the environment surrounding it.

Traditional thinking directs us to look at elements in isolation and ignores the linkages, within and between elements and systems. This only helps to understand the system as the sum of the properties and functions of each element. Dietrich Dörner, in his book ‘The Logic of Failure’, writes, “If we want to solve problems effectively…we must keep in mind not only many features but also the influences among them. Complexity is the label we will give to the existence of many interdependent variables in a given system”.2Systems, especially in the context of societal issues, have a high level of inter-connectivity and interdependence. The connectivity between the elements, systems and the surrounding environment is driven by local rules and relationships. A system develops a behaviour of its own from the resulting interactions and influences amongst the entities. The properties of the elements get inherently influenced by being in the system. Therefore, it becomes essential to understand the interactions as a whole, to decipher a system’s behaviour. Systems thinking enables such a holistic understanding of the system. Systems thinking takes a systemic view of problems and comprehends the elements and the systems in terms of their engagements, interactions, and relationships with other entities.

In practice, a Societal Platform approach would allow us to catalyse systems thinking. The approach involves a number of principles and mindsets that together foster an enabling environment to actuate systems thinking. They include: defining problems as complex, dynamic and contextual; strengthening collective intelligence and sense-making; nurturing co-creation and supportive environments; involving various actors and networks; and recognising ecosystems as living systems, and constantly evolving through innovations. 3


  1. Meadows, D. H. (2009). Thinking in systems. A primer. London: Earthscan.
  2. Dörner, D. (1996). The logic of failure. Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  3. Societal Platform. (2017). A Systemic Method to Resolve Complex Societal Challenges. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Oct. 2018].

The article is authored by Naveen Varshan. Naveen is a Researcher with Societal Platform at EkStep Foundation.