Systems Thinking, For Good

Insights from the Leading Change Series at The Mind Lab


In early August 2022, our Project:Moonshot co-founders Juhi Shareef and Priti Ambani participated in a thought-provoking korero about systems thinking, arranged by The Mind Lab. As part of a panel of experts—including Saskia Verraes of The Mind Lab and Julio Bin of The Southern Initiative—they shared insights and examples of systems thinking, for good.


So, what is systems thinking? It’s a holistic way of investigating factors and interactions that could contribute to a possible outcome. Partly an art and partly a science, it’s a way of:

  • Examining any complex problem fully,

  • Understanding the interrelationships, and

  • Identifying and acknowledging that there are often multiple interconnected solutions.

While systems thinking is not confined to issues related to the circular economy, it does naturally lend itself to circular and regenerative approaches due to its integrative and holistic perspective.


The panel was asked three key questions before opening up to questions from the audience. Here are a few of the key highlights and insights that came out of that korero:


Question 1: What does systems thinking mean to you in the context of ‘for good’?


The panel spoke about the fact that systems thinking acknowledges the inherent interplay between nature, society, the economy and industry.


It's an approach that examines and accounts for the complexity of things—so that we can identify what will be ‘for good’ and try to avoid the ‘for bad’.

Juhi: There has been a real drive to simplify, particularly in business—to try to get to some really simple and what appear to be elegant solutions. And what we've seen is that when you get really oversimplified systems that don't have diversity, they're not very resilient. The reality of nature and of life is that it's complex and it's messy. There are consequences—be they positive or negative. Systems thinking allows us to think through what those might be before jumping to a solution.
Priti: When you do a systemic analysis, you look at ecosystems in a larger context. You actually have to grapple with a lot of those sorts of difficult questions. And there are no easy answers. Sometimes, it really comes into focus: what do you solve for the short term and what do you solve for the long?

Question 2: What are some examples of systems thinking that may have impacted your decision-making, either individually or for an organisation?


The panel discussed some key real-life examples of systems thinking that they have used to make decisions and identify solutions within their work, including:

Priti: Defining the system has been really key to some of the work that I've done, particularly with Project:Moonshot. The complexity of the system is also crucial to understand here. How do you define that? Is it a simple system? Is it a complex? Is it complicated? Is it chaotic? I've used the Cynefin framework as a way to define a system and then use the appropriate levers or strategies for change and impact for good.
Juhi: I have mentioned the work with the Battery Industry Group (B.I.G.) that I chaired until recently, and we did some future systems scenario planning. We were saying ‘we've got this potential waste stream coming at us. What are we going to do about it?’ Really, the first question was, what is the vision for this system? What is the future that we want to see?’ So, by consciously creating a system that you hope is going to be beneficial to the wider community… it's self-perpetuating.
Julio: When you look at the mapping of the food systems, it's overwhelming, and the tendency is for people to say it's broken, it's unsustainable and we are doomed. But the reality is that the food system is working really well. It was designed like that. It was designed to be for mass consumption, mass production and mass waste… It actually needs to be disrupted. It needs to be reinvented. And that's the work that we are trying to do in …communities I work with in South Auckland.

Question 3: What are the challenges that you've faced or any challenges that you foresee in the future?


This question precipitated some necessary discussion about our current economic paradigm, and how systems thinking needs to be applied to the all-pervasive economic systems that define so much of our current production, consumption and waste practices.


Julio: We have to address the elephant in the room which is an economic system based on GDP growth, which means more production and more consumption. The challenge here [in Aotearoa NZ] is that we talk about the wellbeing economy. We talk about the economy of mana. We talk about all different sorts of models. They are for the greater good. But we walk the GDP model.
Juhi: This fixation with GDP is really challenging when it's the context in which we operate as a modern society. When you're trying to either change a system or create a new system, you can't underestimate the massive inertia of the existing system…. And that's one of the reasons why we suggest building and prototyping things in parallel—with the coalition of like-minded people who want to drive change.
Priti: Our philosophy is to chip away at these huge challenges, do what we can, and instigate change at a level and at a scale that then starts becoming relevant [at scale].
Saskia: It can feel almost impossible to make systemic change happen because we have to realise that we are all operating within that system…. But what always gives me hope is that it is consciously designed this way…so, the hope that that gives me is that we consciously designed it in. So hopefully we can also consciously design it out—and redesign it in a way that is actually much more equal, much better.

In addition, there were also some really great questions from the audience that drew out further thoughtful and informative insights:


How have your culture and experiences internationally influenced your practice?

Juhi: The West doesn't have all the answers. It's created a lot of the problems we see, and we need to look back to ancient cultures to learn from them. And Teina would say [Māori] don't have systems thinking—that's just how they think. They understand the interconnectedness and their role as part of nature, not apart from nature.
Julio: And I think my international experience for me was that I was always an immigrant. So, in the beginning, it used to be a problem for me. Actually, more for me than others. But then I realised that it has everything to do with systems thinking—that humanity is our common denominator… We are the reason and we are the solution for everything.

How do you continue to ‘systems think’ when you are bound by so much legislation?

Priti: Legislation is always sort of a lagging indicator, right? It is because of the system. And you have to have a new system in place and then the legislation will follow in that sense…. So, that is something that change makers have to work through and understand—when that new system emerges, that legislation will follow.
Julio: There are many frameworks that you can use for systems thinking and systems change. One of them is six conditions for systems change… And one of them is policy and legislation… It's interesting to see that sometimes we tend to blame politicians... Well, it's not just them, it's not just legislation. It is important, but it's not by itself. It's not going to change a system as a whole.

If we are using old systems to create new systems, what are the gaps, or how do we bridge that gap between the old and the new?

Saskia: I originally come from the Netherlands. And when you talk about transport systems, people are always going, oh, yeah—that's easy. You come from the Netherlands, so of course you will cycle because everybody cycles in the Netherlands. You know, if you go back in history, it only became a cycling country when the systems were designed to change towards an economy that was based on pedestrians and cyclists… And it is indeed about consciously designing with all the players, with the whole ecosystem in mind as part of it.
Julio: Innovation is a successful disobedience. I've heard that once and I think this is very applicable when you're trying to shift systems. You need to be disruptive as long as it's legal and it's a positive disruption.

For Project:Moonshot, this korero validates the work that is being done to grow and expand the Moonshot Map, which aims to create a visual map of businesses, projects, prototypes, indigenous initiatives and infrastructure that are enabling place-based, systemic shifts to circular and regenerative economic models in Aotearoa—with the goal of providing the kind of systems insights that will inform decision-making for a regenerative future.


These were only a few selected insights from this fascinating and thoughtful hui. If you enjoyed reading these and want to hear more, you can access the full recording here.


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