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THRIVE Framework: Systems Thinking And Sustainability



For a thrivable world beyond sustainability, we must consider all aspects across every level. Furthermore, we need to examine how these aspects intersect with each other. This means, considering what occurs on a creature level through to the cosmos level, as illustrated by THRIVE’s 7 C’s. Systems thinking and sustainability travel hand-in-hand when it comes to achieving thrivable outcomes.

Systems thinking significantly interacts with this by considering what happens on different levels of existence within society and Earth. This includes looking at what occurs on a micro level, beginning with an individual and their immediate microsystem, within their household, for example. Moreover, it extends up to the meso, which includes governments, corporations, and transnational institutions. Finally, the Earth and the cosmos sit at the macro level. In conclusion, this is talking about realities on the ground, for any given person or creature, or plant, right up to the decision-making bodies that affect these things, and vice versa.

Assailing the seven C’s — creature, company, community, city, country, continent, and cosmos.
Source: THRIVE.

What Is An Entity?

An entity refers to a distinct and individual being, object, or thing that exists as a separate and identifiable unit. Indeed, THRIVE considers 7 types of entities split up into 4 levels. These are:

Nano Level

  • Creature: This is an individual of a species. However, we are not limiting the scope to humans. A creature could be anything from a single-celled organism to an animal, or even a plant.

Micro Level

  • Company: Individuals or a group of people form a company as a legal entity to conduct business, often for profit, with defined ownership, structure, and specific aims or objectives. A company could also be a not-for-profit, NGO, or other sort of business collective.

Meso Level

  • Community: It represents the social structures, relationships, cultures, and interactions among individuals or groups within a specific geographic or social area.
  • City: A city is the urban infrastructure, services, governance, residents, and various elements that constitute a city’s functioning and development.
  • Country: It encompasses the political, economic, social, and cultural components of a nation, including government, institutions, population, resources, and policies.
  • Continent: It refers to the broader geographic and geological systems within a continent, encompassing diverse ecosystems, populations, economies, and cultures across its landmass.

Macro Level

  • Cosmos: Finally, the cosmos is the larger interconnectedness of celestial bodies, galaxies, and universal systems, considering the interactions and interdependencies within the universe.

What Is A System?

Systems, seen in diverse areas like biology, mechanics, and social groups, involve interconnected components cooperating for a shared purpose. They display relationships and behaviours among their elements, often influenced by inputs, processes, outputs, and feedback loops within a set boundary.

Myopic, dualist, And Reductionist Thinking

Myopic, dualist, and reductionist thinking are ways of looking at problems in a short-sighted manner, without understanding the bigger picture. This thinking is narrow in scope and doesn’t take into account circumstances or forces that may not be immediately noticeable. Dualist thinking is very much black-or-white thinking, only accepting two realities. Things are either bad or good, negative or positive. It does not take into account that which may be good in one way is not good in another. Reductionist thinking reduces, or takes apart, situations, rather than taking in a holistic view. Think of a Lego object that has been put together. Reductionist thinking takes these pieces apart and looks at the pieces rather than at the entire object.

Systems Thinking And Sustainability

According to Systems Thinking, all societal issues are interconnected. First, within the backdrop of institutional and governmental contexts, in which social policy, economics, and resources are relevant. Second, within the broader ecosystem and the world’s biosphere that all living beings inhabit, which physical and mental well-being are also dependent on. In fact, according to the OECD and International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), in order to tackle planetary emergencies like the environment, economy, and socio-political systems, we need to understand their systemic properties, such as tipping points and interconnectedness (Kutty et al, 2020). As a result, all of these issues will be addressed effectively. 

Policy, Systems Thinking And Sustainability

There are issues at policy level in employing systems thinking. Even though policymakers may think they’re informed about systems thinking, many fail to understand complex, dynamic systems. Often, factors not considered are non-linearities, time delays, feedback, stocks, and flows. Unfortunately, there can be a lack of awareness of dynamic interplays beyond simple linear cause and effect to explain phenomena (Voulvouils et al, 2022). Policymakers with insufficient education in systems thinking often perceive sustainability issues through a specific disciplinary lens instead of a multi-disciplinary and holistic view. Moreover, policymakers not versed in systems thinking often explain away vital factors.

Initially, solving issues, like poor working conditions in some countries, require extensive consideration. In fact, some considerations include governmental structures and the role of companies that dictate expectations. Developing nations need to consider environmentally friendly approaches to actualise better technological, institutional, and governmental systems also (UNESCAP, 2018). Other approaches for mitigating environmental issues ensure that efforts are sustainable (Pelenc et al, 2015). These approaches should not exist as isolated from each other. Furthermore, they must measure the environmental, public, social, and democratic impacts for approaches that boost economic value (World Economic Forum, 2021). By addressing issues on multiple layers, at multiple levels which are affected, and in considering all levels of production, supply, demand, and contexts, systems thinking is adhered to.

Systems thinking and sustainability is a way of viewing the world and living with it, respectively.
Systems thinking and sustainability is a way of viewing the world and living with it, respectively.
Source: Freepik.

Examples Of Systems Thinking And Sustainability

One study suggests that the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, initiated in 2015 with the goal of eradicating poverty, can leverage nature based solutions focused on conserving biodiversity and ecosystems to sustain economic activity. In fact, this study highlights the potential benefits of applying a systems thinking approach to achieve these objectives. In doing so, by being guided by systems thinking, this can address various SDGs through allowing social and economic co-benefits to exist alongside the preserving of natural capital. Systems thinking, as a means to analyse this, can assess the trade offs of natural capital and how these link to social and economic co-benefits but also what the negative impacts are. By utilising systems thinking, a more informed approach of allowing ecosystem conservation and social-economic co-benefits can be understood (Martin et al, 2020).  

In fact, many approaches and solutions to existing problems create new problems, particularly for the environment or biosphere. Often, one micro-level issue occurs several times and multiplies to a macro level. In turn, this can affect the local community or international institutions, and vice versa. Furthermore, we need to address approaches holistically when climate change impacts our ecosystems and global biosphere, and prioritise an array of environmental threats alongside social issues. Unfortunately, we cannot fully address any social issue holistically and systemically when we undermine the natural environment in which society exists.

This is where the THRIVE Framework comes into significance and why it is so important. There need not be conflicting viewpoints and contradictory approaches. Scientific and holistic regenerative approaches allow the evaluation of all social and environmental strategies, leading to clarity for the future. Addressing social and environmental issues with the right tools is what the THRIVE Framework provides.

The Importance of the ‘Systemic’ Within Systems Thinking And Sustainability

The climate crisis and related social and economic consequences, require more than isolated targeting of specific industries, products, or issues. It requires an understanding of the systemic interaction of all these things. Ecological Systems theory is an ecological based theory which also links to the social sciences (Broffenbrenner, 1992). It reflects how ecosystems and society exist on different levels of interaction.

These interactions correspond with one another at different levels as opposed to different subsections operating independently. Care must be taken when addressing issues on a purely local community level, or a purely global level. Addressing issues needs to mutually be interactive in a cohesive way. This is because whatever happens on one level, within one system, can affect or undermine what happens on another. 

One example of this is buying food or a product that results in deforestation of a natural area. Attempting to target deforestation on the ground level whilst ignoring the macro consumer level won’t work. Similarly, minimising crime rates within some low socio-economic areas won’t work unless organisations address underlying issues causing crime rates.

As a result, systemic approach can address Environmental and social ills by addressing all systematic levels which interact with a particular issue. Factors influencing crime rates include social and economic policies, mental health services, and historical social stratification. Similarly, government policies, logging chains, livestock industries, and consumer choices influence deforestation.

The importance of the ‘Holistic’ within Systems Thinking And Sustainability

A holistic approach, similarly to systemic approach, highlights the interconnectedness of things in society and in the world’s biosphere. It also recognises context and pays recognition to things like regeneration. Band-aid solutions to climate or social issues, do not address the problems if the causes continue unrestrained. A holistic approach takes all facets of relevance to address issues at hand. Like a systemic approach, it does not seek to address issues in separation from one another. A holistic approach creates a better understanding, where more information is used, and more comprehensive outcomes are considered and enabled. A holistic approach is the core of the Systemic Holistic Model, which is constructed upon the central systemic holistic tenet of the Thrive Framework.

Moving Forward

Viewing the world in a holistic way, using systems thinking, is vital to solving the many societal and environmental issues plaguing our world today. What we do now, impacts, not only our immediate environment, but future generations. We’ve all heard the phrase the butterfly effect, right? It’s simple, or maybe not so simple, cause and effect. No, it’s not karma, it’s simply reality.

“Some complex dynamical systems exhibit unpredictable behaviours such that small variances in the initial conditions could have profound and widely divergent effects on the system’s outcomes. Because of the sensitivity of these systems, outcomes are unpredictable. This idea became the basis for a branch of mathematics known as chaos theory, which has been applied in countless scenarios since its introduction.”

Jamie L Vernon

In order to understand the system and address the effects before they happen, we need to be mindful about the actions we take. Society can’t solve a crisis sustainability if it creates a new one elsewhere.

Why Is It Essential We Focus On Systems Thinking And Sustainability?

Emphasising systems thinking and sustainability is important in navigating the complex, wicked problems faced by our world today. Systems thinking gives us the ability to explore these issues to identify their root cause and relationships. This allows us a holistic approach for finding solutions. Through understanding the various ways issues connect to each other, we can sort out solutions that work.

Systems thinking and sustainability form a robust framework that transcends conventional problem-solving approaches. They enable us to address global challenges by embracing a perspective that considers the interplay between social, environmental, and economic factors. Furthermore, it fosters resilience and responsible resource management. Through sustainability, we uphold a commitment to fairness, longevity, and the preservation of our planet’s biodiverse ecosystems.

In conclusion, the integration of systems thinking and sustainability is imperative for moving our world towards a more balanced and prosperous future. As we embrace these principles, we lay the groundwork for a world where challenges are met with comprehensive understanding and solutions are crafted to benefit the present without compromising the needs of generations yet to come. Ultimately, this synergy offers a pathway to creating a more equitable, resilient, and sustainable world for all.

Systems thinking and sustainability go hand in hand to achieve the SDGs.
Systems thinking and sustainability go hand in hand when it comes to achieving the SDGs.
Source: United Nations.

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) And Systems Thinking And Sustainability

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.

United Nations

Indeed, systems thinking is interconnected with multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) due to its holistic approach and emphasis on understanding complex interrelationships. Furthermore, here are some specific SDGs that particularly align with the principles of systems thinking:

SDG 1: “No Poverty

Systems thinking addresses the root causes of poverty by recognising the interconnectedness of economic, social, and environmental factors that contribute to poverty, enabling more comprehensive poverty alleviation strategies.

SDG 2: “Zero Hunger

Systems thinking helps understand food systems and their complexities, facilitating more effective strategies for achieving food security, reducing food waste, and promoting sustainable agriculture.

SDG 3: “Good Health and Well-being

By taking a holistic view of health systems and considering social, environmental, and economic determinants of health, systems thinking supports the promotion of well-being and equitable access to healthcare services.

SDG 4: “Quality Education

Systems thinking aids in understanding the complexities of educational systems, enabling the development of inclusive and quality education that addresses diverse needs and challenges.

SDG 5: “Gender Equality

Systems thinking can address deeply embedded societal structures and cultural norms, contributing to the promotion of gender equality by recognizing the interconnectedness of factors influencing gender disparities.

SDG 6: “Clean Water and Sanitation

Systems thinking approaches help in managing water resources sustainably, understanding water-related ecosystems, and addressing challenges related to access to clean water and sanitation.

SDG 7: “Affordable and Clean Energy

Systems thinking supports the transition towards sustainable and accessible energy systems by considering the interdependencies between energy, environment, and society.

SDG 13: “Climate Action

Systems thinking is crucial for understanding the complexities of climate change and its interconnected impacts on ecosystems, economies, and societies, enabling more effective strategies for mitigation and adaptation.

SDG 16: “Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions

Systems thinking supports the development of inclusive and accountable institutions, promoting peaceful and just societies by addressing the underlying systemic issues that contribute to conflicts and inequalities.

In conclusion, systems thinking connects with and aids different SDGs by offering a structure to grasp intricate systems, spot intervention opportunities, and encourage integrated solutions that foster sustainable development across various areas.

A Thrivable Framework

Systemic Holistic Model

THRIVE, or The Holistic Regenerative Innovative Value Entity, underpins the THRIVE Framework, a transdisciplinary modelling system foreseeing outcomes before actions. Its goal is to assess present initiatives’ potential, facilitating societal transformation toward a ‘beyond sustainable’ future. The SDGs set the goals, while the THRIVE Framework acts as the strategy for their achievement.

The THRIVE Framework rests on 12 Foundational Focus Factors (FFFs), serving as both theories and guidelines. These FFFs aid in navigating crises like natural disasters and climate change, offering insights from years of extensive research. They identify the essential conditions required for transitioning humanity towards Thrivability, surpassing mere sustainability.

Sustainability isn’t solely survival but thriving. The 12 FFFs and THRIVE platform uses backcasting, akin to envisioning a dream future and strategically planning steps to achieve it. Unlike mere future prediction, backcasting involves setting goals, addressing obstacles, and planning actions by working backward. This approach is commonly employed in sustainability planning to aim ambitiously and innovate pathways toward sustainability.

The Systemic Holistic Model integrates the 12 Foundational Focus Factors, spanning four quadrants—significance, shift, scale, and scope—to collectively drive Thrivable transformation.

Complex Wicked Problems

Complex, Wicked Problems represent one of the Foundational Focus Factors (FFFs), depicting intricate social, cultural, political, or economic issues challenging to resolve. These problems arise from volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous circumstances. Systems thinking helps us to understand these complex, wicked problems by providing us with a big picture overview. Furthermore, using systems thinking we are able to avoid solutions to complex, wicked problems, which would otherwise create further problems down the track.

Entity Model

The Entity Model FFF focuses on what different entities are capable of. An entity could range from a tiny cell to the entire universe. These models establish boundaries that set their limits. THRIVE’s logo, a ciambella chart, highlights two crucial boundaries for humanity. One is the social floor, ensuring the minimum for an entity’s survival. The other is the environmental ceiling, preventing excessive resource extraction. Entity model is a key aspect of systems thinking in order to understand the impact of the entity on the entire system.

Regenerative Economy

Regenerative Economy is another of THRIVEs 12 FFFs. This factor is focused on an economy based on regenerating nature. In fact, the factor highlights the necessary shift people must make, both as individuals and a collective, to create a sustainable future. The three main principles of a regenerative economy are:

  • The elimination of waste and pollution 
  • Circulation of products and materials at their highest value 
  • Regenerate nature.

The Regenerative approach is a long-advocated model of sustainability and promotes the utility of systems as opposed to components (Webster, 2015). It also promotes the need for a sustainable circular economy to eradicate waste and promote reusability and recycling, whereas a linear economy exists upon the back of a surplus of resources. 

Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking, one of the FFFs, encompasses a holistic examination of prevailing challenges across time. Interactions among system elements can significantly impact its outcomes, whether positively or negatively. This FFF can be found in the shift quadrant which embraces an innovative, values-centred methodology, incorporating transdisciplinary strategies, and transitioning from linear to circular and regenerative economies.

Values-Based Innovation

The FFF of Values-Based Innovation considers our most cherished principles, such as human life, thriving societies, ecosystems, fair policies, equity, social justice, and other initiatives striving for global improvement. These values act as the driving force behind innovative solutions for numerous complex, wicked problems we face.

Values-Based Innovation also promotes the need for systems thinking, which addresses the complexity of the crises faced and thus advocates for interdisciplinary and interconnected systems-based approaches. These systems-based approaches consider technologies, social practices, business models, regulations, and societal norms. Together, such integrated approaches facilitate the required change and transition to sustainability, which in turn allows the necessary shift to occur (Hunt et al., 2022).

Systemic Thinking With The THRIVE Project

THRIVE Project is dedicated to humanity. Furthermore, it invests interest in issues fundamental to the well-being of our society. The passionate volunteers at THRIVE research, educate and advocate on all things concerning sustainability. THRIVE’s mission is to safeguard human well-being in all domains and the well-being of nature and every living organism.

Systems thinking is about viewing the world in a more holistic manner and being able to see how the various systems interconnect. It means understanding the impact that systems have on each other and recognising that a decision made about one system will impact others. In fact, I am a system and you are a system. How have the words from my system impacted yours?

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