Why should we use Systems Thinking to identify the root causes of problems and new opportunities

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Do you know that the first tree in the history of Earth’s utopia made its debut just 300 million years ago?

That’s not even the third quarter of the Earth’s age. As you walk through the woods, you may get an impression that the surrounding trees are all very individual, passive entities. However, over million years, the species of trees have evolved, from a leafless, stunted, fern-like tree that first came into being to over 60,000 species of trees on Earth extensively spread out as a linked and interconnected network.

Understanding the System as a Whole

In the beautifully penned down book of Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World, the author, a forester for over 30 years, unravels that trees are social beings. With observations backed up by scientific research, Wohlleben describes how trees have evolved, lived, housed, and functioned together. Throughout their evolution, trees have developed sophisticated communication and cooperation systems that are similar to human ones.

Closely interrelated as a system such that one element affects another constituent, the forests are a prime example of a Systems theory.

“An interconnected set of elements that are cohesively organized in a way that achieves something.” Donella Meadows

Many elements in a forest determine the system’s overall health. Take, for instance, the insects. They aerate the soil, pollinate blossoms, help control pests, and decompose residues, providing a nutrient-rich layer of soil that heavily supports plant growth. Should you remove the insects from the system, the plants would turn pallid in the long run.

What is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is an analysis that focuses on understanding how the parts of a system interact to produce the overall behavior. The environmental scientist Donella Meadows describes it as a “way of thinking that gives us the freedom to identify the root cause of problems, and see new opportunities”.

Contrary to the circular shift of Systems thinking, reductionist thinking, which is linear and fragmented, is likely to result in solutions that have unintended consequences when applied to complex problems.

Therefore, arriving at solutions to complex problems requires to carry out reflective thinking in a feedback loop. In other words, a system thinker perceives relationships, untangles the interconnection of elements, and holistically analyzes the system as a whole.

What is a Systems Thinker?

A systems thinker acknowledges that the relationship between components is as important as the components itself; a systems thinker can study the connections and highlight the potential dangers. This requires a shift in mindset from linear to circular.

To further illustrate this point, we can take help from a true story called “Operation Cat Drop”. It is an excellent example to demonstrate how tweaking with a system’s interconnectedness leads to far-reaching, often unanticipated consequences.

Operation Cat Drop: An example of Systems Thinking 

Fighting off the malarial disease

In the 1950s, the outbreak of Malaria disease from the bite of a particular mosquito species took Borneo Island by storm. With fatalities rapidly increasing in number, the World Health Organization (WHO) was pressured to quickly develop a solution.

Struggling to eradicate the root cause, soon after that, WHO came to Borneo with the pesticide DDT in the hope of killing the mosquitoes. The entire island was heavily sprayed with DDT pesticide, and all the Malaria-causing mosquitoes disappear.

The DDT-Spray Aftermath

Having solved one problem, the pesticide, however, affected many other insects on the wildlife island. As a result, the geckos fed on these insects were consuming large amounts of the DDT pesticide.

This led to a drastic wipeout of the cats’ population on the island, as they were poisoned to death when they hunted down the DDT-containing geckos. Consequently, the island witnessed a massive upsurge in rats’ population, thereby leading to other diseases and chowing down all the grain supplies.

A Novel Solution 

The locals were facing another disaster, and they reached out to the World Health Organization again to convey the mess created. Something had to be done to solve it, and therefore, the team decided on “dropping” live cats into the island of Borneo as the only way out. Thus, the Royal Air Force flew in 14,000 cats and dropped them via parachute, which gave the operation its name.

The thrown-in cats tracked down the rats and helped stabilize the situation; in other words, they helped restore the system’s ecological balance.

Operation Cat Drop has become a precautionary tale to advocate for Systems thinking. It is a lesson learned that the natural environment is intricately intertwined, which is why we need to consider an open system as a whole to work out workable solutions to problems that arise. Any solution that sounds too good to be real needs another visit because it is very likely that you are overlooking a lot of details.

Systems Thinking Plays a Dual Role 

Challenges like tackling a deteriorating climate, ocean plastic pollution, or pollution, on the whole, are incredibly complicated.

Such complex problems are not merely environmental, but they also pertain to social and economic challenges. For instance, plastic pollution is the result of several factors linking up. These include our reliance on the daily use of plastic, lack of consumer education and awareness, poor product designs, business practices and incentives, and a lack of finance or infrastructure, amongst other things.

Systems thinking has a dual role in the circular economy. While it is an enabling tool that helps us identify root causes and devise better solutions, this approach provides us with the framework for our conceptual understanding.

Systems Thinking Approach

Systems thinking recognizes the reality that despite everything being interconnected, everything can also be defined by a function, a purpose, or potential in any way. A tree’s system is defined by its bark and myriad of ecosystem services such as producing oxygen, storing water, providing pulp for paper, etc. It is also dynamically connected to the ecosystem by drawing energy and nutrients from it.

Similarly, human beings enclose a complex array of organ systems that cohesively work together to keep us alive. At the same time, we are connected to the ecosystem to keep the trees alive by contributing to the resources.

System thinking is based on a paramount shift in mindset; it goes from linear thinking to a circular loop. This shift’s fundamental principle is to know that every element of a system is interconnected to another.

Essentially, everything is reliant upon another constituent for survival. Where human needs food, air, and water to live, the trees need carbon dioxide and sunlight to survive. Inanimate objects like a chair need a tree to provide wood for it, while a cell phone requires electricity distribution to power it. In brief, nothing in a system can do without the other. Interrelatedness suggests a strong network between the elements. There is a flow and a constant feedback loop.

As Newton said; Action causes a Reaction

Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action (force), there is an equal and opposite reaction. Whereas his first law of thermodynamics is that energy is neither created nor destroyed – it only changes from one form to another.

This quick physics reminder emphasizes that both laws are some of the earliest works on Systems Thinking.

“The Butterfly Effect”

The butterfly effect is a phrase given to connote that small, initial changes can bring about bigger, overarching consequences. This was deduced by Edward Lorenz, a mild-mannered meteorology professor at MIT, some 50 years ago, when he realized that a tiny alteration in a rounded-off figure could drastically transform the whole pattern.

He came to know about the unexpected working of Nature’s system that all future events are, in fact, determined by initial conditions. In his book, The Essence of Chaos, Lorenz clarifies that Nature’s interdependent chains of events in a system are too complex to dissect, but they are undoubtedly reliant on one another.

In a paper published in 1972, Lorenz stated, “If the flap of a butterfly’s wings can be instrumental in generating a tornado, it can equally well be instrumental in preventing a tornado.”. However, despite having no tangible proof to that claim, the focus should be on the larger point it evokes: Nature is highly sensitive to tiny changes.


Systems thinking is the process of understanding that every element is influential on another. When tackling problems that arise in an open system. We must consider all components in the final draft before reaching a solution.

The Operation Cat Drop and other examples should serve as a cautionary tale for realizing that our actions would leave an impact on other parts of the system.

As children, we are often taught to value the consequences of our actions – a critical life lesson; do we easily forget this as adults?.


Next up in the series, I will share insights on different industries circular opportunities, like food, plastic, and fashion.

Previous articles of the circular economy series:

References and Additional Resources
The systems thinker
Ellen Macarthur Foundation -Systems And The Circular Economy
Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World
When the Butterfly Effect Took Flight
Systems thinking: a cautionary tale (cats in Borneo)
Spread the word

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