It is recognised that in order for sustainable development to become a normal human state there must be a societal change, Rieckmann (2012) contends that universities are key to facilitating this societal change with regards to sustainable development (SD). Little attention has been paid to the circumstances required for important SD competencies to be formed and educational organisations have questioned which competencies are most important (Rieckmann, 2012). A serious weakness with educating SD competencies is that no agreement about which key competencies are of importance exists (Barth et al., 2007). I agree that competencies are essential and that they can be gained through education whether formal or informal. However, I aim to describe how systemic thinking is already taught informally and is therefore not required as a separate competency. It could be argued that the same applies to other competencies listed by Rieckmann (2012)
Sustainable development is often defined as development that meets the requirements of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Belcham, 2015). As a race, we are currently experiencing a vast array of problem situation which threatens the existence of many forms of life on the planet, including humans. These issues include climate change and various animal extinctions and are multi-faceted situations and could be described as wicked problems. As a methodology, systemic thinking has the potential to aid in meeting our commitment to SD for future generations.
Systemic thinking is a trans-disciplinary framework for interrogating complicated situations as systems. Any situation can be considered to be a system made up of many complex and interdependent parts and systemic thinking is a way of making sense of such systems. In a wider context, systems approaches are generally applied to making sense of and understanding wicked situations with the ultimate aim of improving them.
Systemic thinking as a methodology is a fundamental shift from more traditional methods of analysing a situation. The traditional analysis focuses on breaking the situation up into integral parts. In contrast, systems thinking focuses on how the subject of study interacts with other parts of the system, for example, thinking systemically about a tree would include consideration of the forest containing the tree, the landscape the forest is in and the soil and atmosphere which give nutrients to the tree. In other words, systemic thinking works by expanding the focus to encompass larger numbers of interactions in the situation being studied and aids in the identification of solutions to wicked problems.
Future students will be facing challenges which are very different from todays and the aptitude to assess the whole of a wicked situation is an ability that will become increasingly important in order to work towards sustainability.
Rieckmann, (2012) states that experts in sustainable development from around the world describe systemic thinking as one of the most relevant key competencies. It might be argued however that systems thinking is already a skill which science and engineering students develop as part of the investigative nature of their respective subjects. Claesson and Svanström, (2015) found that students developed competency in systemic thinking throughout their studies, but, since they were not taught systems methodology as a separate subject they lacked the vocabulary to communicate their systems practice. Instead, they considered it to be an integral part of their own discipline. An alternative explanation might be that education has taken what I believe is a necessary step towards a more multidisciplinary scientific culture within education.
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