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Study information

Global Systems Thinking

Module titleGlobal Systems Thinking
Module codeGEOM143
Academic year2019/0
Module staff

Professor Tim Lenton (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

We are often encouraged to think in simple cause and effect ways, but the world is full of complex interacting systems and ‘wicked problems’. This non-mathematical module will help broaden your ways of thinking and acting to allow you to tackle sustainability challenges in new ways. You will critically engage with approaches to sustainability that will include systems thinking, futures thinking and anticipation studies. You will explore how systems thinking is used to, for example, predict weather and climate, the spread of pathogens, stability of financial markets, and abrupt societal changes such as the ‘Arab Spring’.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module will provide you with a solid foundation in systems thinking and how it can be applied to a wide range of social, economic, and environmental issues. Emphasis will be placed on “how to think” which will involve worked examples and exercises that allow you to explore the interconnections and behaviours of different systems. Where appropriate, this will involve using user-friendly simulation software in which you adjust features and rules and explore the end results. As part of developing understanding of change-making and solution-finding, you will consider various approaches to futures thinking including turn of the century practices such as visioning, through causal layer analysis, up to the current emerging practice of anticipation studies. You will also engage in a selection of theories from dialogic, new materialist, digital, creative and arts-based approaches in order to consider how these approaches can educate people to make and own change.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Describe the key concepts of systems dynamics, feedback loops, and complex adaptive systems
  • 2. Analyse the historical development of systems thinking and its interactions and impacts on sustainability theory and policy
  • 3. Run and interpret simple simulations in the Graphical User Interface (GUI) environment of Netlogo

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 4. Analyse a contemporary sustainability challenge via systems thinking
  • 5. Identify and critically evaluate the presence of potential tipping points in social and ecological systems

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 6. Formulate conceptual models of real-world complex systems across a range of domains
  • 7. Engage in reflexive practice and be critically aware of alternative approaches and perspectives
  • 8. Effectively communicate complex issues in a way comprehensible to a general audience
  • 9. Undertake independent, self-directed study and research

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

Lectures, seminars, and workshops will cover the following topics:

  • History and development of systems thinking
  • The importance of feedback loops in social-ecological systems
  • Futures thinking
  • Cybernetics
  • Complex Adaptive Systems
  • Social-ecological systems
  • Dynamics of resilience
  • Tipping points and regime shifts
  • System dynamics and the Limits to Growth study
  • Introduction to Netlogo

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching10Lectures
Scheduled learning and teaching10Seminars
Scheduled learning and teaching1Introduction to the module
Scheduled learning and teaching2Poster presentations (formative)
Scheduled learning and teaching2Preparation for assessment workshop
Guided independent study125Reading and research for tutorials and assessment

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Poster presentation10 minutes1, 3-4, 6-8Peer-to-peer/in-class feedback from lecturers

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay752500 words1-2, 5-7, 9Written/oral on request
Short film255 minutes1, 3-4, 7-8Written/oral on request

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Reflective essayEssay1-2, 5-7, 9Referred/deferred period
Short filmShort film1, 3-4, 7-8Referred/deferred period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 50%) you will be required to redo the relevant assessment. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 50%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Specific readings will be provided for the module consistent with the taught areas of theory for that year but in general you will be expected to read original theory articles or book chapters. General module textbooks are provided below. You can contact the module lead in the Autumn semester for details of the theory that will be covered in the upcoming year.
  • Meadows, D.H., 2008. Thinking in systems: A primer. Chelsea Green publishing.
  • Stroh, D.P., 2015. Systems thinking for social change: A practical guide to solving complex problems, avoiding unintended consequences, and achieving lasting results. Chelsea Green Publishing.
  • Resnick, M., 1997. Turtles, termites, and traffic jams: Explorations in massively parallel microworlds. Mit Press.
  • Ramalingam, B., 2013. Aid on the edge of chaos: rethinking international cooperation in a complex world. Oxford University Press.
  • Inayatullah, S., 2008. Six pillars: futures thinking for transforming. foresight, 10(1), pp.4-21 (

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

Environmental sustainability, theory, practice, policy

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date