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Study information

Global Systems Thinking

Module titleGlobal Systems Thinking
Module codeGEOM143
Academic year2024/5
Module staff

Professor Tim Lenton (Convenor)

Dr James Dyke (Lecturer)

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 systems thinking approaches to sustainability. You will explore how systems thinking is used to understand the Earth system and social systems, to anticipate ‘tipping points’ in complex systems, and to guide effective action in the face of complexity.

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 learn to visualise systems in terms of stocks and flows and feedback loops and consider different approaches to futures thinking. A particular focus will be on identifying tipping points in complex systems, including ‘positive tipping points’ that can amplify change towards desirable sustainability outcomes. You will also engage in a selection of theories 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 climate, ecological and social 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
Posteroptional size1, 3-4, 6-8Written/oral on request

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
Essay752,500 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 essay (75%)Essay (75%)1-2, 5-7, 9Referred/deferred period
Short film (25%)Short film (25%)1, 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

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.
  • Lenton, T., 2016. Earth System Science: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
  • 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.
  • Lenton, T.M. et al., 2022. Operationalising positive tipping points towards global sustainability. Global Sustainability, 5, E1. doi:10.1017/sus.2021.30
  • Inayatullah, S., 2008. Six pillars: futures thinking for transforming. foresight, 10(1), pp.4-21 ( 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