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Study information

Systems Thinking for Sustainability Challenges

Module titleSystems Thinking for Sustainability Challenges
Module codeGEOM434Z
Academic year2024/5
Module staff

Dr James Dyke (Lecturer)

Dr Chris Boulton (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 module will give you an introduction to the history of sustainability and to the ways that systems thinking can be used to practically address sustainability challenges, including how we might anticipate sustainability ‘tipping points’. This module will empower you to think in new ways, providing you with training in problem-solving research and how you can use that research to influence meaningful sustainability-oriented change. During the module you will have the opportunity to put into practice various strategies for synthesising and communicating sustainability concepts and research, with a view to influencing different audiences. Your learning throughout the module will help you develop core skills such as systems thinking, communication, project management, researching the literature, and presenting.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module will provide you with a solid foundation in systems thinking in the context of global sustainability and how this can be downscaled to specific challenges. There will be an emphasis on how to connect sustainability and systems theory to real-world challenges. 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. You will learn the contested history of sustainability and how the concept has evolved, including in relation to concepts such as ‘net zero’. This will include exploring contemporary debates within the framing of the climate and ecological crisis. Through the module you will develop an understanding of change-making communication skills and solution-finding research skills, and you will have various opportunities to apply and refine these skills. You will also engage in a selection of theories from digital, creative and arts-based approaches in order to consider how these approaches can be applied to educate people to make and own change. Systems thinking will be progressed via the system dynamics frameworks and will involve simulation software. Online visualisation tools will be used to explore complex datasets and so allow deeper understanding of real-world sustainability issues.

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 sustainability theory and policy

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

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

  • 3. Interpret specific sustainability challenges in the light of sustainability and systems theory
  • 4. Link local/regional sustainability challenges to global-scale processes
  • 5. Apply systems theory concepts in relation to environmental sustainability

ILO: Personal and key skills

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

  • 6. Synthesise and critically evaluate research and findings from an interdisciplinary range of sources and methodologies
  • 7. Formulate conceptual models of real-world complex systems across a range of domains
  • 8. Effectively communicate complex issues in a way comprehensible to a general audience
  • 9. Undertake independent, self-directed study and research

Syllabus plan

Teaching will feature staff from across multiple departments, as well as guest academics and professionals that will link research to real-world sustainability challenges. Learning will cover the following topics:

  • History of Sustainable Development
  • Limits to Growth
  • Planetary Boundaries
  • Exponential Change
  • History of Systems Thinking
  • Tragedy of the Commons
  • Tipping Points
  • Beyond Net Zero
  • Sustainable futures

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 teaching15Recorded lectures
Scheduled learning and teaching15Assessment preparation and reflection
Scheduled learning and teaching70Research-led learning content (comprising text and other media, plus links to resources and activities)
Guided independent study200Video, interactive content, and reading and research linked to lectures and assessments

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Knowledge and understanding quizzes30 minutes1-6,8Written or recorded audio/video feedback

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
Research report602500 words1-6,8,9Written
Recorded presentation205 minutes3-6,8,9Written
Short film205 minutes1,5-9Written

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

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Research ReportResearch Report (60%)1-6,8,9Referred/deferred period
Recorded presentationRecorded presentation (%20)3-6,8,9Referred/deferred period
Short filmShort film (20%)1,5-9Referred/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. A couple of examples are given below but these may not be included in the year’s syllabus. 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
  • Mulligan, M., 2014. An introduction to sustainability: Environmental, social and personal perspectives. Routledge

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Indicative learning resources - Other resources


Key words search

Environmental Sustainability, Theory, Practice, Policy

Credit value30
Module ECTS


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NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


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Last revision date