Meeting the MDGs effectively - adopt a systems view

Meeting the MDGs effectively - adopt a systems view

Why do we need to see the bigger picture?

Figure 1: Sustainability - the Triple Bottom Line

Figure 2: The trend to emphasise economic development over social and environmental needs

  • A system is a combination of interacting elements that function together. A system's behaviour is determined by the relationship between its interrelated parts (e.g. an ecosystem or a country/community's environmental/socio-economic state)

  • Sustainability requires finding the most beneficial balance between economic, environmental and social needs (Fig. 1). But for the past few centuries, the consequences of human activities have often not been viewed at the systems level (Fig. 2)

  • Each individual MDG is too complex for isolated projects, so programmes of strategic projects are required for each MDG (Fig. 3, on back). However, MDGs cannot be solved in isolation and have complex interrelations. So a systems approach is needed
An integrated approach to issues relating to the interlinked themes of climate change, sustainable energy, industrial development, poverty alleviation and air pollution was an essential prerequisite to the vision of sustainability. - the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, 15th May 2007

Apply a systems approach, placing all projects in their wider context

Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole. View "problems" as part of an overall system and examine interactions between the elements.

Systems engineeringuses various tools and methodologies to better comprehend and manage complexity in systems. Approaching the MDGs requires consideration of very complex systems that are difficult to model but some methods may include:

  • System definition - considering several aspects including: Interdependence, Holistic Emergent Properties (not possible to detect by inspection of individual aspects); Goal Seeking through transformation of Inputs into Outputs; effects of Disorder (randomness); methods of Regulation and feedback; Hierarchies of smaller subsystems
  • Visualisation tools - e.g. distribution of defined system parameters onto a framework (e.g. STEEP – see example box) and mapping interrelations (
  • Analysis tools - e.g. the Soft Systems Methodology: a systemic approach which allows the system's users to gradually develop a more comprehensive understanding of the system, facilitating stakeholders to reach agreements about what changes all parties can live with. Ref: Bob Williams, soft systems methodology, The Kellogg Foundation, December 2005

Figure 3: Programmes of interrelated projects are required for each MDG. But also consider how these programmes affect other MDGs.

Example System: Three Gorges Dam, China – the world's largest hydroelectric river dam, a project with very wide-ranging inflences and implications.

Further reading:

Fenner, RA, Ainger, CA, Cruickshank, HJ, Guthrie, P (2006) Widening horizons for engineers: addressing the complexity of Sustainable Development
Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Engineering Sustainability, 159 (ES4) pp 145-154. Jowitt, PW (2004) Sustainability and the formation of the Civil Engineer,
Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Engineering Sustainability, 157 (ES2) pp79-88