Skip to main content

What is Systems Thinking? 

Systems Thinking was created by Professor Jay W. Forrester in 1956 (MIT) to contend with dynamic challenges in complex environments and sustain change at scale.  It has, itself, experienced dynamic change since that time.

It invites designers to ask:

  • What is the operating context where you want to see change? (e.g. stakeholders, systemic forces)?
  • How will you engage all, or key parts, of that system?
  • How will you test and adapt your ideas within the complexity?

When to use it?

When little is known about the challenge, or people are polarised about it, or there are dynamic forces upon it, and you have a long term goal to change things.

Running a flu shot campaign? Probably not necessary to use systems thinking. Want teenagers across the country to change their lifestyle? Some dynamic forces involved so yes to systems thinking.

Success Story


Our client, a government health agency, engaged us to co-design and deliver cross-system innovative solutions for the attraction and retention of clinicians in rural and remote locations.


Because this challenge is so endemic across government agencies, we were able to recruit participants from 10 government directorates including police, education, and defence, to work collaboratively with us. We also engaged private sector organisations, including recruitment firms, and academics from a university with specialism in rural initiatives, who brought unique expertise and datasets to the table. The group worked on the mission from different angles, in cross-system teams using Systems Thinking and to target high-impact levers for change.


They generated 4 innovative inter-related prototypes in 8 weeks, pitching these to the Deputy Secretary, at the state ministry, who endorsed them for pilot in Local Health Districts. Pilots included a storytelling website in continued use today, used by 10 regions to make the case for clinicians to consider regional roles.

You might also like

What is Game Design

How can Design Thinking help