Wicked Problems, Dynamic Solutions. The Ecosystem approach and systems thinking

UNEP- United Nations Environment Programme Systems thinking

Target Audience

University students, policymakers, managers and professionals who require an overview of the topic in order to integrate the concepts of the MOOC into their professions.


We live in a complex and dynamic world. Many problems we face today involve interdependent structures, multiple actors, and are at least partly the result of past actions. Such problems are extremely difficult to tackle and conventional solutions have very often led to unintended consequences.

A systems thinking approach focuses on systems as a whole: how the parts interrelate and how interconnections create emerging patterns. Systems thinking tools allow us to map and explore dynamic complexity. With a better understanding of systems, we can identify leverage points that lead to desired outcomes and avoid unintended consequences. Environmental problems are often described as “wicked problems” to highlight their complexity and the difficulties they entail. Finding answers to current crises such as fisheries collapse, climate change, biodiversity loss, infectious diseases, and inequitable access to resources will be amongst the greatest challenges of our time. The ecosystem approach applies systems thinking to gain a better understanding of how ecosystems function. It can help us identify potential solutions to a myriad of problems inspired in part by the complex dynamics of ecosystems themselves.

Learning Objectives

You wil gain:
– a well-developed knowledge of the basic features of ecosystems, the ecosystem approach and systems thinking from an interdisciplinary perspective
– an understanding of the distinction between reductionist and holistic thinking
– the ability to apply critical systems thinking
– enhanced knowledge of the inter-relationships between ecosystems and human systems:
– critical ecosystem functions and services,
– threats, drivers and direct and indirect impacts to human well-being and development, and
– opportunities for the wider application of the ecosystem approach and systems thinking in other sectors
– specific awareness of case studies selected from representative ecosystems and related global issues, demonstrating the benefits and challenges of integrated approaches for ecosystem management and beyond
– the necessary basis for designing creative solutions to ecosystem management and governance problems