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Applying systems thinking

Sustainable and optimal waste management practices in urban European environments

About the project

A group comprising of designers, anthropologist and a mathematician decided to work together on a complex wicked problem to learn more about systems thinking and practice while following a course delivered by Omidyar group.

We were geographically distributed in different parts of Western Europe, so this project was entirely remote, with each team member facilitating different parts of the process.

The System Challenge

The systems challenge we tackled was:

How might we attain sustainable and optimal waste management practices in urban European environments...


when waste is mismanaged there are long-lasting and irreversible damages to human and non-human ecosystems.



Visualizing our complex challenge

Diagram of a use case in the urban waste generation and management cycle

We were asked to visualize our system challenge about waste generation and management using scenarios/ use cases that we may have encountered to in our respective urban environments.

We also investigated the lifecycle of raw materials and productions and how waste is generated at different parts in this cycle all the way till recycling and processing of the waste.

It is a cyclical process but some waste generated never gets recycled for various reasons as illustrated by the diagram below.

Understanding the lifecycle of raw materials and production.Diagram credit:


Determining our guiding star and near star

In order to tackle this complex and a 'cloud' type problem, any team working on a systems challenge has to determine a guiding star and near star to create long term and short term goals and objectives.

Our guiding star is...

a culture of production and consumption where all stakeholders participate and take responsibility towards not only drastically reducing the production of waste but also managing waste in a balanced and sustainable manner.

  • There is no more production towards obsolescence.
  • Sharing economy systems are dominant.
  • Market demand for sustainable products and production drives sustainable manufacturing and design. Industries produce and use products and materials that can be recycled or reused, producing zero residual waste.
  • Consumers feel individual responsibility to follow the recycling guidelines, such that their waste is properly re-captured to be used again in the production process.
  • Waste management efforts effectively and efficiently re-capture used materials to be fed back into the production cycle, creating a closed loop in production.
  • Global commitment to sustainability, with regulating bodies enforcing these sustainable methods of production.

Our near star is… 

All citizens are collectively empowered, resilient and have a basic sense of security that allows them to be more proactive in taking responsibility and demanding change towards sustainable waste production and management systems.



Our deep structure

A discussion and brainstorm lead to our deep structure where:

'Capitalism' is at the centre of the system, paradoxically both feeding on a 'symptoms over causes' way of doing things, the 'unsustainable behaviour of people' and the 'inability to implement results of innovation' and being the leverage for a more interconnected world and the technological advancement that will eventually lead to a change of practices ('technical innovation', 'global actors and policies', 'society awareness and reaction').

'Society awareness and reaction' feeds back on 'capitalism' in a way that changes its negative outputs ('symptoms over causes', 'unsustainable behaviour of people', 'inability to implement results of innovation') into positive ones.



Systems map


Feedback from stakeholders/users

Who did we share our map with?

  • Ellen - a representative from a project working toward eliminating landfill waste from the University of Amsterdam.
  • Nicholas- 25-year old, a young consumer who buys what is value for money and recycles materials depending upon the facilities around him and his knowledge and awareness about them.

What parts of the map strongly resonated with the people we spoke to?

The focus on capitalism was apt, she agreed that this ingrained system of consumption and social pressure is central to the system of waste management. The part about treating symptoms over causes and how technical innovation doesn’t get implemented due to capitalism.

What parts of the map did our stakeholders challenge or think still needed work?

The relationships between factors on the map could be better defined, with redundancies reduced and factors more organized around the central core system.

The stakeholder missed a connection between how he could go from a consumer with an unsustainable and polluting behaviour fuelled by capitalism to the top right of the map where the civic movements are happening and people are aware. He doesn’t consider himself an activist and trusts the government/ authorities to recycle his waste responsibly rather than filling a landfill or incinerating and polluting the environment.

What were the major insights we gained from their feedback? What will we change about our map as a result?

He agreed that civic pressure is a very important factor in the system and that changing consumer mindsets would be essential to making changes. It may be that we should frame consumer behaviour and social norms as expectations that consumers have.

The map needs a connection about how consumers can gradually move from unsustainable behaviour to making choices that are less waste generating and less polluting to the environment. More nudges to people who do not go actively looking for better designed and less waste generating products.

System strategy

 Where do we want to engage our system? Which dynamic, or combination of dynamics, do we want to initially engage?

We want to initially engage with the node/ dynamic in our map that we have identified as “Informed Society”. We believe that this has good potential for leverage as we consider it to be one of the strongest influencers of Civic Pressure - a major factor in the entire system, as recognised by one of the experts.“Continuous Innovation” has an enormous potential to influence both society behaviour and the market in a broader sense, as it provides concrete solutions for waste management in a small scale - which can then be scaled up and absorbed by major players. Its impact, often perceived only in the long-term, is strong and able to change the system.“Social media lobbying” would also be suitable to be engaged and influenced.

What is our evidence that this is an opportunity for leverage? (what indicators did we mark)?

Nowadays media is one of the most powerful forces that can influence society behaviour. At the same time, it's an accessible means, that with relatively small resources, could create a big impact.Greta Thunberg is an example of the power of media, and how an initiative started at small scale can engage at world levels.Society behaviour could change completely the system. It's society who consumes the products, who accepts or rejects them, and industry will follow their trend.


What impact are we seeking to make on this dynamic?

By making a connection between small innovative projects in the community and social media lobbying we aim at strengthening the information of society as a force that is making the system healthier. An Informed Society is our main identified point of leverage and the central point in the mission of our organization.

An informed society would also weaken the consumerism force, one that has one of the biggest impact in our system. An Informed Society is one of the major forces driving Civic Pressure, which in turn can influence other dynamics around waste management, such as actions toward consumption, waste production & disposal, individualistic behaviour & perception of the issue (locally & globally), education and even leverage strategies by major key players.

Influencing society → influencing consumption → influencing industry → adopting results of innovation and research.


Why might engaging this dynamic lead to broader change in the system? If we were able to have the desired impact on this dynamic(s), how might that cause the system to react in a positive way in the medium and longer term? 

Ripple effects in the mid-term that in turn might contribute to people developing a sense of community and shared responsibility which will increase their will to change the system. A healthier system in the long-term (our near star)? Our strategy will eventually, in the long-term, lead to the attainment of our near star: empowering all citizens collectively, developing resilience and a basic sense of security that will allow them to become proactive in taking responsibility and demanding change towards sustainable waste and production and management systems.

How can we achieve this impact?

To what degree does the team have (or will it acquire) the capabilities needed to implement the strategy?

Our team has at the moment several human capital potential to implement the strategy, namely: research skills, advocacy methods experience, social media expertise, engagement with social innovation ecosystems, experience with co-creation methods and co-creation project development, peripheric access to power networks and financing institutions.

How might it best complement what other actors are doing and/or add distinct value?

Our added value to what is already being done is our focus on creating synergies between actors and organisations doing similar work in a parallel but non collaborative way. Our approach to this system is not one of competitiveness but of solidarity, sharing resources and developing strategies together toward a common goal - thus attempting to break the individualistic cycle which is imposed by the current socioeconomic system and permeates actions of individuals and groups. This strategy aims at attaining a better power balance between the different systems and actors around waste management, creating more room for smaller actors in order to create effective solutions with a sustainable impact.

How might we foster change from within the system itself? How might we create the conditions for stakeholders in the system to define and implement change work? (e.g. using a platform for change, social lab, community organizing, etc)

Our organization will develop a strategy that includes practical actions like co-creation labs, social media campaigns, social innovation workshops, collaboratively managed platform on waste management (by actors at different levels), networking events/ forums between civil society organisations & key innovation players.


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