A review of systems modelling for sustainability

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Enayat A. Moallemi , Edoardo Bertone, Sibel Eker, Lei Gao, Katrina Szetey, Nick Taylor, Brett A. Bryan


The 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) represent a holistic and ambitious agenda for transforming the world towards societal well-being, economic prosperity, and environmental protection. Achieving the SDGs is, however, challenged by the performance of interconnected sectors and the complexity of their interactions which drive non-linear system responses, tipping points, and spillover effects in progress towards sustainability. Systems modelling, as an integrated way of thinking about and modelling multisectoral dynamics, can help explain how feedback interactions within and among different sectors can lead to broader system transformation and progress towards the SDGs. Here, we review how system dynamics, as one of prominent systems modelling approaches, can inform and contribute to sustainability research and implementation, framed by the SDGs. We systematically analyse 357 system dynamics studies undertaken at the local scale (e.g., communities, cities), published between 2015 (i.e., inception of the SDGs) and 2020. We analyse the studies to illuminate strengths and limitations in four key areas: diversity of scope; interdisciplinarity of the approaches; the role of stakeholder participation; and the analysis of SDG interactions. We assess strengths and limitations of the reviewed literature, and propose related research priorities in four areas: better consideration of societal aspects of sustainable development in modelling efforts; integrating with new interdisciplinary methods; improving genuine stakeholder engagement; a more in-depth analysis of feedback interactions underlaying the SDGs (i.e., synergies and trade-offs). The review provides a comprehensive knowledge base of existing works that can guide future applications and set a new research agenda for filling existing gaps in the application of systems modelling to sustainability.




Environmental Indicators and Impact Assessment, Natural Resources Management and Policy, Sustainability


review, SDGs, systems thinking, systems modelling


Published: 2021-07-13 19:50


CC BY Attribution 4.0 International

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