Systems Thinking

How does it all fit together?

Systems thinking is a tool used by many to break down the specific roots of an issue. For example, the the causes, solutions, impact and limitations of solutions are displayed; often utilizing arrows to designate causality between each. Many of global population does not have access to clean and reliable energy, which is an issue that hinders development. In order to better develop long lasting and effective solutions, one can utilize a systems thinking map to break down this issue. The below picture is an example that I created to illustrate how causes, impacts, solutions and limitations interact.


On the left, I have outlined many of the causes and reasons for this inaccessibility and inequality. At the center of these causes lies low income populations that are often without resources as a result of systemic inequality. Contributing to this inequality are the limited financial resources available throughout less developed countries. As lower income populations need to cook meals and sanitize water, the need for cooking fuel forces people to resort to open stoves and burning wood, which are both detrimental to the environment and to health. These cheap and polluting energy sources are also used for people who need energy access to use lights for education, innovation and safety within communities. Some of these lower income communities, especially in the United States may be a part of the fossil fuel industry. Coal mines, for example, could be the main source of employment for some populations, and the need for an income could quite easily trump the use of alternative energy sources. If these communities are not living in these coal mining areas, it is possible that they are located in rural areas. As a result of limited financial resources, the roads connecting these rural areas are either nonexistent or almost unusable. Without proper infrastructure like roads, it becomes challenging to create connections to grids or build new grids. These items all contribute to the issue of energy accessibility and resiliency.


There are several proposed solutions that I have included within this systems map. However, this list is not exhaustive and many more solutions could be considered. The first of these solutions is improved road conditions, and specifically addresses the issue of antiquated and nonexistent infrastructure. The creation of stronger road systems can assure that organizations and corporations can travel to rural areas and implement new energy programs and infrastructure. The five other solutions are renewable energy sources that would be more resilient and cleaner for the environment. Solar energy, wind power, hydropower, geothermal and personal energy systems, like microgrids can all be used to address the need for energy. The specificity of microgrids also helps to address the inaccessibility of rural areas, and can ensure that destructed wires or down centralized wires do not hinder areas powerless. An additional solution I proposed could assist all these renewable energy sources. This would be the introduction of renewable energy subsidies, a way to increase investment in and research and development of these energy sources.


The impact of these solutions are multifaceted and highly valuable. The first would be an increased ability to develop and innovate, as mentioned briefly above. Access to light in rural and lower-income areas would also increase the ability to learn and engage in education. This as a result could increase women empowerment as traditionally female roles of collecting water and cooking could be safer and quicker, allowing more time for education. Access to cleaner cookstoves would also improve health, specifically for women and children. The improved health, increased innovation and stronger storm resilience means a decrease in health, infrastructure and energy costs.


Though these solutions could help to address several causes, there are several limitations to them. The first is that many of these renewable energy systems are area limited, meaning they would require a specific type of land makeup or available resources. Additionally, environmental degradation is a possible side effect as some renewable sources can destroy ecosystems. One example is the destruction of normal fish breeding systems that can result from building a hydropower plant. In order to pay for this new equipment there is also a need for immediate investment and finances, which is a challenging sell. In some countries where corruption is an issue, funding these projects may be especially challenging. Current governmental restrictions may also slow the process of creating these systems, and like subsidies for fossil fuels, may encourage the continued purchase of these GHG emitting products. Another limitation is the cultural and social differences between communities that may challenge development in the renewable energy sector.