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System Dynamics Focuses More on Sustainability Than the Sustainable Development Goals

System Dynamics Focuses More on Sustainability Than the Sustainable Development Goals

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The world is facing major global challenges that result in moving towards or beyond social and ecological tipping points and in the exacerbation of drivers of climate change, but also in the consolidation of simulation modeling and systems thinking to solve those global problems.

As a newcomer to the International System Dynamics Conference in Frankfurt 2022, I was intrigued by the great combination of topics, experts, and complex problems, but mostly by the large community of practitioners hungry to share and learn about Systems Dynamics. Full of energy, the entire conference had the intensity to encourage everyone’s interest and advance everybody’s practice.

Clearly, in the Anthropocene, there is a need to use integrative approaches to support transitions towards sustainability in general and the United Nations 2030 Agenda Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in specific. The acceleration and practice of systems thinking and modeling are fundamental for this and an increasing understanding of complex dynamical behaviors is at the roots of applied sustainability science. Sustainable and resilient socioecological systems maintain indefinitely into the future both human development and valued environmental functions.

Systems thinking and modeling are crucial for dealing with the complexity of our living world and its resources, and what better way to learn more about this than from practitioners of System Dynamics and sustainable development, which have progressed alongside for the last 50 years.

Systems Thinking and Modeling for the SDGs

In the Climate Change, sustainable drivers parallel session, the social tipping mechanisms for rapid decarbonization presentation by Sibel Eker, Assistant Professor at Radboud University and Research Scholar at International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), explained the Functional Enviro-economic Linkages Integrated Nexus (FeliX) model. The model simulates complex interactions among 10 global systems: population, education, economy, energy, water, land, food, carbon cycle, climate, and biodiversity and represents the modeling of indicators representing eight SDGs related to sustainable food (SDG 2), health and well-being (SDG 3), quality education (SDG 4), clean energy (SDG 7), economic growth (SDG 8), responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), climate action (SDG 13), and life on land (SDG 15). The FeliX model is one of the very few models of human-natural systems that cover feedback interactions of sustainability in one integrated framework suitable for SDG analysis.

In conversation with Professor Birgit Kopainsky from the University of Bergen, she highlighted the Millennium Institute’s Integrated Sustainable Development Goals (iSDG) model, a policy simulation tool that helps policymakers and stakeholders to make sense of the immense complexities of the SDGs. Due to the highly integrated nature of the model, most policies will impact more than one SDG. The model is categorized into environmental, social, and economic dimensions in computer-generated connectors that show extensively integrated sectors. Rather than SDGs per se, the model explores sustainability aspects, as it can simulate numerous policies simultaneously and map policy impacts across sectors.

Reaching The SDGs

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to “provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.”

The improving a population’s well-being parallel session presentation by Takuma Ono and Ivan Taylor showed how to conceptualize connections between SDGs based on network development by Le Blanc (2015) adapted to causal loop diagrams (CLDs). The SDGs alone give no clear understanding of causal interactions between SDGs, which can create difficulties for interpretation and implementation for any government.

Le Blanc’s work suggests that network modeling helps in identifying “extended” targets that are not necessarily core targets under any of the goals. The existence of the 169 targets turns what could have been a collection of unrelated goals into a system. However, they need to be adjusted to specific contexts and situations to avoid overly generic (but not actionable) statements about trade-offs and synergies. Therefore, the network modeling framework facilitates integrated thinking and policy-making. By using CLDs adapted from Le Blanc’s diagram, the model can include connections among all 17 SDGs, using the scores of the Sustainable Development Report[1]. By doing so, when the score of one SDG goes up relative to its initial value, it influences the target value of all indicators, as targets are collections of quantifiable indicators that underline each SDG. This means that there is an array of opportunities to assess different optimization goals that can be applied to any country in the world, provided an SDG score is available for calibration purposes.


Sustainability-related presentations at this year’s conference seemed to focus more on Sustainability as a societal goal than on specific studies about the Agenda 2030 and the SDGs. This presents the system dynamics community with the opportunity, and responsibility, to join in the global efforts to build a sustainable world. My expectation is towards more collaborations from different sectors and systems thinking approaches. That way our society might navigate the challenging interdisciplinary work required for genuine progress towards global sustainable development.

[1] Sachs, J., Lafortune, G., Kroll, C., Fuller, G., Woelm, F., (2022). From Crisis to Sustainable Development: the SDGs as Roadmap to 2030 and Beyond. Sustainable Development Report 2022. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available at:


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