Systems Thinking for Dealing with Wicked Sustainability Problems: Beyond Functionalist Approaches
Book chapter, 2016

Many of the most pressing sustainability issues are not purely technical problems. To work for sustainable development (SD) requires addressing wicked sustainability problems (WSPs), such as climate change, poverty, and resource scarcity. Previous research has shown that addressing WSPs is challenging for engineering students. In particular, students may feel overwhelmed by a WSP if they lack appropriate tools for dealing with the complexity, uncertainty, and value conflicts that are present in the situation. In this paper, we aim to investigate whether systems thinking competence (ST) can provide such a tool in engineering education for sustainable development (EESD). For this purpose, we elaborate on previous descriptions of WSPs, and draw on (E)ESD literature about ST to discuss different approaches to ST and their usefulness for addressing WSPs. We conclude that ST indeed can be valuable for addressing WSPs, but that it is necessary to be clear about how ST is defined. We suggest that mainstream approaches to ST in engineering education (EngE) are not sufficient for addressing WSPs.

Wicked sustainability problems

Sustainable development

Systems thinking competence

Engineering education


Johanna Lönngren

Chalmers, Applied Information Technology (Chalmers), Engineering Education Research - EER (Chalmers)

Magdalena Svanström

Chalmers, Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Chemical Technology

New Developments in Engineering Education for Sustainable Development

978-3-319-32933-8 (ISBN)

Driving Forces

Sustainable development

Subject Categories


Social Sciences Interdisciplinary

Information Systemes, Social aspects

Learning and teaching

Pedagogical work



More information

Latest update