Systems Thinking

Eric Brown is our Youth-Led Development Officer, and manages our International Youth Internship Program. Eric did a study tour in Malmö, Sweden, this past spring. He uses his experience there to discuss systems thinking and how it can be applied to residential development.

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Systems thinking is a way of understanding the natural and human environment as a series of interrelated and interdependent subcomponents. Rather than interpreting issues in isolation, systems thinking views issues (and solutions) as parts of a greater whole. The application of this way of thinking results on solutions that address a variety of concerns and, in theory, don’t have negative consequences in other parts of the system.

Botanical garden roof in Augusteborg in Malmö

Winner of the UN Habitat Award, Augusteborg in Malmö, Sweden, is a demonstration of how systems thinking can be applied to residential development. Augustenborg was built in the 1950s, as one of the first housing estates delivered under Sweden’s social housing policy. The original waste water system, which was designed to remove sewage, grey water and storm water, was insufficient and residents in the neighbourhood suffered from regular flooding of their basements. Rather than upgrading the waste water system by increasing the width of the pipes (which would have been expensive and would have increased waste water at the municipal waste treatment facility), planners took a step back, and looked at the system as a whole. Green roofs and an open storm water treatment system were identified as an appropriate solution.


The green roofs soak up most of the precipitation and the overflow is dealt with in a series of canals and retention pools. There have been no floods in the neighbourhood since this system was installed, despite extreme rain events that occurred in the summer of 2010. In addition to the alleviation of floods, this solution has additional benefits; the green roofs conserve energy (they have an insulating property), they improve esthetics, they increase the life span of the roof membrane, they reduce the heat island effect and increase biodiversity. The open storm water treatment system, which is designed to slow the movement of water and maximize evaporation, has biodiversity and esthetic benefits too. Walking through Augustenborg, you wouldn’t know that the elaborate series of water gardens are actually part of the waste water treatment system.

In addition to the green roofs and open storm water treatment system, Augustenborg is a demonstration of systems thinking in other ways. The neighbourhood has an extensive recycling system that is served by a horse-drawn collection wagon. This initiative reduces waste in the landfill, fossil fuel consumption and noise pollution. The horse is also popular with the neighborhood residents, particularly children. The school in the neighbourhood has composting toilets and a focus on sustainability in the curriculum; the students study local environmental issues and solutions, such as green roofs.

The way systems thinking has been applied in Augustenborg takes into account both the human and physical environment. Planners have recognized the interdependence of various components of the neighbourhood and implemented innovative solutions that achieve multiple objectives.


About sustainablecitiesnetwork

Sustainable Cities International is a registered not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Operating since 1993, the mission of Sustainable Cities is to catalyze action on urban sustainability with cities around the world. We work by connecting and mobilizing people through the process of co-creating. We facilitate a thriving, international network of cities that act as urban laboratories: adopting, testing and improving on innovations. Ideas are accelerated through sharing of experience and cities are making transformational change a reality
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