New MOOC from UNEP: Wicked Problems, Dynamic Solutions The Ecosystem Approach and Systems Thinking

The United Nations Environmental Programme has developed a new MOOC entitled “Wicked Problems, Dynamic Solutions The Ecosystem Approach and Systems Thinking.”

It begins on September 12, 2016 and runs for six weeks (seven for the advanced certificate). The cost is free. Here’s more from the course web site:

About this course

We live in a complex and dynamic world. Many problems we face today involve interdependent structures, multiple actors, and are at least partly the result of past actions. Such problems are extremely difficult to tackle and conventional solutions have very often led to unintended consequences.

A systems thinking approach focuses on systems as a whole: how the parts interrelate and how interconnections create emerging patterns. Systems thinking tools allow us to map and explore dynamic complexity. With a better understanding of systems, we can identify leverage points that lead to desired outcomes and avoid unintended consequences. Environmental problems are often described as “wicked problems” to highlight their complexity and the difficulties they entail. Finding answers to current crises such as fisheries collapse, climate change, biodiversity loss, infectious diseases, and inequitable access to resources will be amongst the greatest challenges of our time. The ecosystem approach applies systems thinking to gain a better understanding of how ecosystems function. It can help us identify potential solutions to a myriad of problems inspired in part by the complex dynamics of ecosystems themselves.


  • The first MOOC focusing on the ecosystem approach and systems thinking
  • Case studies from around the world
  • Expert faculty and distinguished visiting lecturers
  • Open to all without restrictions
  • Develop an extensive global network with other students and professionals from around the world
  • FREE of charge, including access to all course material on a 24-hour online platform

What will you gain in this course?

  • a well-developed knowledge of the basic features of ecosystems, the ecosystem approach and systems thinking from an interdisciplinary perspective
  • an understanding of the distinction between reductionist and holistic thinking
  • the ability to apply critical systems thinking
  • enhanced knowledge of the inter-relationships between ecosystems and human systems:
    • critical ecosystem functions and services,
    • threats, drivers and direct and indirect impacts to human well-being and development, and
    • opportunities for the wider application of the ecosystem approach and systems thinking in other sectors
  • specific awareness of case studies selected from representative ecosystems and related global issues, demonstrating the benefits and challenges of integrated approaches for ecosystem management and beyond
  • the necessary basis for designing creative solutions to ecosystem management and governance problems

Course Options

Foundations: 40 hours of learning introducing the student to the basic concepts of the ecosystem and systems thinking approaches. This track consists of 10 modules geared towards university students, policymakers, managers and professionals who require an overview of the topic in order to integrate the concepts of the MOOC into their professions.

Advanced Certificate: 10 additional hours consisting of a final assignment for those who want to acquire more in-depth knowledge, insights and skills relating to the applicability of the ecosystem approach in their respective areas of specialization, in the larger framework of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

Students can obtain a certificate of participation after the completion of the Foundations component of the course, and may elect to take their studies further to obtain an Advanced Certificate.

Scaling up social enterprise innovations: Approaches and lessons

Download the paper.

In 2015 the international community agreed on a set of ambitious sustainable development goals (SDGs) for the global society, to be achieved by 2030. One of the lessons that the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG s) has highlighted is the importance of a systematic approach to identify and sequence development interventions—policies, programs, and projects—to achieve such goals at a meaningful scale. The Chinese approach to development, which consists of identifying a problem and long-term goal, testing alternative solutions, and then implementing those that are promising in a sustained manner, learning and adapting as one proceeds—Deng Xiaoping’s “crossing the river by feeling the stones”—is an approach that holds promise for successful achievement of the SDGs.

Assessing and Enhancing Environmental Sustainability: A Conceptual Review

John C. Little, Erich T. Hester, and Cayelan C. Carey (2016). “Assessing and Enhancing Environmental Sustainability: A Conceptual Review.” Environmental Science & Technology 50(13), 6830-6845. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.6b00298

Abstract: While sustainability is an essential concept to ensure the future of humanity and the integrity of the resources and ecosystems on which we depend, identifying a comprehensive yet realistic way to assess and enhance sustainability may be one of the most difficult challenges of our time. We review the primary environmental sustainability assessment approaches, categorizing them as either being design-based or those that employ computational frameworks and/or indicators. We also briefly review approaches used for assessing economic and social sustainability because sustainability necessitates integrating environmental, economic, and social elements. We identify the collective limitations of the existing assessment approaches, showing that there is not a consistent definition of sustainability, that the approaches are generally not comprehensive and are subject to unintended consequences, that there is little to no connection between bottom-up and top-down approaches, and that the field of sustainability is largely fragmented, with a range of academic disciplines and professional organizations pursuing similar goals, but without much formal coordination. We conclude by emphasizing the need for a comprehensive definition of sustainability (that integrates environmental, economic, and social aspects) with a unified system-of-systems approach that is causal, modular, tiered, and scalable, as well as new educational and organizational structures to improve systems-level interdisciplinary integration.

Applications now open for the 2016 Illinois Governor’s Sustainability Award

The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) is now accepting applications for the 2016 Illinois Governor’s Sustainability Awards.  This award, which began in 1987, is the nation’s longest standing state environmental award program. Each year, it honors organizations and businesses that have made a commitment to the environment through implementation of outstanding and innovative sustainability practices.

The deadline for submitting applications is close of business May 20, 2016.  Applications will only be accepted electronically.  Application information, evaluation criteria, sample applications and more can be found on ISTC’s website.

This program is open to all public and private Illinois organizations.

Pavel Kabat: Bringing science to the SDGs

Read the full story at Ensia.

Scientists can be very good at creating new knowledge in a specific topic area, then dropping it with a thud into policy-makers’ laps, trusting they will figure out how to use it to solve problems. Not so fast, says Pavel Kabat, director general of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, a 43-year-old international organization that brings researchers together across 23 nations to guide public policy. Kabat argues that science needs to stay as a partner at the policy-making table, crossing disciplines and sectors and synthesizing knowledge to create efficient, sustainable solutions.

Ecology & Society accepting papers for special issue on Reconciling Art and Science for Sustainability

Ecology and Society’s Reconciling Art and Science for Sustainability special feature edited by Frances Westley, Marten Scheffer, and Carl Folke will remain open to submissions until July 2016. This feature invites papers on the topic of how art and science may be integrated for transformative understanding, increased motivation, and new insights into how to build social ecological resilience.

JSTOR and the U. of Washington DataLab Explore New Tools for Interdisciplinary Researchers

Read the full story from JSTOR.

For scholars working in interdisciplinary fields, one of the key challenges often faced is understanding and navigating literature outside of their core area of expertise.
The JSTOR Labs team recently partnered with Dr. Jevin West’s team at the University of Washington DataLab to test and develop tools to help researchers introduce themselves to key topics and publications from other fields. The results of their work have been incorporated into JSTOR Sustainability—a new site, currently in beta, that contains a broad range of scholarly articles and research reports dealing with environmental stresses and their impact on human society.
Dr. West’s lab created the Eigenfactor, which uses citation networks to evaluate the impact of scholarly publications, and recently introduced Eigenfactor Recommends, which helps identify the classic and foundational papers within a field as well as the latest innovations.