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Introduction to Systems mapping

Admission Requirements
Bachelor’s degree in any academic subject

Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of the course, the student is able to:


  • Describe the reasons why system thinking is important to manage complex situations, including non-linear, self-organizing, uncertainty, characteristics.
  • Explain the concepts used by different schools to define systems and how they are constituted and differ from each other.
  • Explain basics of how computer aided systems analysis works.


  • Use various methods to map systems from given or own example.
  • Interpret and narratively analyze more complex system images.


  • Use systems thinking to analyze a real word situation.
  • Take positions in debates about opportunities and limits of different approaches to systems thinking.


This course provides basic understanding of what systems thinking may be  and how it is interpreted in different approaches. The starting point is the System Dynamic Analysis, in the 1970´s  used in the debated study “Limits to growth”. The critique to this approach made it less commonly used, instead other approaches such as political ecology or resilience studies have been used to understand systemic properties of sustainability issues.  However, in recent years more eclectic approaches have been emerging, using and merging concepts and tools from different approaches.

The course guides the students through the debates of how to think in systems. The students learn about different tools by using them  in practical exercises. They will also be introduced to epistemological and ontological debates related to the main approaches as a preparation for further studies on philosophical foundations on systems thinking.

The course is divided in 5 modules, each corresponding to 1 week full time studies for the students:

  1. Introduction to systems thinking
    1. Introductory video lecture, overview of the items and concepts covered by the course (45 minutes)
    2. Dictionary: Basic concepts covered in the course
    3. Reading instructions on Barbrook-Johnsson & Penn (2022) (Chapter 1 &2), selected topical articles using different approaches to systems thinking, including the UNESCO capacities for sustainability science.
    4. Exercise: excerpts usage of basic concepts from the reading material. Present in a PPT report
    5. Seminar: Discuss different uses of the concepts in the material
  2. System Dynamic Analysis
    1. Video lecture on “Limits to Growth”, SDA and “World 3 - simulation” (45 minutes)
    2. Reading instructions to Meadows, 2008, Barbrook-Johnsson & Penn (2022) (Chapter 8) excerpts from Limits to growth and selected articles
    3. Individual exercise: Manipulate Data in World 3, write exercise report on scenario outcomes (ppt to be presented at seminar)
    4. Seminar: discuss scenario outcomes and pro´s and con´s of SDA
  3. Alternative approaches to systems thinking
    1. Video lecture “Critiques on SDA” (45 minutes), based on Models of Doom.
    2. Video lecture “Alternatives: political ecology or resilience thinking” (45 minutes)
    3. Reading instructions on Chapin et al (2009), Robbins(2020) and selected articles, including articles on “assemblages”
    4. Exercise: Written analysis based on excerpts from the literature on systems thinking; how do they differ from SDA, add to SDA or contradict SDA?
  4. Digging deeper into methodological aspects
    1. Video lecture on systems mapping, system boundaries, relations in systems, and participatory approaches (2* 45 minutes)
    2. Reading instructions on Luhmann (2010), Barbrook-Johnson & Penn (2022) and Ison (2017)
    3. Exercises: case studies on system mapping (students pick cases from their own research interest)
    4. Seminar: present and discuss the system mappings
  5. Written essay: Elaborate on the case study system mapping, making use of the literature. Discuss choice of methodological approaches, with arguments for or against alternative choices.


Mandatory reading

  • Meadows, Donella H. (2008). Thinking in systems: a primer. Vermont: Chelsea Green Pub.
  • Ison, Ray. (2017). Systems Practice: How to Act In situations of uncertainty and complexity in a climate-change world. 2nd ed. 2017. London: Springer London
  • Barbrook-Johnson, Pete., Penn, Alexandra.S. (2022). Systems Mapping. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Selected reading from ...

  • Chapin III, F Stuart, Kofinas, Gary P, Folke, Carl (2009). Principles of ecosystem stewardship resilience-based natural resource management in a changing world. New York: Springer
  • Cole, H. S. D. (red.) (1975). Models of doom: a critique of The limits to growth. 2. pr. New York
  • Luhmann, Niklas (2010). Introduction to systems theory. Cambridge: Polity
  • Meadows, Donella H., Randers, Jørgen & Meadows, Dennis L. (2005). Limits to growth: the 30-year update. [New ed.] London: Earthscan
  • Robbins, P. (2020) Political ecology : a critical introduction. Third. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell (Critical introductions to geography)
  • A topical selection of scientific articles

Teaching Methodology

Please, specify the teaching methodology to be used, such as:

  • The course provides students with recorded Video lectures on the key approaches to systems thinking, introductions to the literatureon the frequently used concepts as well as instructions on exercises;
  • Independent Study on selected literature based on written reading instructions;
  • Seminars on Zoom are used to discuss the literature and its applications to student´s tentative thesis topics;
  • Practical Study on use, design and analysis of Casual Loop Diagrams.

ECTS Credits
7,5 ECTS

I semester

Examination methodology
The course will be examined through a written essay, through active participation in seminars and submission of exercises.

The course provides an introduction to systems thinking, build on the first two courses suggested for the first semester and prepares for the coming courses in the first semester.

Creative Commons License
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