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Applied Systems Thinking in Practice

Cartoon of juggling different priorities

The Open University (OU) has one of the strongest, internationally recognised groups in Systems Thinking in Practice dating from 1971. The Applied Systems Thinking in Practice (ASTiP) Group is a network of academic practitioners from within and outside The Open University committed to the study, application and development of systems ideas and application. Our key aim is to help people make sense of -- and intervene in -- complex and interconnected situations in order to improve them in the support of furthering social and environmental justice. We do this through collaborative research, scholarship, teaching and other external work and outreach activities.

We undertake research on systems ideas and their application in real-world settings. System thinking involves looking at the interconnections between parts of a whole rather than concentrating just on the parts. This way of thinking is particularly useful in addressing complex, highly interdependent situations with high levels of uncertainty and can help develop appropriate interventions to bring about improvements. Our research has application in a wide range of complex situations where it is difficult to act because of uncertainty. We use tools from a range of approaches including system dynamics, soft systems, critical systems, scenario analysis, and diagramming. Key concepts include systemic inquiry, sustainability indicators, social learning, communities of practice, and boundary critique.

Our research and scholarship encompass not only conventional, publication-driven inquiry but also 'action research': assisting people, whether in organisations or multi-organisational contexts, to engage with poorly-structured or controversial issues. We work with a wide range of issues and settings including: environmental decision-making for sustainable development; evaluation; international development; information systems management; social learning; systemic governance; and organisational change in both public and private sectors.

ASTiP academics often contribute to more than one research community (reflecting the systemic nature of their research and scholarship) and to other networks operating at different scales.