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. Some current and past research projects are listed below.

Current research projects

CADWAGO: Climate change adaptation and water governance (start date: 2013)

CADWAGO is a consortium led by the Stockholm Environment Institute that aims to improve water governance by developing a more robust knowledge base and enhancing capacity to adapt to climate change. The three year project brings together 10 partners from Europe, Australasia, and North America with extensive experience of climate change adaptation and water governance issues. Lead OU researchers: Chris Blackmore, Kevin Collins, and Ray Ison

COBRA:  Community Owned Best practice for sustainable Resource Adaptive management in the Guiana Shield, South America (Start date: 2012). The Project involving Royal Holloway and Bedford New College in London with OU and others brings together key South American and European Civil Society Organisations that have extensive experience in enabling and disseminating grassroots solutions to complex problems in the Guiana Shield region of Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. The research institutions on the project have scientific expertise to rigorously evaluate these grassroots solutions and determine their impact, while the commercial enterprise brings with it the business and technical expertise for promoting the financial viability of these initiatives. Lead OU Researchers: Andrea Berardi with Geraud de Ville (doctorate student)

eSTEeM-STiP: Building a community of practice and employer engagement to enhance Systems Thinking in Practice (Start date: 2014). Action research project funded  by eSTEeM – a dual Faculty Open University initiative to support learning and innovation  in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) areas. The eSTEeM-STiP project aims to understand the experience of students when they begin studying their first core PG Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) modules (TU811 and TU812). It further aims to explore possibilities of working collaboratively with STiP alumni and employers in supporting the STiP learning experience and on-going value of systems thinking in the workplace. Lead Researchers: Martin Reynolds with Ray Ison and Chris Blackmore, with Associate Lecturers, Elaine Wedlock and Rupesh Shah

Protecting Amazonian biodiversity through prescribed burning in indigenous lands (Start date: April 2014) In the last decade, devastating fire storms have wreaked havoc on the biodiversity of the Amazon Basin. Climate change, deforestation and the expansion of agriculture are the major drivers for the increasing scale and frequency of wildfires in the region. Indigenous lands provide a sanctuary for biodiversity, where traditional forms of land management have enhanced the conservation of ecosystems for thousands of years. The aim of this innovative project is to explore how to proactively manage fire risk in order to maximise the protection of biodiversity and traditional resource use by indigenous communities. Working in Mato Grosso, Brazil, the project will be investigating how to integrate real-time data on traditional practices and landscape variables through the use of handheld geographical information devices, in order to optimise prescribed burning regimes for enhancing biodiversity and traditional resources. The project involves a consortium of research institutions, government agencies and civic society organisations. Lead OU Researcher: Andrea Berardi.

Cultural Values at the World Service and the British Council: (Start date 2013). Culture Value Project: The BBC World Service (WS) and the British Council (BC) are the UK's largest international cultural organisations: key national-to-global institutions charged with representing British identities and interests. Very well known and respected abroad, 'at home' in the UK awareness of their activities is low. Little academic research has been done into the cultural value they channel and produce. Our project is ambitious in aiming to produce an analytical and methodological framework adequate to understanding, evidencing and explaining the role of WS and BC and their users in curating, creating and translating cultural value abroad and at home. Lead OU Researchers: Marie Gillespie and Simon Bell. 

Groups, Indicators and Policy. (Start date 2013). In collaboration with INSEAD in Abu Dhabi, this project was aimed at facilitating the understanding of the development of Key Performance Indicators making use of stakeholder engagement. Lead OU Researcher: Simon Bell. 

Systemic Approaches to Organisational Learning. (Start date 2013). In collaboration with Capgemeni the research aims to seek systemic means to add value to organizational learning. Lead OU Researcher: Simon Bell. 


Some past research projects

Evaluation in Rural Development

In Europe, the governance of rural development incorporates contradictory pressures between top-down, directed development, and bottom-up participatory development. The contradictions are particularly visible in the practice of evaluating what has been achieved in particular rural development projects and programmes. This project investigates the evaluation of rural development programmes such as LEADER, and seeks to reconcile the practices of top-down and local evaluation.

Lead OU researcher: Chris High

Social Learning for Integrated Management of Water at Catchment Scale (SLIM)

This included a 3yr Research Fellowship on Social Learning jointly funded by the Environment Agency for England and Wales. The work of the Fellowship explored innovative ways for enabling integrated catchment managing. Using social learning and systemic inquiry approaches, the research aimed to support the development of the Environment Agency’s Integrated Catchment Science (ICS) Research Strategy and to support innovation across the wider scientific community.

Lead OU researchers: Ray Ison, Kevin Collins and Christine Blackmore 

Farmers’ understanding of GM crops within local communities

This was an ESRC funded project within their Science and Society programme (2004-07).

The prospect of the commercial production of genetically modified (GM) crops in the UK has been hugely controversial. At the outset of this study, in 2004, the UK Government was about to decide whether or not to allow commercial production to go ahead, after three years of intensive evidence gathering, including public debates and large-scale on-farm trials (the Farm Scale Evaluations or FSEs). In the event, only one GM crop variety was given the go ahead but the company did not release in to market. This study investigated an important but neglected aspect of that debate – the view of the farmers, the people who are ultimately responsible for decisions about adopting and managing new technologies such as GM crops. We wanted to know: what did they think about new technologies such as GM crops? If they had taken part in the FSEs, how practical had they found the crop management guidelines they were required to follow? And, in their farming decisions about new technologies, who did they rely on for support and advice, and how might that support be improved? We interviewed farmers with experience of growing GM crops in the FSEs, and a similar group of farmers without that experience. All the farmers were growing commodity crops on a large scale. So what did we find out? In a nutshell, both groups believe GM crops would help their business and the environment, they view GM crops as just another new technology, they learn about new technologies through informal means, local communities do not feature much in their networks of influence, they all are finding it hard to manage the increasing volume of information and advice and all feel there are poor connections between them and the work of scientists and policy makers.

The ESRC Peer-reviewed End of Award Report, RES-151-25-0046 is available at

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Applied Systems Thinking in Practice