The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking

Have you ever wondered what is at the heart of our collective inability to tackle the climate and biodiversity emergencies?

In their new book The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking – Governance in a Climate Emergency, Ray Ison and Ed Straw explore how poor governance has impacted our response to these pressing issues and – drawing on their combined experience of governance across nation states, organisations, programs and projects – propose a way forward using systems thinking.

UTS4Climate was honoured recently to host the Australian launch of The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking… as part of a special virtual event on 20 October 2020. The event featured a robust panel discussion featuring the authors, Ray and Ed, alongside UTS Professor of Climate and Business Bob Carr, and Director (Australia and New Zealand) of the Centre for Public Impact Thea Snow. Convened by Distinguished Professor Cynthia Mitchell, Deputy Director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures, the event included a Q & A session with the audience.

Watch the panel discussion and Q & A session here. 

More Questions and Answers

Authors Ray Ison and Ed Straw have kindly provided written responses to some of the insightful and challenging audience questions that they didn’t have time to answer during the event. Click here to see them.

About the panel

Ray Ison is Professor of Systems at the UK Open University (OU) where Systems education and scholarship began in 1970. As part of ASTiP (Applied Systems Thinking in Practice Group)he is responsible with colleagues for managing a post-graduate program in Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP). His teaching and research achievements from a base in academia are extensive and internationally recognised. His concern for governance effectiveness was first triggered by his work in post-apartheid South Africa. He has held a number of leadership posts within the international Systems and Cybernetics community including Presidencies of the IFSR (International Federation for Systems Research) and ISSS (International Society for the Systems Sciences). From 2008-15 he was also Professor, Systems for Sustainability, at the Monash Sustainability Institute (MSI), where he created and led the Systemic Governance Research Program. His research field is systems praxeology, institutional innovation and systemic governance.

From 2016 Ray also managed an additional portfolio of research, scholarship and consulting activities mainly in Australia, South Africa and China. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of TechnologySydney; as a Director, Systemic Development Institute (Australia) and as a Fellow, Centre for Policy Development (Australia).


Ed Straw has seen government from every angle: as a citizen and consumer, adviser to several government ministers, Chair of Demos and Relate, and as a specialist on government task forces. He was a consultant on both the Conservative and Labour government’s public sector reforms, and a ‘moderniser’ for the UK Labour party. As a partner at PwC and Coopers & Lybrand, he was a global and UK board director. He is a Visiting Fellow in the Applied Systems Thinking in Practice group at the Open University since 2015 and works with Prof Ray Ison on the systemic solutions to the worldwide problems of fading democracy, political disengagement, misfiring public services, and inadequate action for climate change and the other consequences of the Anthropocene. His focus is on the design of the political/electoral/democratic/governmental system and its role in causing these problems, alongside new designs both to prevent them and to contribute to a better world.

The Honourable Bob Carr is Industry Professor (Business and Climate Change) at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). Professor Carr works with the Institute for Sustainable Futures and the UTS School of Business, bringing his unique skills and experience to diverse portfolios, including business and industry, international relations and climate change research and policy.

Professor Carr is a former Foreign Minister of Australia (2012-2013). He is also the longest continuously serving Premier in New South Wales history (1995-2005). Between 2014-2019 he was Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) at UTS, the only think tank in Australia devoted to the study of the Australia-China relationship.

Thea Snow leads the Centre for Public Impact’s work in Australia and New Zealand. Thea’s experience spans the private, public and not-for-profit sectors; she has worked as a lawyer, a civil servant and, most recently, as part of Nesta’s Government Innovation Team.

Thea recently returned to Melbourne after spending a few years in London where, in addition to working at Nesta, she completed an MSc PPA at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

About the book

The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking. Governance in a Climate Emergency is described as a persuasive, lively book that shows how systems thinking can be harnessed to effect profound, complex change.

In the age of the Anthropocene the need for new ways of thinking and acting have become urgent. But patterns of obstacles are apparent in any action, be they corporate interests, lobbyists, or outdated political and government systems. Authors Ison and Straw show how and why failure in governance is at the heart of the collective incapacity to tackle the climate and biodiversity emergencies. They go beyond analysis of the problem and demonstrate how incorporating systems thinking into governance at every level would enable us to break free of historical shackles.

This book will be inspiring reading for students of systems thinking seeking to understand the application of their methods, specialists in change management or public administration, activists for ‘whole system change’ as well as decision-makers wanting to effect challenging transformations. It is for anyone with the ambition to create a sustainable and fair world.

Ison RL & Straw E (2020), The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking:  Governance in a Climate Emergency, Routledge, Abingdon.

The podcast

Listen to the first episode of The Hidden Power Podcast, a series inspired by the book, here.