Systems Thinking and System Dynamics to Support Policy Making in Defra

Rachel A J Freeman, Lee Jones, Mike Yearworth, Jean-Yves Cherruault

Research output: Book/ReportConfidential report for external body


This report presents the results of the project titled: Systems thinking and system dynamics modelling to support policy development using waste prevention and recycling as case studies. The project was conceived as a research project to evaluate the use of systems thinking and System Dynamics to support policy making at Defra whilst building internal capability in these techniques. Through the project, a small group of Defra staff were introduced to the theory and tools of these methods, and two System Dynamics models were built to provide a systemic view of two of Defra’s policy making areas: plastics packaging recycling and waste prevention. The first model was built, parameterised and calibrated to historical data and provides an understanding of the dynamics of the plastics packaging recycling industry, including imports and exports and the relationship between waste arisings, collections, recovery and reprocessing; while the second model provides a system structure to aid understanding of waste prevention practices related to the consumption of products throughout the economy.
The policy areas of waste prevention and plastics packaging recycling were selected as case studies partly because of the interest expressed by the policy teams to try new approaches to support policy making, and partly because of the complementary nature of the two areas due to the fact that they are at different stages of the policy cycle (see (HM Treasury 2011) for a description of the policy cycle). Waste prevention policy is in the early stages of the policy cycle, thus requiring a stronger emphasis on problem structuring and qualitative model building (i.e. the “softer” aspects of systems modelling); while the plastics packaging waste system has been the subject of a number of specific policies for quite some time and required emphasis on the “harder” aspects of systems modelling, including mathematical modelling, data gathering, calibration, scenario development, and sensitivity analysis. The two policy areas combined to provide an overview of materials in use (waste prevention) and materials in the waste management system (packaging recycling), two systems that are highly interconnected but have different goals.
The principal benefits of the project have been threefold:
• Introducing the evidence team and policy makers to systems thinking and System Dynamics through training and developing relevant example models, providing them with an additional tool that can be used to help systemically understand real world systems and the potential for intervening in them to achieve policy outcomes;
• The development of two System Dynamics models related to Defra policy-making areas, which have provided new insights into the “system that produces waste” and the waste management system for plastics packaging recycling. The models developed through this project provide a solid platform for future development of more detailed tools for the testing of waste prevention and recycling policy options; and
• The process of building the models has led to the capturing of a great deal of knowledge, held by government and industry experts, about system performance and the system structures thought to be responsible for certain observed behaviours. The models have therefore already been useful as a knowledge management tool. Additionally, the model diagrams provide a new visualisation of two highly complex policy contexts and can be used as a communication tool.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherDepartment for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Commissioning bodyDepartment for Environment Food and Rural Affairs
Number of pages146
Publication statusIn preparation - 2013


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