A Systems Approach

DOI: https://www.doi.org/10.53289/CTED7262

Tackling the implementation gap

Dervilla Mitchell

Dervilla Mitchell CBE FREng FICE FIEI FIAE is Deputy Chair of Arup Group. A Civil Engineer with experience in leading major programmes, she was until recently Executive Chair of Arup’s UK, India, Middle East and Africa business leading over 6,000 engineers, advisors and specialists working on wide range of projects across the built environment. She is a member of the Prime Ministers Council for Science and Technology and chairs the National Engineering Policy Centre’s Decarbonising UK Working Group. (Photo courtesy of Paul Carstairs.)


  • A wide range of systems need to be transformed in the coming years in order to meet UK climate goals
  • A systems approach can identify no-regrets measures that can be implemented now
  • This approach allows for global planning and local delivery
  • A systems approach enables a full understanding of a very complex situation
  • Tackling climate change needs a collaborative, integrated approach

The National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC) is a unified voice for 43 engineering organisations which together represent 450,000 engineers. That gives policymakers a single route to the engineering profession.

It reaches out to a variety of audiences, explaining in terms of a systems approach what needs to be done to optimise the net benefits. The NEPC also covers the specifics of implementation – which is the stage we are reaching now. To reach the target by 2050, a wide range of systems need to be transformed, from power generation, through transport, manufacturing and the built environment to individual and community action. We are, in fact, dealing with a system of systems.

A rapid and simultaneous, synchronised transformation is vital. By using a systems approach, all the relevant factors can be taken into account in decision-making across a number of policy areas. For the UK, the agenda is not just about net zero. There is also levelling-up and Britain’s place in the world. Co-benefits should be recognised and incorporated as part of the strategy.

It might seem easy to postpone the delivery of net zero by saying the technologies are not here or that further innovation is needed. However, a systems approach can identify no-regrets options we can take now.

With a picture of the whole, it is possible to gain an understanding of the full complexity of the issues. That includes an interrogation of the different elements, to experiment with the different levers that can change the overall performance and it enables stakeholders to imagine different possible scenarios, project operation and performance into the future. A systems approach gives us an opportunity to collaborate at the level of global ambition and yet deliver locally: identifying strategic priorities, moving those into local requirements, and making sure they can be effectively delivered locally, and in a joined-up way.

Focus on outcomes

With so little time left, the world needs to be making progress every year if humanity is to achieve its ambition. That means identifying the outcome, then working backwards in order to formulate a effective plan to get there. The London 2012 Olympics were a success because there was a conscious effort to determine how to achieve the desired outcome. The NEPC has held workshops on different topics – decarbonising construction, aviation and others – and have been able to recognise some key elements of success.

The process needs to happen within an environment which enables change – and this involves policy, regulation, standards, measurement, procurement as well as other aspects. Success does not depend on any one of these, but on all of them acting together. In the Government arena, for example, there needs to be collaboration across all Departments. In order to solve the problems of successful innovation, there must also be collaboration between Government, academia and business, as well as international collaboration because this is a global problem and, of course, collaboration with the public. Much of the necessary transition and change is going to require behavioural change.

Today’s more complex, more data-rich, more technology-enabled world needs integrated systems, for both the planning and delivery of solutions that we will need to meet climate change.