Systems approaches in action

Project title: Addressing complexity in prevention research using systems approaches: systems case studies

Start date: July 2019

Estimated end date: June 2022

What is the issue?

Since the Prevention Centre was established in 2013, it has shown the value of systems approaches for research into chronic disease prevention. Systems approaches incorporate systems thinking, systems practices and systems science methods, and are useful when dealing with complex problems such as chronic disease.

Having had several years of applying many different systems approaches within a wide range of individual projects, now is the time to reflect on what can be learned from across the different projects.

This project aims to gain a clearer picture of how systems approaches are being used to describe and understand complex problems. We are also seeking to identify, at a deeper level of practice, whether and how systems approaches are being used to create real world change. It will identify when and how prevention research uses systems approaches to address issues of complexity, and, based on these findings, what the Prevention Centre and those researching more broadly within the prevention system could do differently to enact systems change.

How is the project addressing the issue?

This project will identify and bring together key lessons from a diverse range of  Prevention Centre projects on the use and value of systems thinking, systems practices, and systems science tools in applied prevention research.

We will identify up to 10 case studies of former and current Prevention Centre projects that used systems approaches to address complex problems in prevention. We may also select additional case studies from Australia, the UK or Canada.

We will use comparative case study analysis to understand the utility of systems approaches for addressing complexity as it relates to chronic disease prevention, and whether and how they have sought to bring about change in prevention research, policy or practice.

We will use qualitative methods including interviews and group model building to uncover similarities, differences and patterns across our chosen case studies. In doing so we will explore the generalisable lessons that can be synthesised across the Prevention Centre that may be of value to others seeking to use systems approaches in prevention research.

Relevance for practice

This research will illustrate how researchers, policy makers and practitioners can use systems approaches to better work together to bring about change. It will inform policy makers and funders of the key factors that support the use of effective systems approaches, and when, and in what combination, these approaches are appropriate for prevention research.

This project will work closely with members of the Prevention Centre’s Leadership Executive and our Funding Partners. Our findings will inform the direction of the Prevention Centre’s research into the future.

The findings will also enhance the skills and capacity around the use of systems approaches for those working in chronic disease prevention, policy and practice.

What are the expected outcomes?

The expected outcomes of this project are:

  • Recommendations and a systems reporting framework relevant for prevention research, policy and practice
  • A suite of case illustrations, practice examples and peer review publications
  • Practical guidance on how to improve the use of systems approaches for the prevention of chronic disease.

Project lead

Professor Lucie Rychetnik, The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre, University of Sydney


Dr Melanie Pescud, Australian National University


Professor Steve Allender, Deakin University

Professor Sharon Friel, Australian National University

Dr Michelle Irving, The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre, University of Sydney


Professor Diane Finegood, Simon Fraser University, Canada

Professor Ray Ison, Open University, UK

Dr Therese Riley, Consultant

Professor Harry Rutter, University of Bath, UK

This project is funded by the NHMRC, Australian Government Department of Health, ACT Health, Cancer Council Australia, NSW Ministry of Health, South Australian Department for Health and Wellbeing, Tasmanian Department of Health, and VicHealth.


November 2020

  • The first manuscript on systems thinking for systems change is in development and progressing well.
  • Michelle Irving has joined our investigators team to contribute to analysis and writing, bringing her knowledge mobilisation expertise to the project.
  • Data analysis is in progress, exploring how each case study is addressing complexity in prevention research.
September 2020
  • The project’s international advisory group is collaborating on our first manuscript for the project on systems change for systems thinking
  • Data collection and analysis is ongoing with 31 interviews now completed. These will help to uncover similarities, differences and patterns across our chosen case studies.
June 2020
  • The literature review is well underway with a draft in progress and data collection and analysis is also progressing
  • 22 interviews have now been completed to uncover similarities, differences and patterns across our chosen case studies.
January 2020
  • We have recruited five projects as case studies; four from the Prevention Centre and one external to the Centre. Each of these projects implicitly or explicitly uses or used systems approaches to address complex problems in prevention.
  • As part of the qualitative methodology, we have completed 17 interviews to uncover similarities, differences and patterns across our chosen case studies. Preliminary data analysis has also commenced.




  • Irving M, Pescud M, and Rychetnik L. (2020). When ‘Knowledge Mobilisation’ meets ‘Systems Thinking’: A whole new world? Evidence and Implementation Summit, Sydney, 30-31 March 2021.


  • Rychetnick L. Systems approaches to chronic disease prevention. Teaching sessions, Graduate Certificate on Environment, Society and Health, University of Notre Dame, September 2020.
  • Pescud M. Systems thinking for prevention research., Prevention Centre Research Network, 28 July 2020.
  • Rychetnik L. Systems approaches to public health. University of Notre Dame Graduate Certificate of Environment, Society, and Health. 2020
  • Pescud M. Sharing perspectives: Systems thinking for chronic disease prevention. Shoal Group’s Ideas Club, hosted across RegNet and Shoal Group’s offices, Adelaide, via video conference, 4 March 2020.


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