The term “systems thinking” has a few different connotations. Classically, non-linear dynamic systems represents a set of principles that describe the organization of energy as an extropic function of information, driven by power laws and bounded by limits. The formulas within this domain are often applied to natural systems such as populations, fluid dynamics, and so-called chaotic processes like dripping faucets and epileptic seizures. Some of the better-known ideas within dynamic systems are attractors, bifurcations, and the process of iteration.
More broadly, systems thinking refers to a widening perspective when studying networked domains. For example, the recent trends in Life Cycle Analysis in product design & manufacturing attempts to go beyond the material & energetic costs of the physical object – eg a plastic bottle of water – to consider every aspect of its life cycle from sourcing all of materials and manufacturing support, cost of shipping, human impact of the workers, environmental impact, and end-of-life in a landfill or recycling depot. Wal-Mart, to its credit, has made great strides across its supply chain by optimizing efficiency in the life cycle of the many products that end up on its shelves and in people’s lives. Some of these solutions can be a simple and radical as redesigning packaging for minimal materials use and shipping weight.
Recently, systems thinking has been applied to the design process suggesting that designers are uniquely empowered to engineer powerful solutions for complex problems in ways that benefit many different human and non-human stakeholders, eg nature is a primary stakeholder, as are future generations saddled with our often myopic creations.
I tend to use systems thinking to describe all of these connotations rolled up into a general way of looking at the world that goes beyond what is immediately visible and reaches into the extended connections and unseen impacts within a domain. In some respects, this way of thinking is a natural part of simply paying attention to things. In other ways, it’s a challenging and sometimes overwhelming course of study that can easily move from Aha! moments to a very dis-empowering sense of total non-determinism. In the face of such huge complexity it can seem impossible to make any actionable sense of things. Finding the balance and determining the appropriate scope of research in analyzing a domain is a critical skill that must be developed individually through practice, lest you tug on that thread and find you’ve unraveled the entire sweater.
Some resources to get you thinking about the micro & macro of complex systems:
Complexity: a Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell. A great, thorough introduction to complexity and systems thinking. Beginner to intermediate. Don’t be scared by the equations – there’s lot’s of good info here. “Readers will marvel at the sheer range of settings in which complex systems operate: from ant hills to the stock market, from T cells to Web searches, from disease epidemics to power outages, complexity challenges theorists’ intellectual adroitness. With refreshing clarity, Mitchell invites nonspecialists to share in these researchers’ adventures in recognizing and measuring complexity and then predicting its cascading effects.”
Turbulent Mirror: An Illustrated Guide to Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness by John Briggs. A solid introduction to systems, chaos, and wholeness. “Briggs and Peat look at how chaos theory has also influenced other scientific disciplines, offering a model, for example, for understanding the human brain and developing computer systems for artificial intelligence. The book’s chapter heading quotations from Chinese Taoist texts and Alice in Wonderland are clues that readers are being led into abstruse territory. But encouraging readers to appreciate nuances of truth rather than to seek a reductionist version of truth may be what chaos theory–and this book–is all about.”
The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems by Fritjof Capra. A great analysis of how complexity and non-linearity inform the foundations of our natural world. “…brilliant synthesis of such recent scientific breakthroughs as the theory of complexity, Gaia theory, chaos theory, and other explanations of the properties of organisms, social systems, and ecosystems. Capra’s surprising findings stand in stark contrast to accepted paradigms of mechanism and Darwinism and provide an extraordinary new foundation for ecological policies that will allow us to build and sustain communities without diminishing the opportunities for future generations.”
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. An excellent general introduction to smart design and life cycle analysis that advocates for both prosperity and sustainability. “…the authors present a manifesto calling for a new industrial revolution, one that would render both traditional manufacturing and traditional environmentalism obsolete. The authors, an architect and a chemist, want to eliminate the concept of waste altogether, while preserving commerce and allowing for human nature.”
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. A highly-readable & engaging study of the vast, interconnected, and interdependent systems of agriculture, energy, and the journey of food to our plate.
Systems Science, a blog series by George Mobus. Scroll down (and go back a page) to start at “Systems Science, Part 1.” Mobus provides a good overview of systems theory.
Finally, just start training yourself to look beyond the visible, to follow connections, and to think in more holistic terms when considering the larger interconnections at play in all domains. Consider, for example, all of the machines, organizations, people, and processes that contributed to your dinner tonight. Nothing is as simple as it seems yet, often, there are very simple rules underlying their complexity.
Chris Arkenberg is a researcher, forecaster, and strategist focusing on the interplay of technology, culture, and human solutions. He is currently a visiting researcher with the IFTF, sits on the advisory board of Hukilau, and is a co-founder of the Augmented Reality Development Camp.