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Systems Thinking
(In a Nutshell)
A system is an arrangement (pattern, design) of parts which interact with each other within the system's boundaries (form, structure, organization) to function as a whole. The nature (purpose, operation) of the whole is always different from, and more than, the sum of its unassembled collection of parts.

Tractor MovingFor example, a tractor is a vehicular system comprised of many mechanical, electrical, electronic (non-living) sub-systems for propulsion, steering, lighting, seating, etc. The boundaries of each sub-system "interface" (connect) with one or more of the others. Successful interfacing of sub-systems is called "systems integration".

A farm is an integrated system of both living (the farmer, crops, animals, weeds, insects) and non-living (the tractor, barn, house, machinery, fertilizer) subsystems.

GearsThe tractor, and the farm itself, are "open" systems because they need fuel and maintenance from outside sources in order to function.

The tractor can be considered as part of an off-highway transportation system as well as part of an agricultural production system. Each of these systems in turn is part of a hierarchy of larger, interactive, transportation, production, economic, social, political, ecological, and energy systems on a local, regional, national and global scale.

There are networks within networks, systems within systems, various parts of which are physically, chemically and/or socially interrelated in an endless ever-changing (dynamic) web of matter and energy from the smallest atom to the largest galaxy to the universe itself.


Human culture is based on cumulative knowledge and belief. The validity of what we think, i.e., our mental models of the world, is largely determined by how we think. Nothing is more basic to civilized progress than these mental models formed by what is knowable or believable.

Systems Thinking + Light Bulb'The Thinker' by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)The quality of our thinking skills and knowledge tools determine how well we think. They create our mental models of reality which, needless to say, are not all the same. How do we acquire the skills and techniques to create and test our mental models? We learn them.

What We Think/How We Think

For centuries education in the home and in the classroom has consisted primarily of

Missing from formal education has been:
knowledge explosionThe explosion of knowledge during the past century can be attributed to:
This revolutionary global explosion of science and technology has produced entirely new perceptions of reality in every field of knowledge and a clearer understanding of the relationships among disciplines. It's All About Systems

 Life on earth can be thought of as a complex web of interconnected natural and human-made systems. Our own human bodies and brains are individual sub-systems within networks of larger biological, economic and socio-political systems without which we couldn't exist.

We therefore can be said to spend our lives enmeshed in interdependent living and non living systems. Systems manifest themselves in interacting relationships of energized particles, waves, people, ideas, forces, patterns, thresholds, feedback and cycles. Conscious living systems, moreover, possess instinctive and cognitive capabilities that endow them with social, psychological and moral dimensions.

Modern human life is complicated by this enormous diversity of self and non-self systems that profoundly affect us in ways we can't see or understand. We spend our lives learning how to comprehend, cooperate with, or "beat" the systems that confront, confound and engulf us. How well we see and deal with these constantly changing systems makes us what we are.

The Problem of Perceiving Systems

Skills in perceiving and analyzing the world in terms of systems are not innate to humans, they must be learned. We are born blind to systems in three principal ways.

    We have an inherent inability to clearly perceive ourselves
  1. in space
  2. in time
  3. in our relationships to what appear to be remote objects, forces, people and events.
Spatial blindness
Is a failure to grasp "big picture" connections. Most of us are almost totally unaware of what is happening elsewhere that can indirectly but powerfully affect our lives. We are like the legendary blind people describing an elephant as they each grasp a different part of its anatomy. When we mistake the parts for the whole we lose perspective and miss the context in which seemingly isolated events occur. We are dismayed, for example, to discover man-made chemical toxins in the fatty tissue of polar bears.

An aspect of spatial blindness is scale blindness. It is easy to miss the big picture when concentrating on details, and vice versa. For example "one size fits all" regulation by the federal government is often not the best solution for every local jurisdiction. On the other hand, a patchwork of local autonomies can result in competitive harm and obstruct measures for the common good. The common practice of up-scaling or down-scaling a set of conditions by linear extrapolation can be a recipe for serious error. Yet with improved scientific and mathematical tools, we can begin to overcome scale blindness.

Temporal blindness
Results from a natural human focus on the immediate, compounded by our ignorance of the past and neglect of the future. It prevents us from learning what human history can teach us, how we got where we are, and what it took to get here. It erodes our appreciation of the slowly changing connections between ourselves and other forms of life over long periods of time, and of the increasing potential for humans to impose serious impacts relatively quickly on the rest of the world.

Temporal blindness can also keep us from effectively planning ahead. If we are plagued by the uncertainties of accelerating change, for example, it becomes easy to argue that planning for an unpredictable future is an exercise in futility. It likewise becomes easier to choose cures over prevention, and to deny any connection between "scientifically unproven" causes and commonly observed, long term effects. Blindness to the needs of the future leads us to disregard consideration of the carrying capacity of the earth's life support systems, and inhibits the development of fairer intergenerational ethics.

Relationship blindness
Can lock us into unproductive "us" versus "them" behaviors. We sometimes forget that each one of us plays many roles in life - child, parent, consumer, neighbor, voter, investor, buyer, seller etc. - each role with its own network of changing relationships. In these interlocking systems it is no longer uncommon for us to be affected often by unknown events or decisions made at home, next door, or on the other side of the world.

Relationship blindness contributes to one-step thinking. Overly simplistic "solutions" can merely replace old problems with new ones. One-step thinking may miss the more subtle web of causality leading to our most important problems. Such thinking has contributed to unintended adverse consequences of many actions taken by "experts" in the name of progress.

A Pathway To Smarter Answers (And Better Questions)

Human Body Systems thinking is the cure for systems blindness. Knowledge of systems is a path to a better understanding of how mother nature and human nature work. Learning should be comprehensive and continuous because everything keeps changing, in small ways and large. Moreover, systems insights can instill within us more meaning and purpose. In a fully integrated curriculum, the understanding of relationships between systems and their parts is a fundamental goal. It takes the blinders off.

A key element is a more sophisticated understanding and use of information. From DNA to television advertising, information is the feedstock of knowledge, attitudes and behavior, good and bad. Information nourishes the web of life and shapes the destiny of all interacting biotic, industrial and cultural ecosystems.

The great expectations for the Information Age will bear fruit to the degree that responsible producers and educated consumers of information understand how to manage this resource, and how to wield related tools. Several such tools are now widely available, examples include system dynamics and decision analysis software. It is imperative that we learn how to use them or at least appreciate what they can do.

Computer model simulations of integrated systems, for example, can be used to support critical thinking and problem solving in elementary schools, high schools and universities, as well as in government and industry. Critical social issues can be analyzed from every academic and practical viewpoint. Alternative future scenarios can be developed and evaluated to support discussion of what can be done to best influence events toward more desirable outcomes. Different proposals can be tested by the "what if" process in the virtual world before making any false steps in the real world.

Once the skill of perceiving patterns and connectedness is acquired, it can be applied anywhere. The skill of systems analysis is among the most basic, and at the same time, one of the most sophisticated of our cognitive aspirations.

It is most basic because systems learning, especially in teams, is an integrative educational process to prepare students for their lifetime roles as productive workers, informed consumers, perceptive voters and responsible investors; in other words, the kind of engaged citizens that can make a democratic political system and a market economy function as they are supposed to.

On the other hand, systems analysis is highly sophisticated, a disciplinary specialty of its own, even in its simple applications. It has generalizable, cross-cutting aspects that make it particularly useful for creative and critical thinking. It can be taught at a level appropriate to a student's academic knowledge and skills. It is one of the key skills everyone should learn in pursuit of a better world.

In summary, thinking clearly about systems is both a critical skill for students to develop, and an opportunity for them to integrate other knowledge and experience. An investment of this sort in higher quality thinking skills should be a moral obligation of each generation to the next. It represents a vital step in realizing humanity's potential.

The material above is reproduced from a workshop report on Systems Thinking, Academic Standards, and Teacher Preparation held at Princeton University on April 5, 1997. The co-chairs of the workshop and co-authors of this material are Clinton Andrews, now on the Urban Planning Faculty of the Bloustein School, Rutgers University, and Carl Henn, Adjunct Faculty at Cook College, Rutgers University.

Recomended References

Capra, F.
From the Parts to the Whole: Systems Thinking in Ecology and Education.
Berkeley, CA: Center for Ecoliteracy.

Checkland, P.
Systems Thinking, Systems Practice.
New York: John Wiley & sones, 1993.

Kauffman, D.L., Jr.
Systems 1: An Introduction to Systems Thinking.
Minneapolis, MN: S.A. Carlton, 1980.

Kline, S.J.
Conceptual Foundations for Multi-Disciplinary Thinking.
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

National Research Council, Policy Division.
Linking Science and Technology to Society's Environmental Goals.
Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1996.

Oshry, B.
Seeing Systems.
San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 1995.

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