General system theory, therefore, is a generalscience of "wholeness...The meaning of thesomewhat mystical expression, "The whole ismore that the sum of its parts" is simply thatconstitutive characteristics are not explainablefrom the characteristics of the isolated parts.The characteristics of the complex, therefore,appear as "new" or "emergent"... Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory
What are Systems?A system is an abstract model which "explains"some aspect of the world and rules for its ELEMENTSoperation. Any object, boundary or relation that can be articulated BOUNDARIESAs you study system thinking and the history of Any idea that separates elements--for example, different shapes, attributes orthe world views that have preceded it, it is time. Boundaries may also be defined by attachment to a core idea, a generatingimportant to recognize that any description of a ideathing, including a systems description, is a RELATIONS Any idea that associates elements--formental construct invented for a particular example, same shape, sharing a boundaryreason or occasion. There are no systems out or an attribute, following from a prior element or statethere. We project onto the world our own CAUSEschemes for organizing our experience, though That which brings into being any aspect of a system--for example, an idea, aas members of cultures we use common models. boundary, a relation, a precedent condition, a presence, an absence . . . .If we examine any of these models thoughtfully QUALITIESwe can see that, like any language, they are Characteristics of the whole which are evident only at the level of the whole andformed of parts and processes, rules and limits. are different from characteristics of the parts or elementsThe science of these relations is system theory.
General Characteristics of Systems Thinking1. Each part of an organization can only be understood in terms of its relation to the other parts of the organization.2. The parts of the organization, including their interrelatedness, are important insofar as they contribute to the overall functioning of the organization.3. Organizations, conceived as wholes, may be thought of metaphorically as biological organisms, replete with needs or goals that are super-ordinate to and conceptually separate from the conscious needs, purposes, and goals of individual parts or members.4. These needs and goals of organizations may be conceived either statically (e.g. survival or maintenance or order) or dynamically (e.g. in terms of purposive evolution or change).5. Organizational activity of any significance is understandable in terms of its relation to the external environment, which provides the resources and conditions on which the organization depends for its survival or the realization of its purposes.
Clouds and Clocks“There are lots of things, natural processes and naturalphenomena, which we may place between these two extremes -the clouds on the left, and the clocks on the right. The changingseasons are somewhat unreliable clocks, and may therefore beput somewhere towards the right, though not too far. I supposewe shall easily agree to put animals not too far from the cloudson the left, and plants somewhat nearer to the clocks. Among theanimals, a young puppy will have to be placed further to the leftthan an old dog. Motor cars, too, will find their place somewherein our arrangement, according to their reliability - Perhapsfurthest to the right should be placed the solar system.” Karl Popper
Laszlo’s Nine Points of Contrast (1-4) “Classical sciences" “The systems view of the world”The worldview of the classical sciences The new systems sciences look at nature as anconceptualized nature as a giant machine organism endowed with irreplaceablecomposed of intricate but replaceable elements and an innate but non-deterministicmachine-like parts. purpose for choice, for flow, for spontaneity.The classical worldview was atomistic and The systems view perceives connections andindividualistic; it view objects as separate from communications between people, andtheir environments and people as separate between people and nature, and emphasizesfrom each other and from their surroundings. community and integrity in both the natural and the human world.The classical worldview was materialistic, The systems view gives a new meaning to theviewing all things as distinct and measurable notion of matter, as a configuration ofmaterial entities. energies that flow and interact, and allows for probabilistic process, for self-creativity, a well as for unpredictability.In its application to everyday affairs, the The new vision emphasizes the important ofclassical worldview extolled the accumulation information and hence of education,of material goods and promoted a power communication, and human services over thehungry, compete-to-win ethos. accumulation of material goods and the acquisition of raw power.
Laszlo’s Nine Points of Contrast (5-7) “Classical sciences" “The systems view of the world”The classical worldview saw growth in the The systems view, looking first of all to thematerial sphere as the pinnacle of whole formed by social and economicsocioeconomic progress and promoted parts, insists on sustainable developmentgreater and greater use (and indirectly of through flexibility and accommodationwaste) of energies, raw materials, and among cooperative and interactive parts.other resources.The classical worldview was Eurocentric, The holistic vision takes in the diversity oftaking Western industrialized societies as human cultures and societies and sees all ofthe paradigms of progress and them as equally valid, ranking them only indevelopment. regard to sustainability and the satisfaction they provide for their members.The classical worldview was also The systems view sees humans as organicanthropocentric, perceiving human beings parts within a self-maintaining and self-as mastering and controlling nature for evolving whole that is the context and thetheir own ends. precondition of life on this planet.
Laszlo’s Nine Points of Contrast (8-9) “Classical sciences" “The systems view of the world”When the classical worldview was applied When the systemic vision inspires theto social science, the dominant notions theories of social science, the values ofturned out to be struggle for survival, the competition are mitigated by those ofprofit of the individual, with at best an cooperation, and the emphasis onassumed automatic coincidence of individualistic work ethos is tempered withindividual and societal good (through Adam a tolerance of diversity and ofSmiths "invisible hand"). experimentation with institutions and practices that foster man-man and man- nature adaptation and harmony.When the classical worldview was applied When the systems view is the basis of ato medical science, the human body diagnosis the body is seen as a system ofappeared to be a machine frequently in interacting parts, and body and mind areneed of repair by factual and impersonal not separable. It is the health of the wholeinterventions and treatments. The problems system that is to be maintained by attentionof the mind were seen to be separable from to psychic and interpersonal as much as tothose of the body and hence to be physical and physiological factors.separately treated.
Fritjof Capra Summary on Systems Thinking1. A shift from the parts to the whole: Systems science shows that living systems cannot be understood by analysis. • It is useful to apply the same concepts to different systems levels • In general, different systems levels represent different degrees of complexity • Contextual thinking: explanation by describing the environment • A shift from objects to relationships: In the systems view we realize that the objects themselves are networks of relationships, embedded in larger networks. For the systems thinker the relationships are primary.2. The ability to shift attention back and forth between systems levels3. The metaphor of knowledge as a network of concepts and models in which there are no foundations. The material universe is seen as a dynamic web of interrelated events. None of the properties of any part of this web is fundamental; they all follow from the properties of the other parts, and the overall consistency of their interrelations determines the structure of the entire web.
CHARACTERISTICS OF FIVE SYSTEM THEORIES THEORY Structural Assumptions Cause Process OmissionsClassic An all-encompassing unity within Formal (fulfilling form; Labeling, No explanation of which there is a clear hierarchy of because it is what it is) describing, why things change ordered elements classifying Final (teleological; purportive)Dynamic Distinct elements assembled as Efficient (cause-effect) Empirical-analytic No explanation of(Scientific/ building blocks into larger, distinct Material (determined by intentionality, ofMechanistic) wholes. Boundaries well defined. the composition of the "why" or for what Performance of parts determines elements) purpose a thing performance of whole existsCommunication Separate elements bound together Efficient Information Does not deal with(Cybernetic) in systems which have a purpose; exchange; self-renewing quality feedback adjusts and controls Final feedback for of living entities performances; boundaries clear but control must take into account bias viewpoint of observerField Holistic; boundaries are not real but Formal (It is because it is) Entrainment Does not deal with assumptions to help our (interaction of parts or understanding. Everything is Entrainment (linking energy fields) individuation of the connected and interdependent. through energy exchange) person Force-field analysisEvolutionary Elements are identifiable but also Final ("enfolded") Transforming may change (transform); change (Stability-chaos generated from within; a system is Morphogenic (evolves transformation- composed of hierarchy of from inherent sources) stability) substructures; boundaries intrinsic, Mutual causality (loops not not in observers mind; systems are lines) self-organizing, self-defining
"Process philosophy" Alfred North Whitehead Whitehead thought of individual entities as series of moments of experience instead of as masses of static substance. Within each moment, an entity is influenced by others, creates its own identity and propels itself into further experiences. Because of the involvement of all moments of experience with each other, Whitehead conceived of the entire cosmos as an organic whole. Just as all the cells in our bodies are interrelated, all elements of the universe are interrelated. These relationships are not all equal: a single skin cell on a persons toe does not affect his or her life as much as does a nerve cell in(1861–1947) the brain. Complex groups of cells, such as the nervous system, have a greater influence on the person than single cells.
“General Systems Theory" Ludwig von Bertalanffy Whitehead thought of individual entities as series of moments of experience instead of as masses of static substance. Within each moment, an entity is influenced by others, creates its own identity and propels itself into further experiences. Because of the involvement of all moments of experience with each other, Whitehead conceived of the entire cosmos as an organic whole. Just as all the cells in our bodies are interrelated, all elements of the universe are interrelated. These relationships are not all equal: a single skin cell on a persons toe does not(1901-1972) affect his or her life as much as does a nerve cell in the brain. Complex groups of cells, such as the nervous system, have a greater influence on the person than single cells.
“Cybernetics" Norbert Weiner A cybernetic system is one that learns on the basis of feedback ("learning" and "feedback" are distinctive, technical terms in cybernetics). In the paradigm case, a system acts, observes the result of that action, compares that result to some pre-determined criterion state, and acts again in a way to move the system even closer to the desired state.(1894-1964)
“Second-Order Cybernetics" Ilya Prigogine In information theory and first-order cybernetics, positive feedback was considered, respectively, uninformative or destructive. However, in dissipative systems, positive feedback loops are understood as a source of new order and complexity as the system develops new patterns and organizes itself.(1917 - 2003)
“Chaos Theory" Edward Lorenz Chaos comes into focus when one shifts perspective. The shift moves from thinking of systems as wholes, whos dynamic involves maintaining or crossing boundaries (open vs. closed systems) or cycles of acting - monitoring - interpreting feedback - acting again (cybernetics) and to thinking of systems as reproducing themselves in each new moment iteratively, engaging in repeated actions following a set of rules. In this perspective, the language of homeostasis and equilibrium are set aside in favor of a vocabulary describing emerging patterns: bifurcation points, attractors, fractals, etc.(1917 - 2008)1. Simple systems give rise to complex behavior.2. Complex systems give rise to simple behavior.3. The laws of complexity hold universally, regardless of the details of a systems constituent atoms.
“Complex Adaptive System" New England Complex Systems Institute http://www.necsi.edu Complex Systems is a new field of science studying how parts of a system give rise to the collective behaviors of the system, and how the system interacts with its environment.1. Each complex adaptive system (CAS) is a network of many "agents" acting in parallel. “2. A CAS has many levels of organization, with agents at any level serving as the building blocks for agents at a higher level.3. All CASs anticipate the future4. CASs typically have many niches, each of which can be exploited by an agent adapted to fill that niche. And, since the act of filling a niche opens up more niches, new opportunities are always being created by the system. "And that, in turn, means that its essentially meaningless to talk about a complex adaptive system being in equilibrium: the system can never get there. It is always unfolding, always in transition. In fact, if the system ever does reach equilibrium, it isnt just stable. Its dead."