Depiction of systems thinking about society

Systems thinking is a way of making sense of the complexity of the world by looking at it in terms of wholes and relationships rather than by splitting it down into its parts.[1][2] It has been used as a way of exploring and developing effective action in complex contexts,[3] enabling systems change.[4][5] Systems thinking draws on and contributes to systems theory and the system sciences.[6]


Main article: Systems theory § History

Ptolemaic system versus the Copernican system

The term system is polysemic: Robert Hooke (1674) used it in multiple senses, in his System of the World,[7]: p.24  but also in the sense of the Ptolemaic system versus the Copernican system[8]: 450  of the relation of the planets to the fixed stars[9] which are cataloged in Hipparchus' and Ptolemy's Star catalog.[10] Hooke's claim was answered in magisterial detail by Newton's (1687) Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Book three, The System of the World[11]: Book three  (that is, the system of the world is a physical system).[7]

Newton's approach, using dynamical systems continues to this day.[8] In brief, Newton's equations (a system of equations) have methods for their solution.

Feedback control systems

System output can be controlled with feedback.

By 1824 the Carnot cycle presented an engineering challenge, which was how to maintain the operating temperatures of the hot and cold working fluids of the physical plant.[12] In 1868 James Clerk Maxwell presented a framework for, and a limited solution to the problem of controlling the rotational speed of a physical plant.[13] Maxwell's solution echoed James Watt's (1784) centrifugal moderator (denoted as element Q) for maintaining (but not enforcing) the constant speed of a physical plant (that is, Q represents a moderator, but not a governor, by Maxwell's definition).[14][a]

Maxwell's approach, which linearized the equations of motion of the system, produced a tractable method of solution.[14]: 428–429  Norbert Wiener identified this approach as an influence on his studies of cybernetics[b] during World War II[14] and Wiener even proposed treating some subsystems under investigation as black boxes.[18]: 242  Methods for solutions of the systems of equations then become the subject of study, as in feedback control systems, in stability theory, in constraint satisfaction problems, the unification algorithm, type inference, and so forth.


"So, how do we change the structure of systems to produce more of what we want and less of that which is undesirable? ... MIT’s Jay Forrester likes to say that the average manager can ... guess with great accuracy where to look for leverage points—places in the system where a small change could lead to a large shift in behavior".[19]: 146 Donella Meadows, (2008) Thinking In Systems: A Primer p.145 [c]


System boundary in context
System input and output allows exchange of energy and information across boundary.

...What is a system? A system is a set of things ... interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. ... But the system’s response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world

— Donella Meadows[19]: 2 

[a system] is "an integrated whole even though composed of diverse, interacting, specialized structures and subjunctions"

— IEEE (1972)[17]: 582 

Particular systems

Systems far from equilibrium

Living systems are resilient,[24] and are far from equilibrium.[19]: Ch.3 [40] Homeostasis is the analog to equilibrium, for a living system; the concept was described in 1849, and the term was coined in 1926.[41][42]

Resilient systems are self-organizing;[24][d][19]: Ch.3  [43]

The scope of functional controls is hierarchical, in a resilient system.[24][19]: Ch.3 

Frameworks and methodologies

Frameworks and methodologies for systems thinking include:

See also


  1. ^ A solution to the equations for a dynamical system can be afflicted by instability or oscillation.[15]: 7:33  The Governor: A corrective action against error can solve the dynamical equation by integrating the error.[15]: 29:44 [16]
  2. ^ "cybernetics: see system science.";[17]: 135  "system science: —the systematized knowledge of systems"[17]: 583 
  3. ^ Donella Meadows, Thinking In Systems: A Primer[19][20] Overview, in video clips: Chapter 1[21] Chapter 2, part 1[22] Chapter 2, part 2[23] Chapter 3[24] Chapter 4[25] Chapter 5[26] Chapter 6[27] Chapter 7[28]
  4. ^ Abstract: "An inevitable prerequisite for this book, as implied by its title, is a presupposition that systems science is a legitimate field of scientific inquiry. It is self-evident that I, as the author of this book, consider this presupposition valid. Otherwise, clearly, I would not conceive of writing the book in the first place". —George J. Klir, "What Is Systems Science?" from Facets of Systems Science (1991)


  1. ^ Anderson, Virginia, & Johnson, Lauren (1997). Systems Thinking Basics: From Concepts to Causal Loops. Waltham, Mass: Pegasus Comm., Inc.
  2. ^ Magnus Ramage and Karen Shipp. 2009. Systems Thinkers. Springer.
  3. ^ Introduction to Systems thinking. Report of GSE and GORS seminar. Civil Service Live. 3 July 2012. Government Office for Science.
  4. ^ Sarah York, Rea Lavi, Yehudit Judy Dori, and MaryKay Orgill Applications of Systems Thinking in STEM Education J. Chem. Educ. 2019, 96, 12, 2742–2751 Publication Date:May 14, 2019
  5. ^ "School of System Change: Why Systems Change?". School of System Change: Learning to lead change in a complex world. Retrieved 2022-12-06.
  6. ^ Systemic Thinking 101 Russell L Ackoff From Mechanistic to Systemic thinking, also awal street journal (2016) Systems Thinking Speech by Dr. Russell Ackoff 1:10:57
  7. ^ a b Hooke, Robert (1674) An attempt to prove the motion of the earth from observations
  8. ^ a b Marchal, J. H. (1975). "On the Concept of a System". Philosophy of Science. 42 (4). [Cambridge University Press, The University of Chicago Press, Philosophy of Science Association]: 448–468. ISSN 0031-8248. JSTOR 187223. Retrieved 2024-05-31. as reprinted in Gerald Midgely (ed.) (2002) Systems thinking vol One
  9. ^ Jon Voisey Universe Today (14 Oct 2022) Scholarly History of Ptolemy’s Star Catalog Index
  10. ^ Jessica Lightfoot Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 57 (2017) 935–9672017 Hipparchus Commentary On Aratus and Eudoxus
  11. ^ Newton, Isaac (1687) Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica
  12. ^ Sadi Carnot (1824) Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire
  13. ^ James Clerk Maxwell (1868) On Governors 12 pages
  14. ^ a b c Otto Mayr (1971) Maxwell and the Origins of Cybernetics Isis, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Winter, 1971), pp. 424-444 (21 pages)
  15. ^ a b The Royal Society of Edinburgh (2016) Celebrating Maxwell's Genius and Legacy: Prof Rodolphe Sepulchre
  16. ^ Karl Johan Åström and Richard M. Murray (2021) Feedback Systems: An Introduction for Scientists and Engineers, Second Edition
  17. ^ a b c IEEE (1972) Standard Dictionary of Electrical and Electronics Terms
  18. ^ Peter Galison (1994) The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision Critical Inquiry, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 228–266 (39 pages) JSTOR
  19. ^ a b c d e f g Donella Meadows, (2008) Thinking In Systems: A Primer
  20. ^ Donella H. Meadows (1977) A Philosophical Look at System Dynamics 53:18
  21. ^ Ashley Hodgson Thinking in Systems, Key Ideas (Ch. 1)
  22. ^ Ashley Hodgson Thinking in Systems, Ch. 2: Types of System Dynamics 2a
  23. ^ Ashley Hodgson Thinking in Systems, Ch. 2, Part 2: Limiting Factors in Systems 2b
  24. ^ a b c d Ashley Hodgson Thinking in Systems, Ch. 3: Resilience, Self-Organization and Hierarchy 3
  25. ^ Ashley Hodgson Thinking in Systems, Ch. 4: Why Systems Surprise Us 4
  26. ^ Ashley Hodgson Thinking in Systems, Ch. 5: System Traps 5
  27. ^ Ashley Hodgson Thinking in Systems, Ch. 6: Leverage Points in Systems 6
  28. ^ Ashley Hodgson Thinking in Systems, Ch. 7: Living with Systems 7
  29. ^ Wiener, Norbert; Cybernetics: Or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, MIT Press, 1961, ISBN 0-262-73009-X, page xi
  30. ^ Aristotle, Politics
  31. ^ JS Maloy (2009) The Aristotelianism of Locke's Politics Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 70, No. 2 (April 2009), pp. 235–257 (23 pages)
  32. ^ Aristotle, History of Animals
  33. ^ Lennox, James (27 July 2011). "Aristotle's Biology". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. Retrieved 28 November 2014.
  34. ^ Adam Smith (1776) The Wealth of Nations Book IV refers to commercial, and mercantile systems, as well as to systems of political enonomy
  35. ^ Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
  36. ^ Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action
  37. ^ MIT Radiation Laboratory, MIT Radiation Laboratory Series, 28 volumes
  38. ^ Richard Pates (2021) What is a Lyapunov function
  39. ^ a b Prigogine, Ilya (1980). From Being To Becoming. Freeman. ISBN 0-7167-1107-9. 272 pages.
  40. ^ a b Glansdorff, P., Prigogine, I. (1971). Thermodynamic Theory of Structure, Stability and Fluctuations, London: Wiley-Interscience ISBN 0-471-30280-5
  41. ^ Cannon, W.B. (1932). The Wisdom of the Body. New York: W. W. Norton. pp. 177–201.
  42. ^ Cannon, W. B. (1926). "Physiological regulation of normal states: some tentative postulates concerning biological homeostatics". In A. Pettit (ed.). A Charles Riches amis, ses collègues, ses élèves (in French). Paris: Les Éditions Médicales. p. 91.
  43. ^ H T Odum (25 Nov 1988) Self-Organization, Transformity and Information Science Vol 242, Issue 4882 pp. 1132–1139 as reprinted by Gerald Midgley ed. (2002), Systems Thinking vol 2
  44. ^ Werner Ulrich (1987). "A Brief Introduction to Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH)" (PDF).