What is a System?

Definition of a system

A system is any collection of things that interact together to produce some sort of behavior of the whole. Systems Thinking is the study of how and why systems behave the way they do by examining the structure of their parts, relationships, and resulting behaviors.

A basketball game is a system of players, referees, and rules that interact to produce a game. Silicon valley is a system with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and resources that create a culture of innovation as well as exuberance. A wildlife ecosystem is a system of living organisms, climates, and consumption patterns that interact to create rising and falling populations of various species.

A system is not equal to the sum of its parts

If you take the parts of a system apart, the system will behave differently because the interactions are cut off. It is these interactions that tell us how and why a system functions the way it does. Take out referees from the game of basketball and players will behave differently. Take out venture capitalists and Silicon Valley would look very different today. Remove a species from its wildlife habitat and other species that were previously food source or predator will react. You can’t understand a system if you only study its parts in isolation.

3 Types of Systems

Systems can be generally categorized as physical, biological, or social.

  1. Physical systems can be understood based on natural physical laws and ignore questions of values, motivations, and preferences. These include the the study of mechanical, electrical, and chemical systems. Problems in the area of physical systems tend to be more straight forward – when designing products or conducting experiments in physical systems, the designer can select the parts, pre-program the goals, and with enough trial and error design a system that achieves a defined function. We can design watches, thermostats, and machines to perform certain ways according to our expectation, of course with some room for designer error.
  2. Biological systems are made up of the organs in the body of living organisms. Your brain, spine, heart, muscles, and lungs each and together serve integral functions that support your life. It’s impossible to study this complex set of relationships by researching any particular organ in isolation. The field of healthcare and medicine seeks answers to questions about our wellbeing and longevity, but different schools of medicine and diet gurus will tell you different things, each finding “scientific” research that can support their claims. Unlike mechanical systems, causal relationships are much less straightforward while the interconnections across cells are infinitely more complex. Therefore we experience “side effects” when taking symptom-relieving drugs, and sometimes don’t see the effects of our health choices until many years to come.
  3. Social systems deal with the interactions of people. They involve the laws of human nature and bring in questions of values, motivations, and morals absent in physical systems. And because each individual has unique goals and therefore preferences, social systems are much harder for any one to plan and control. There are an infinite number of parts, interconnections, and goals making them unpredictable. Attempts to command and control populations such as the case in authoritarian regimes is often met with policy resistance, addiction, and eroding goals over time. Social systems also have very fuzzy boundaries because all organisms must interact with their environments for survival. With globalization, policy choices enacted in one country can have an impact on the quality and costs of items purchased by someone on the other side of the globe.

While Systems Thinking can be applied to all 3 types of systems, we are much more interested in social systems on this site.

Systems impact each other

You are a part of many systems and systems within systems – the company you work for, the industry you work in, the national economy, the global economy, nature. Economic systems are entwined with political systems which are entwined with social systems which are entwined with environmental systems. Meanwhile your nervous system functions within your body system which functions within our many community systems.
We may draw boundaries between one system and another to help us wrap our heads around too much complexity, but we harm our own thinking when we become too fixated on these boundaries and fail to see relationships across boundaries.

We often overlook how an interference in one part of the system can have damaging unintended consequences that we didn’t intend to produce. The abrupt decline of the honeybee population around the world has impacted and been impacted by humans. Honeybees are vital for pollination in agricultural crops and natural ecosystems. Their collapse is due to a variety of interactions including disease, insecticide use, and the commercial transport of bees. We live in a world where humans, animals, and the environment are closely interconnected.

If you don't care about the honeybees, at least care about delicious foods! Image by Whole Foods.
If you don’t care about the honeybees, at least care about delicious foods! Image by Whole Foods.

The agents of a system can have different goals

Systems can often be broken down into smaller systems with differing goals. Take College Education. Students attend college in order to get a degree and improve their job prospects. Although professors are there to teach, professors might be more concerned by their own research and pursuit of tenure. Each university department, then, is a system where the goal is to strive for its own prestige. All of these are parts of the larger university system, and it is in everyone’s interests to maintain the greater university’s reputation.

System behavior is caused by the interactions from within – its own structure causes the good and bad that we observe. Cities with high crime rates cannot be blamed on individual criminals. Instead, the system has set conditions that have allowed crime to develop – poor educational opportunities, growing income inequality, and tensions between different groups of people create a toxic environment. We can’t fix crime just by arresting people and punishing them – more criminals will spring up if we don’t solve the root causes of problems.

Try this: Think of 5 systems that you are a part of. Identify the parts, how those parts interact, and what behavior is generated from these interactions. Do these systems have goals? Are the incentives designed in a way to ensure that the intended goal is being met? Be careful here because often times people state that their goal is one thing, but the system behaves in a different way (you should be picturing politicians right now). Leave a comment below with the parts, interactions and behavior for one of your systems and get feedback from other members of the community!

We are embedded in many systems, all of which we can impact and be impacted by. Systems thinking appreciates the complex parts and relationships of systems, seen and unseen.

Further Reading:


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