What is ‘systems thinking’ anyway?

I’ve read a lot about systems thinking over the years and I can confidently say my ways of working are strongly influenced by this approach. But when someone asks what actually is systems thinking, I find it difficult to give a succinct and useful definition. And much of what’s written on the subject is pretty impenetrable at first sight.

This short video from Peter Senge, from MIT and the Society for Organisational Learning, is, I think, a pretty good introduction:

“[The fundamental rationale of systems thinking] is to understand how it is that the problems that we all deal with, which are the most vexing, difficult and intransigent, come about, and to give us some perspective on those problems [in order to] give us some leverage and insight as to what we might do differently.”

One of the leading advocates and thinkers on systems thinking is Fritjof Capra. I’ve tended to be wary of the parallels that he has long drawn between eastern mysticism and quantum physics, but I’ve been bowled over by his more recent book (with biochemist Pier Luigi Luisi) The Systems View of Life, which focusses on systems biology to explore:

…how modern biology, in trying to understand the self-organising, adaptive and creative aspects of life in all its forms, has by necessity turned to a holistic, systems view emphasising pattern and organisation.

But the main point of the book isn’t merely that systems biology is fascinating. More importantly, Capra and Luisi argue that many of the most important problems we face today – from financial instability to climate change and ecological degradation – reflect our collective inability to appreciate just how the world operates as a holistic, networked system in which every part depends on every other.

There may be solutions – even simple ones, they suggest – if we could manage to start thinking in this way, and the book is their effort to help this along. It’s partly an enjoyable survey of exciting new developments in systems biology, valuable to any student of biology or science, and partly a bold blueprint for how we might preserve our future on Earth using the systems perspective on life and what sustains it. (Mark Buchanan, New Scientist)

What I find especially useful is the way the book summarises a wide swathe of scientific history (which actually included a great deal of systems thinking) and its philosophical and practical implications. They then:

…take an adventurous expedition through topics from genetic regulation to ecology, and from climate science to the origins of life, in every case emphasising the necessity of taking a holistic perspective if we are to make progress. They ask: can we understand the dynamics of the human heart in terms of the interactions of its cells? No, because the behaviour of every cell depends on the overall state of the heart itself. Causality works in both directions, bottom-up and top-down, at once. What happens cannot be understood by studying any one level on its own. (Mark Buchanan, New Scientist)

To my mind Buchanan is a little to dismissive of the fact that:

Ideas like these are hardly new, and that could also be said of much of the book, especially its discussion of systems theory, complexity science, ecology and the roots of our global problems.

For me, the real value of this book is the way it brings together these ideas in a coherent, accessible way, and shows how they relate to the more traditional ways of thinking that continue to dominate so much of our public ways of understanding the world and frequently lead to such poor decision making. After all:

We are not ecologically literate or systems literate: these are languages we will have to learn.

The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi is published by Cambridge University Press, 2014. ISBN: 9781107011366.

(If like me you try and avoid Amazon due to its various dubious practices you can buy this book for a very similar price at Wordery, where at least they pay UK taxes.)