Earlier this year I read a book called Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows. It is an intro to a field called Systems Thinking, which is being used to tackle some of the biggest challenges we face today. All throughout the book, Meadows refers back to the environment and natural world which of course built of layers of living systems.
What is a system? To quote from the book:
“A system is a set of things – people, cells, molecules or whatever – interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system may be … driven by outside forces. But the system’s response to these forces is characteristic of itself.”
Systems thinking is all about seeing the relationship between the structure of the system and the system’s behavior. Understanding that relationship can help us determine why the system behaves the way it does, including when an outside force acts on it.
Since it’s March Madness, let’s think about a basketball team as a system. It has elements like players, coaches, a basketball, and a basketball court. The interconnections are the rules, coaches’ strategy, teammate-to-teammate communication, laws of physics etc. Finally, the purpose of the basketball team is to win games or perhaps if you’re a middle school team, it’s to have fun or develop youth athletes. Understanding the structure of system helps us make sense of the system’s behavior (ex, why Johnnie took a 3-point shot with 30 seconds left in the game).
These three aspects – individual elements, interconnections and a purpose or function – are the basics of a system.
So why the brief overview of systems thinking? We know intuitively that nature contains all sorts of systems and that there’s probably a lot to learn from them. In addition, if we are going to try to protect and care for these systems, we better know how they work. Systems thinking can also help us approach the human challenges of tackling climate change.
In general, I also found the book’s details on the characteristics of systems interesting and hope to share more nuggets in future posts!