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Systems science

Impression of systems thinking about society [1]

Systems science is the interdisciplinary field of science, which studies the nature of complex systems in nature, society, and science. It aims to develop interdisciplinary foundations, which are applicable in a variety of areas, such as engineering, biology, medicine and social sciences.

Systems sciences have roots in formal sciences like complex systems, cybernetics, dynamical systems theory, and systems theory, and applications in the field of the natural and social sciences and Engineering, such as Control theory, Operations research, Social systems theory, Systems biology, Systems dynamics, Systems ecology. Systems engineering and Systems psychology.



Systems science and systemics are names for all research related to systems theory. It is defined as an emerging branch of science that studies holistic systems and tries to develop logical, mathematical, engineering and philosophical paradigms and frameworks in which physical, technological, biological, social, cognitive and metaphysical systems can be studied and developed.

Systems science pursues its study from a certain point of view: to understand humans and their environment as part of interacting systems. The aim is to study this interaction from multiple perspectives, holistically. Inherent to this approach is a comprehensive historical, contemporary and futuristic outlook. Systems science, with such an ambition and with its basic systems theory, provides a general language with which to tie together various areas of interdisciplinary communication. As such it automatically strives towards a universal science, i.e. to join together the many splintered disciplines with a "law of laws" applicable to them all and integrating all scientific knowledge.[2]

Quest against reductionism

Descartes (1622) held that animals could be reductively explained as automata.

A basic assumption of systems thinking is, that there is something missing with the way we think about our lives. What has become the dominant thinking of our time produces only a partial understanding of our reality and relates only to parts of our being, not the whole of it. To overcome this reductionism, a holistic way of thinking is needed to allow us to see through chaos and understand complexity. A thinking of interaction and design can help us to learn a new mode of living by considering various ways of seeing, doing and being in the world. We can then design new methods of inquiry, new modes of organization and a way of life, that will allow the rational, emotional and ethical choices for interdependent, yet autonomous, social beings.[3]

This dominant reductionistic thinking is traced back to the French philosopher Rene Descartes, who tended to segregate the whole and advised to consider the parts in isolation. This scientific method is called the "analytical approach". The analytical approach contributed significantly to modern science and was the conceptual basis of the Industrial Revolution. Systems thinkers stated, that today this is not enough: the world is now more interdependent, organizations are more complex, and so are the problems they face.[4].

Further characteristics

Senge (1990) described systems thinking as comprising five learning disciplines: personal mastery, meta models, shared vision, team learning, and the overarching discipline of systems thinking. Earlier, Capra (1982) identified several key characteristics of systems thinking, including a shift from an emphasis in the parts to the whole; a shift in attending to a single level to going back and forth between systems levels; a shift from analytic thinking to contexual thinking, or explaining things in terms of their context; a shift from seeing objects as being of primary importance to seeing relationships as critical component, or netwerk thinking; a shift from the metaphor of knowledge as a building to that of knowledge as a network; and a shift from objective to epistemic science, in which the method of questioning is integral to the scientific theories.[5]

More recently Ossimitz (2007) summarized, that four characteristic dimensions can be seen as essential for systems thinking:[6]

  1. Thinking in models: explicitly comprehended modeling
  2. Thinking in loops: a thinking in interrelated, systemic structures, recognizing causal loops.
  3. Dynamic thinking: a thinking in dynamic processes (delays, feedback loops, oscillations).
  4. Steering systems: the ability for practical system management and system control


Systems thinking emerged and established itself as a transdiscipline in the in the 1940s and early 1950s.[7] Systems ideas had emerged, stated Hammond (2003), from a broad range of disciplines: biology, ecology, social psychology and technology. These ideas came together in a General Systems movement, that wanted to replace that analytic approach with a more holistic approach. By focusing on the creation of a General Systems Theory they wanted to create a collaboration and integration between different disciplinary perspectives.[8]

In the following decades Systems thinking developed in interaction with fields as engineering, management, organismic biology, cybernetics, information, ecology and social theory. Among these theories systems theory was the one metaphor according to Hammond that highlights the relationships and interconnections among the biological, ecological, social, psychological, and technological dimensions of our increasingly complex lives.[8]

Early approaches to using systems ideas in an applied manner, such as operation research, systems analysis and systems engineering, were suitable for tackling certain well-defined problems but were found to have limitations when faced with complex problems involving people with a variety of viewpoints and frequently at odds with one anonther. Systems thinkers responded with approaches such as systems dynamics and organizational cybernetics to tackle complexity; soft systems methodology, and interactive planning to handle subjectivity; critical systems heuristics to help the disadvantage in situations involving conflict; and pragmatic pluralism to manage diversity. In theoretical terms, the positivism that had dominated systems thinking until the 1970s, was supplemented, as a source of support for applied work, by structuralism, interpretivism, radicalism and postmodernism.[9]

Since the 1970s Peter Checkland witnessed a replacement of the old hard paradigm with a new vigorous soft paradigm. The hard pardigm was unable to deal with the anomalies arising, when applied in complex, human-centred organizational and societal situations. This has given way to a soft paradigm, which both preserves the achievements of the hard in its specialized domain of application and extends the area of successful operations of systems ideas to the behavioral and social arena.[10]

According to Olsson (2004) the basic systems concepts and ideas from the founding fathers haven't changed very much over time. There has been a significant new development though since the 1990s in the epistemological "framing" of the established theoretical apparatus and this development constitutes a qualitative improvement of the systems approach in science.[11]

The field of systems science

Systems thinking concepts

Main article: Glossary of systems theory
The concept of a system is an integrated composite of people, products, and processes, which provide a capability to satisfy a stated need or objective.[12]
Systems approach
A systems thinking approach does not view problems as discrete, but sees them as related to all aspects of an organization. Organizations are composed of interrelated systems and processes, and any change in one organizational aspect affects all others. A systems thinker would therefore consider the interrelationship among systems and processes of the organization before implementing the solution. That solution will be evaluated on the basis of all results produced. Further, there is the recognition that not only do circumstances change, requiring new solutions, but solutions require new circumstances.[13]
Systems dimensions
Gharajedaghi (2005) determined five systems dimensions.[3]
  • Throughput, Membership, Conflict management, Decisions Systems, Learning and Control Systems.
System elements
A system element is a balanced solution to a functional requirement or a set of functional requirements and must satisfy the performance requirements of the associated item. A system element is part of the system [hardware, software, facilities, personnel, data, material, services, and techniques] that, individually or in combination, satisfies a function [task] the system must perform.[12]
Systems hierarchy
Systems language
The systems language by necessity will have two dimensions. The first will be a framework for understanding the nature of the beast, the behavioural characteristics of multiminded systems. The second will be an operational systems methodology, which goes beyond simply declaring the desirability of the systems approach and provides a practical way of defining problems and designing solutions.[3]
Systems methods
Modelling the behaviour of complex adaptive systems, with the understanding how each component links to the next, for strategic decision-making[14]
Systems modelling
Systems perspective
A systems perspective is a perspective emerging from the application of a system approach. For example in Business & Economics; Family & Relationships; Psychology; Social Science; and Technology.[15]
Systems principles
Gharajedaghi (2005) determined five systems principles.[3]
  • Openness, purposefulness, multidimensionality, emergent property, counterintuitiveness
System specification
A top level set of requirements for a system. A system specification may be a system/sub-system specification, Prime Item Development Specification, or a Critical Item Development Specification.[12]
Systems of systems
A dimension of the systems language is a framework for understanding the nature and characteristics of systems. To build such a demention we need to develop a systems of systems concept. In this context Ackoff's On Purposeful systems (1972) is a Herculean work.[3]

Systems thinking theories

Since the emerge of the General Systems Research in the 1950s systems thinking has been developed into all kinds of theoretical frameworks. The following overview will only show the most basic types.

Systems notes of Henk Bikker, TU Delft, 1991.
Systems analysis
Systems analysis is the interdisciplinary branch of science, dealing with analysis of systems, often prior to their automation as computer systems, and the interactions within those systems. This field is closely related to operations research.
Systems design
In computing systems design is the process or art of defining the hardware and software architecture, components, modules, interfaces, and data for a computer system to satisfy specified requirements. One could see it as the application of systems theory to computing. Some overlap with the discipline of systems analysis appears inevitable.
Systems dynamics
System dynamics is an approach to understanding the behaviour of complex systems over time. It deals with internal feedback loops and time delays that affect the behaviour of the entire system.[16] What makes using system dynamics different from other approaches to studying complex systems is the use of feedback loops and stocks and flows. These elements help describe how even seemingly simple systems display baffling nonlinearity.
Systems engineering
Systems Engineering (SE) is an interdisciplinary field of engineering, that focuses on the development and organization of complex artificial systems. Systems engineering has emerged into all kinds of sciences, and universities nowadays offer all kinds of specialized academic programs.[17]
Systems methodology
Their are more kinds of systems methodology. For example:
  • Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is an approach to organisational process modelling and it can be used both for general problem solving and in the management of change. It was developed in England by academics at the University of Lancaster Systems Department through a ten year Action Research programme.
  • System Development Methodology (SDM) is a general term applied to a variety of structured, organized processes for developing information technology and embedded software systems.
Systems theories
Systems theory is an interdisciplinary field of science. It studies the nature of complex systems in nature, society, and science. More specificially, it is a framework by which one can analyze and/or describe any group of objects that work in concert to produce some result.
Systems science
Systems sciences are scientific disciplines partly based on systems thinking such as Chaos theory, Complex systems, Control theory, Cybernetics, Sociotechnical systems theory, Systems biology, Systems ecology, Systems psychology and the already mentioned Systems dynamics, Systems engineering and Systems theory.

Systems scientists

Norbert Wiener in the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT.
Main article: List of systems scientists

Notable contributors to the field include Jay Forrester, Humberto Maturana, Stuart Kauffman, Norbert Wiener, William Ross Ashby, Heinz von Foerster and Charles François.

General systems scientists can be divided into three generations. The founders of the systems movement like ludwig von Bertalanffy, Kenneth Boulding, Ralph Gerard, James Grier Miller and Anatol Rapoport were all born between 1900 and 1920. They all came from different natural and social science disciplines and joint forces in the 1950s to established the general systems theory paradigm. Along with the organization of their efforts a first generation of systems scientists rose. Among them were other scientists like Ackoff, Ashby and Churchman, who popularized the systems concept in the 1950s and 1960s. These scientists inspired and educated a second generation with more famous scientist like Ervin Laszlo (1932) and Fritjof Capra (1939), who wrote about systems theory in the 1970s and 1980s. Others got acquainted and started studying these works in the 1980s and started writing about it since the 1990s. Debora Hammond can be seen as a typical representative of these third generation of general systems scientists.


Main article: List of systems sciences organizations

In the field of systems science the International Federation for Systems Research (IFSR) is an international federation for global and local societies in the field of systems science. This federation is a non-profit, scientific and educational agency founded in 1981, and constituted of some thirty member organizations from various countries. The overall purpose of this Federation is to advance cybernetic and systems research and systems applications and to serve the international systems community.

The International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS) is an organisation for interdisciplinary collaboration and synthesis of systems sciences. The ISSS is unique among systems-oriented institutions in terms of the breadth of its scope, bringing together scholars and practitioners from academic, business, government, and non-profit organizations. Based on fifty years of tremendous interdisciplinary research from the scientific study of complex systems to interactive approaches in management and community development. This society was initially conceived in 1954 at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Kenneth Boulding, Ralph Gerard, and Anatol Rapoport.

The most known research institute in the field is the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) located in Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States, dedicated to the study of complex systems. This institute was founded in 1984 by George Cowan, David Pines, Stirling Colgate, Murray Gell-Mann, Nick Metropolis, Herb Anderson, Peter A. Carruthers, and Richard Slansky. All but Pines and Gell-Mann were scientists with Los Alamos National Laboratory. SFI's original mission was to disseminate the notion of a separate interdisciplinary research area, complexity theory referred to at SFI as complexity science.

See also

Systems science Portal


  1. ^ Illustration is made by Marcel Douwe Dekker (2007) based on an own standard and Pierre Malotaux (1985), "Constructieleer van de mensenlijke samenwerking", in BB5 Collegedictaat TU Delft, pp. 120-147.
  2. ^ Lars Skyttner (1999), General Systems Theory: An Introduction. p.3
  3. ^ a b c d e Jamshid Gharajedaghi (2005), Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity : A Platform for Designing Business Architecture., Butterworth-Heinemann
  4. ^ What is Systemic Thinking, Centro para la Acción y el Pensamiento Sistémicos. retrieved October 2007.
  5. ^ Joseph K.H. Tan (1998), Health Decision Support Systems, p.68.
  6. ^ Günther Ossimitz, Systems Thinking and System Dynamics Modeling:a new perspective for math classes?, Universität Klagenfurt, retrieved at Günther Ossimitz home, Oct 2007.
  7. ^ Michael C. Jackson (2000), Systems Approaches to Management, Springer, p.43.
  8. ^ a b Debora Hammond (2003), The Science of Synthesis: Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory, Colorado: University Press of Colorado.
  9. ^ Michael C. Jackson (2000), Systems Approaches to Management, Springer, 465 pp.
  10. ^ Michael C. Jackson (1991), Systems Methodology for the Management Sciences, p.268.
  11. ^ Mats-Olov Ollson & Gunnar Sjöstedt (2004), "Systems Approaches And Their Application: Examples From Sweden", p.31.
  12. ^ a b c FHWA glossary, retireved Oct 2007.
  13. ^ Patrick J. Montana & Bruce H. Charnov (2000), Management, Barron's Educational Series, p.92
  14. ^ p.10
  15. ^ Publications:
    • W. Robert Beavers (1977), Psychotherapy and Growth: A Family Systems Perspective.
    • Kenneth Knight & Reuben R. McDaniel (1979), Organizations: An Information Systems Perspective, 191 pp.
    • William Laser (1971), Marketing Management: A Systems Perspective, 720 pp.
    • André Mineau (1999), The Making of the Holocaust: Ideology and Ethics in the Systems Perspective.
    • William A. Pasmore (1988), Designing Effective Organizations: The Sociotechnical Systems Perspective.
    • William F. Roth (1999), Quality Improvement: A Systems Perspective, 241 pp.
    • Terry S. Trepper & Mary Jo Barrett (1986), Treating Incest: A Multiple Systems Perspective.
    • Neil H. E. Weste & Kamran Eshraghian (1985), Principles of CMOS VLSI Design: A Systems Perspective, 531 pp.
    • Richard C. Williams (1974), Effecting Organizational Renewal in Schools: A Social Systems Perspective, 138 pp.
  16. ^
  17. ^ See for further details: Wikipedia:WikiProject Systems/List of systems engineering at universities

Further reading

  • B. A. Bayraktar, Education in Systems Science, 1979, 369 pp.
  • Kenneth D. Bailey, "Fifty Years of Systems Science:Further Reflections", Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 22, 2005, pp. 355–361.
  • Robert L. Flood, Ewart R Carson, Dealing with Complexity: An Introduction to the Theory and Application of Systems Science, 1988.
  • George J. Klir, Facets of Systems Science, Plenum Press, 1991.
  • Ervin László, Systems Science and World Order: Selected Studies, 1983.
  • Anatol Rapoport (ed.), General Systems: Yearbook of the Society for the Advancement of General Systems Theory, Society for General Systems Research, Vol 1., 1956.
  • Li D. Xu, "The contributions of Systems Science to Information Systems Research", Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 17, 2000, pp. 105–116.
  • John N. Warfield, "A proposal for Systems Science", Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 20, 2003, pp. 507–520.

External links

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