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What is Systems Thinking?

This page builds on ideas and outcomes from faculty discussions at the workshop, Systems, Society, Sustainability and the Geosciences, held in July 2012.

Systems thinking is the study of complexity and the relationships and interactions among components of a system. Systems thinking is often introduced with the phrase, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Today's grand challenges cut across human and natural systems, involve multiple interdependent variables that are changing over time, and imply future changes that are both critically important yet complex to predict. These qualities are some of the defining characteristics of systems thinking, which is an essential tool for teaching and learning about societal challenges such as energy, climate change, food resources, poverty and hazards.

  • Key components of systems thinking:
    • Boundaries separate a system from other systems and from the rest of the universe. A closed system does not allow free transfer of energy or matter across the boundary (such as the amount of water in the Earth system). An open system, such as the amount of water in a watershed, allows input or output across the boundary.
    • A system has multiple interacting parts which are interrelated.
    • Reservoirs provide storage of a material, such as carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere.
    • Matter or energy can be exchanged among components of the system.
    • A system can undergo feedback which alters the rate of change. Positive feedback amplifies the change while negative feedback abates the change. For a useful discussion on the conflicting definitions of positive and negative feedback, see the Earth and Mind blog post, Going Negative on Negative Feedback.
    • The components of a system can create emergent properties, wherein a pattern, complex behavior, or structure is the result of collective activities of the individual components. Examples of emergent behavior are the flight patterns of a flock of birds or the pricing of stocks by the open market. In both cases the behavior is determined by the group and not with any individual.
    • Systems can undergo non-linear change over time, where the magnitude of the response is not proportional to the magnitude of the input.
    • A tipping point is a threshold where the system cannot return to the starting point, even with the removal of the forces that pushed the system past the tipping point.
    • Resilience is the tendency of a system to return to or remain within stable conditions, despite a change in forces acting upon the system.
    • A system can be static (like a fixed rate mortgage) or dynamic (like an adjustable rate mortgage).
    • See more about what constitutes a complex system from On the Cutting Edge.
  • Thinking about systems is not dependent on the particular system studied.
  • Systems thinking requires simplification of a real system.