Systems thinking is fundamental to understanding systems. So to understand systems, let’s start with exploring, what are systems? (1)

TED_city21, copyright TED

Systems are evolutionary structures. They are characterized by boundaries that contain system elements. Those elements have evolved across deep time, from the Big Bang until now. The basic evolutionary strata that we can point to on our planet can be classified as A – B – C (2).  Explaining this backwards …

C is for Cosmosphere – containing Universe, Earth and Matter . We study this with Astronomy, Cosmology, Math, Physics, Chemistry, Geology, Hydrology, Meterology

B is for Biological Systems – containing the living environment and life. We study these with Microbiology, Biology, Botany, Zoology

A is for Anthropocentric Systems – or human systems. We study these with Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, etc.

As humans we are the most complex systems and we not only depend on all the ABC systems but we ARE those systems. We are in effect Awake Bhangara-dancing Cosmic-dust.

An interesting characteristic of systems, is when you combine two different systems a surprising result can happen that is not necessarily evident from looking at the two original systems separately. For instance if you look at Hydrogen and Oxygen as two separate elements, you would not predict that combining them as H2O would produce water – with qualities that neither Hydrogen nor Oxygen possess on their own. ( We call this propensity of systems for unexpected outcomes – emergence.)

The B & A Systems contain the living systems. They are wholes that not only have boundaries, but the elements they contain co-exist within the boundary symbiotically – that is the existence of each element is dependent on the co-existence  and adaptability with other elements.

Systems are considered alive if they can do three things. They …

  1. Can sustain themselves.
  2. Connect with their environment (or adapt).
  3. Reproduce.

When we consider how all these A-B-C systems have evolved together we can see that they make the world sustainable – as we know and need it to be.  Geology, Energy, Water, Climate, Food, Bio-genetic Ecology and Human Systems are all necessary to sustain our life and all other life on the planet.

And when we consider how these systems impact on one another we can see the major Threats that our global systems face today. Because human systems have become so successful, we are impacting on Ecology, Food Systems, Climate, Water, Energy and Geology in ways that are eroding these system as non-renewable resources or if they are renewable living systems, we are eroding their capacity to adapt and regenerate themselves.

Living systems evolve in complex hierarchies – which means as they evolve, they become more complex as they contain more and more systems.

Basic systems start with atoms, that make up molecules, that make up cells, that make up organelles, that make up organs, that make up organ systems, that make up bodies, that make up ecologies.

As a whole living system, the human body-mind is the system we are most familiar with.

But even our individual human systems belong to larger human systems: like families, teams, organizations, neighbourhoods, communities and cities.

Interestingly each of these systems is made up of other systems and we say they exist at different scales – that is they retain similar patterns, but each system is larger than the ones that make it up. And the larger it is the greater is its sphere of influence. The concept of scale lets us zoom in and zoom out to see systems with the same patterns at different magnifications and how they impact themselves, each other and their place on this planet.

My great interest is in the most complex human system that we have yet created – the city – because it contains all these systems co-existing in dynamic relationship. I call it the human hive.

In fact I believe we are in an era when even cities are being superseded by yet a larger system – that I call the planet of cities.

In human systems we need to consider not only what makes up our bodies physically – but also what makes up our minds consciously – and how we relate to others in group cultural systems and to the environmental and built systems.

So this brings us back to Systems Thinking. When we can SEE systems – i.e. recognize a whole with a boundary containing elements – we are starting to think in the basics of systems thinking. When we can see how different systems are interconnected, we are progressing our systems thinking to a more complex level. When we use our consciousness to design NEW systems we are demonstrating our evolutionary human capacity to use emergence and adapt through being innovative and creative.

As we design new systems, we eventually produce systems of systems – like say controlling water, by carrying it in water vessels, then irrigation channels, then viaducts, then water canals and locks; then building reservoirs and dams; and then creating plumbing systems; and- dare I say it? – bottling water.

But the challenge of systems thinking is not just to see one system in isolation of other systems – but to see the whole trajectory of ABC systems as an evolutionary supra-system. Then our thinking must consider the consequences of our innovations, designs and creations. True systems thinking embraces our responsibility for initiating change that impacts all earth systems – taking responsibility not only for our intended consequences – but the unintended ones.

One of the great values of Systems Thinking is that it is critical to being able to shift our perspectives so we can be effective change agents in the world. Systems Thinking enables and supports us to see (and respect) ourselves as whole living systems, in relationship to other whole living systems, within the larger context of environmental systems and ultimately the earth as a whole planetary system.

Thinking in systems impacts how we can shift perspectives and thus how we are able to adapt and innovate, design and lead and grow and expand our capacity for caring for the living systems we are, that we relate to and that we co-create.

This is fundamental to what I call the Master Code of the Human Hive: Take care of yourself, Take care of each other, Take care of this place … so that we can take care of this planet.


(1) This was presented to Waterlution Toronto, Learning Lab Journey ” Exploring Complexity & Innovative Leadership Around Water & Energy in Ontario”. January 26, 2013. See also Guiding Step 4: Systems Thinking Helps Shift Perspectives

(2) Concept from Dr. Brian Eddy