A Systems Perspective

A system is a set of entities, real or abstract, comprising a whole where each component interacts with or is related to the other components.  Systems are ubiquitous.  They encompass all scales.  They pervade our lives.  We are all part of economic, cultural, and political systems.  Our brain is a system.  Our cells are systems.  The ecology and the earth itself is a system. 

There have been many exciting breakthroughs in the understanding of systems in the last 40 years.  One of the most important breakthroughs is the realization that most systems are NOT at equilibrium.  They are very dynamic and adaptive.   In fact, if systems are too stable, they are essentially dead.  Another important finding is that at an abstract level, systems have similar processes and structures that are independent of the domain of the system.  For example, ant colonies, the human brain, and economic systems all have emergent behavior at a system level that does not seem to have much connection with what is happening at the level of ants, neurons or individuals.  Since systems have similar processes and structures, studying general systems theory will help us develop and improve the systems around us.

System improvement is leverage for improving the world.  We all belong to economic, political, social, and cultural systems.  If we improve the systems that we are involved in, it improves life for everyone affected by the system.   A small change can have very large effects.

Some Complex System Modification Principles:

  • Humility - Probably the most important system change principle.  Since systems are complex, dynamic and adaptive, we should never be too sure that we will get the desired outcome.  We can't know what all the system effects of a specific change will be.
  • Trial and Error - Very closely related to humility.  Since we can't predict an exact outcome, often we have to try solutions and observe what happens.  This means changes should be done on a small scale and locally before incorporating them in the entire system.
  • Diversity - Also related to humility.  Since we don't know what will be the best solution, it is beneficial to have a wide diversity of solutions and systems, rather than forcing all systems to be the same.
  • Competition is a useful way in selecting system solutions that seem to work better than others.
  • Adaptation - Systems will adapt to any changes made to them.  It should be expected.
  • Feedback - Since systems adapt to the changes made to them, feedback should always be a part of any solution for change. 
  • Hierarchy - Systems (especially complex ones) make use of hierarchy.  (Cells are a part of organelles, which create organs, which form an organism.)  There are several advantages to this, including limiting the overall complication of the system and creating stable building blocks to explore new solutions.
  • Modeling - System models are for understanding, NOT making specific predictions.  Since complex systems are dynamic, adaptive, unpredictable and often very dependent on initial conditions, specific prediction in models can be difficult.  However, you can still gain perspectives, find more stable states, and learn about system principles through models.  It is similar to predicting that it will be cold in the winter vs. predicting a specific temperature on a specific day.  

    Type of System Improvements Possible:


  • Economic development without disruption in developing countries.
  • Better distribution of wealth and resources
  • Reduction of environmental problems and issues
  • Find economic/business models that make better use of resources without destroying them
  • Reduce extreme consumerism of current capitalism
  • Give people more time and less material goods
  • Better use of wealth
  • Poverty reduction 
  • Reduction in slavery and exploitation  

  • Terrorism reduction  (through meme and cultural understanding - must change the ideology)
  • Better Communities
  • Crime reduction  

  • Improved political systems that balance power, give people voice and make more intelligent decisions
  • Corruption reduction
  • Improved transitional governments
  • Better stable and peaceful governments  

  • Life balance - self development
  • Art and self expression
  • Cultural system set to support human development not consumerism and self gratification  

    Other sub-systems to improve
  • Education system
  • Medical system

    More specific examples of how to improve all of these systems can be found in the Research section of this website.