Article Index

History of systems thinking

Capra and Luisi give a historical account of the development of systems thinking as it emerged from number of disciplines in the 1920’s, they highlight one source as the debates in biology between mechanism and vitalism, which is also pointed out in Checkland (Checkland p75), (Capra and Luisi, Ch4).

For a more discursive and normative discussion of the change needed in science summarised against the background history of science see Capra, The Turning Point. Capra is clear that the straight jacket of reductionism has had many (unintended) negative connotation for society as a whole.

Taken at the coarsest level it seems to me that systems thinking emerges at the point (differently depending on the discipline) where reductionism encounters some insuperable difficulty; it has no way of approaching emergent properties to give an explanation of clearly observable behaviours.

Systems thinking is a recent development, especially set against the history of human thought. This representation may not go back far enough but it does make the point - we have to understand something we have only just and are still working out right at the point where population pressures are going to peak (environment degradation, resource use, migration, anti-biotic resistance). 

Systems thinking now

The biosphere viewed as a system which we also describe loosely as the environment has a massive literature on the environment which I have no intention (or ability) to summarise any better than what is out there already. The thing to take away is that the world we live in is a closed system and that we all operate within it. The holistic thinking used to comprehend this is a powerful tool allowing us to build up knowledge about how things work.

My takeaway from this is simple; we only have one so we had better look after it and as a follow on we cannot allow a small number of people ruin it for everyone else. The implication for political economy is clear - we have to adapt our political economy to this reality.

Within Science multidisciplinary work is now common. Scientists work increasingly in large teams with diverse backgrounds and specializations. A simple current example is from BBC Radio 4, The Life Scientific, Trevor Cox, whose research is in Acoustics, in interview with Jim Al-Khalili said that the field contained Physics, Biology and Psychology.

The focus of this site is holistic political economy. Economics is perhaps the most aggressive of the social sciences in the sense that it wants to want to see itself as scientific and as a result be able to proscribe actions, which can be applied in a technical manner to control the economy. Embedded within this are a whole raft of systems ideas usually split between macro and micro-economics. We can easily comprehend a business as a system – it takes in supplies and orders, carries out processes in order to produce outputs fulfilling orders. At the macro economic level the country has inward and outward flows resulting fro the economic activity within it. So what do we observe about the current state of economics.

Increasingly following the financial crash of 2008 economics is being challenged on a number of fronts. There is a lot of evidence for this, to pick just a few of the more widely known;

  • For claiming to be objective when it is in fact value based look no further than 23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang, Pengiun, 2011, ISBN 978-0141047973.
  • For being little more than a collection of inconsistent theories that are based on insufficient evidence but which are nevertheless used to prop up the status quo (willing or unwitting depending on your view). From a systems thinking perspective on this see both Paul Mason, Post Capitalism; A guide our future, Penguin, 2016, 978-0141975290 – page 50 – “three general features of complex, adaptive systems…such systems tend to be ‘open’…they respond to challenge by innovating and transforming…they generate ‘emergent’ phenomena, which can be studied only at a higher level”. And Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth, Random House, ISBN 978 1847941374, Chapter 4 Get Savvy with Systems. Raworth also provides a useful roundup of the way economic theories do not fit together and are value based (see introduction), they often lack a full evidence base – one example being the Kuznets Curve pp 208.
  • For not allowing alternative views to be explored (although this is changing (to me) it seems to be a slow process). You can follow what has been happening in academia after student protests “calling for a more relevant curriculum that reflects different approaches” Financial Time Report May 2014 and then go to the site that was set up as a result. 
  • Sources here (Note: Challenging Conventional Economics)

Future implications of systems thinking

It was said to me long ago (by my old headmaster and later by a work colleague) that socialism was all very well but did not take human nature into account (Note: A Quip about Socialism). I have been pondering that ever since – is human nature one of the givens that we cannot change? How much control do we have over it (Note: How Much Control?). We can build lots of stuff, but we may not be as clever as we like to think - we have only recently started to design earthquake resistant buildings. When things we do react with things in the biosphere there may be unintended consequences which we don’t understand and cannot control. We argue over large damn projects, we hesitate to use nuclear power but we still rapaciously cut down trees, and mine for and burn coal and gas. We all know about critical mass when it comes to nuclear weapons, but don’t get critical mass when it comes to a possible environmental tipping point. We create cities and have culture so it follows that large parts of the environment we are responding to are in fact human creations.

It took a long time to fully appreciate the implications of systems thinking at the simplest level possible; human activity as a system from which behaviour is an emergent property. It is a central part of the arguments developed in this ebook that we can change the world if we change the way we learn and think about it (that is by concentrating on Donella Medows numbers 4,3,2 and 1 as ways to change a system).

The belief that I bring to this is that it is pretty urgent that we start doing it.