The Systems Around Us

Everything around us works in a system, right from the different systems that make our body function, as it should, to the different climatic systems that define the very existence of life on earth. In fact, systems can be found in companies, in sports teams, and within a family too. They are everywhere, however, some systems are simply not as obvious as others are.

Thinking in Systems (2008) by Donella H Meadows, gives an insight to system thinking, to see how the entire world is interconnected in networks, yet have detailed different elements. It explains what systems are, how these systems work, and how can one sustain within them, in order to achieve success in life.

What Are Systems?

A system is a group of elements, connected by relationships and that share a purpose. While these elements can be physical and visible, they can also be intangible. For example, while we can touch and see trees, their roots and leaves and the system within which they function, the functioning and the system that underlies the workings of a university are amorphous.

What binds these elements together is the relationship – whether physical or not. For example, in trees the elements of the system are connected by – or related by – the numerous chemical reactions and metabolic processes, whereas, in the university, the system is connected by the admission processes, teaching processes and examinations.

What is the purpose of a system?

The purpose of any system is defined by its observed behaviour, and not by its stated goals. For example, while a government may have a goal of protecting the environment, it may not do much about it. Hence, its goal does not reflect what it actually does, and thus protecting the environment is not its purpose.

A system is determined by its purpose and its relationships, even if its elements change. For example, a sports team can get a new roster, have changes in its team, etc., however, its relationship to the purpose of winning remains the same.

The behaviour of any system can be divided into stocks and flows. These can change over time.

  • Stocks – These are elements that can be accounted for, at any given time. For example, books in the library, the water in a bathtub, money put in banks, etc.
  • Flow – Flow is the change that takes place over time in the stock. These take place due to inflows that add to a flow, and outflows, then subtract from it. For example, birth and death are elements of the life system that add and subtract respectively.
Thinking in Systems by Donella H Meadows
Thinking in Systems by Donella H Meadows

The Importance Of feedback In A System

We know that stocks and flows are constantly changing in a system. This constant change in stock affects the inflow and outflow in any system and is known as feedback.

There are different forms of feedback.

  • Balancing Feedback – This type of feedback occurs when any force stabilizes the difference between the desired and the actual levels of stock. Balancing Feedback is a chain of physical laws, or rules, that have the ability to change it and relate to the level of stock.

A thermostat is used to balance the temperature in a room. In this example, the temperature is the stock; the heat that comes from the radiator is the inflow, whereas the heat that escapes from a window is the outflow. Thus when there is a drop in temperature, the thermostat, based on the difference in temperature between the actual temperature in the room and the desired one, turns on the heater.

  • Reinforcing Feedback – Reinforcing Feedback constantly generates more or reduces what already exists. For example, when one put money in a bank, one accrues more interest, thus generating more money in the bank. Reinforcing feedback can exponentially and constantly produce growth or even destruction.

This feedback is extremely important to a system, as system structures consist of a stock that has one reinforcing and one balancing feedback.

Consider the human population. The positive birth rate functions as reinforcing feedback, which is growing exponentially. With more people in the world, more babies are born. These babies grow up and have babies of their own, and the cycle of birth continues. However, the human population has balancing feedback in the form of death. Thus, as a population grows exponentially, the balancing feedback kicks in when people die due to diseases and insufficient resources.

Well-Functioning Systems

How and why do systems function well?

Resilience is a very important factor that helps determine if functions well or not. For example, the world’s ecosystems or well-oiled machines work seamlessly. It is their resilience that helps their ability to seamlessly adapt to changing conditions.

Resilience is the elasticity of a system, or its ability to recover from transition. It is the product of its structure and its feedbacks, working in different directions, ways, and varying time scales. The human body, for example, can adapt to different temperatures, adapt to changes in the supply of food, repair muscles, and reallocate blood supply.

Resilience, however, is often underestimated, and often sacrificed for goals of comfort or productivity, to a point where the system itself collapses. The overuse of the earth’s natural resources is an important example, where it is leading to severe damage to the ecosystems of the planet. Environmental catastrophes are inevitable.

Systems, however, have another defence apart from the resilience of self-organization. Many systems can self-organize. Essentially, they learn, evolve, diversify, and can build their own structure.

This brings us to the next factor of well-functioning systems – hierarchy. As systems self-organize and build new complex structures, they naturally organize into a hierarchy. For example, everything on the planet is divided into sub-systems, which are a part of a larger sub-system, and so on.

A cell in the stomach, for example, is part of the sub-system of the organ itself, which is further a sub-system of the digestive system, which is a sub-system of the individual. The individual is a sub-system of a family, which is a sub-system of a nation, etc.

Hierarchies, in a system, help in reducing the amount of information that any given part of a system needs to manage. For example, since the cells in the stomach have the function of digesting food, the cells in the lungs – part of the respiratory system – do not need to carry out that function.

Investigating Systems Productively

Sometimes, people tend to focus more on the output of a system that they know well and that seems transparent. However, one can misconstrue the system if one doesn’t focus on the real behaviour or the way the system functions over a period of time. Because the output is the most visible aspect, people tend to simplify it into a series of events.

For example, while watching a game of football, where both teams are evenly matched, but one of the teams is playing really well, the result of that team winning is less surprising for a person than if the person only saw the final outcome.

Similarly, people tend to anticipate the linear relationship, even though the world functions more non-linearly. So, if a farmer adds 10 pounds of fertilizer to his farm and gets 2 bushels of wheat, he will assume that adding 20 pounds will reap 4 bushels. Here, the farmer might not consider that adding more fertilizer could also render the farm infertile and reap lesser, or the same amount of wheat.

Additionally, people tend to dismiss the fact that systems are almost always interconnected, and mentally isolate systems to make the processing of information simpler. At the same time, it is also easy to forget that boundaries are but artificial, and one can tend to get accustomed to them. Hence the tendency to think is too broad or too narrow terms is also possible.

For instance, while understanding the effects of global warming, charting a detailed model of earth climate can complicate the process, whereas focussing only on C02 emissions from automobiles will also be fruitless.

Corrupt Systems

Some systems can show problematic and unnatural behaviours. This happens due to policy resistance, where each individual sub-system has a different goal.

For example, if an actor in any sub-system or system, gets an upper hand and uses that advantage to change the direction of the system, all the other actors in that system will have to work twice as hard to get the anomaly back in line. In such a case, the system gets stuck, with a recurring problem.

Drug peddlers and users, both want the supply of drugs to be high, however, law-enforcement works towards the opposite. Hence, when law enforcers are successful in preventing drugs from entering the country, the prices of the drugs available on the street rise, leading to a rise in crime as addicts look to find different ways to acquire drugs, whereas, peddlers and suppliers work towards evading authorities.

Sometimes, systems can encounter other problems too. For example, when the system uses an unsustainable but commonly owned resource, it inevitably collapses. So if a piece of land that is used for grazing cows sees a constant increase in the number of cows grazing on it, the amount of grass that grows on it eventually decreases and the land cannot be used for grazing anymore.

Essentially, here, the feedback between resource users and resources is either highly delayed or virtually non-existent. Thus it becomes extremely important the resource users know and understand the effect of overuse, and how regulation can replenish the resource continually.

Physically Adjusting Systems

The question arises – How to enable systems to produce more of the good and less of the bad effects?

The answer lies in changing buffers, system designs, and delays. These can make systems more efficient.

  • Changing Buffers – Buffers such as time, storage and inventory space should be of an optimal size to function properly. Therefore, increasing the capacity of a buffer helps in stabilizing a system. However, if it is increased too much, it will create an inflexible system. For example, it is far more expensive for businesses to store excess goods than to buy the minimum and allow an occasional product shortage.
  •  Changing System Design – A properly designed system works efficiently, has a better understanding of limitations and bottlenecks, and is less prone to fluctuations. For example, earlier, the only road between East and West Hungary passed through the capital city causing severe congestion. The road system itself needed a new design.
  • Changing Delays – Delays are the time it takes any system to notice and adapt to change. Though all systems have delays, sometimes, when these delays are long-term, the system finds it difficult to respond to short-term changes.

For example, everyone all over the world seeks rapid economic growth, but the physical reality of some elements such as technology, factories, prices, etc., does not change at the same rate, causing delays. Hence to bring inefficiency in the system, it is better to give these physical realities time to catch up and slow down the growth rates.

Internal Mechanisms And Rules Of Systems

Apart from changing the physical realities of a system, there are other ways that can make it more efficient and fix problems. This can be done by focussing on the flow of information, its self-organization and the rules of the system.

In some Dutch suburbs, the electric meters were installed in hallways rather than basements. This change resulted in a reduction of energy consumption by one-third, due to the fact that information about how much energy was being consumed was available to residents. This enabled them to adjust their usage. Here, the system simply introduced a sufficient flow of information that resulted in a significant change.

However, if setting the rules of the system and its control fall in the hands of those who benefit from it, the system will inevitably collapse. For example, if the trading system of the world was in the hands of corporations, run and ruled by them, and the benefits were for those selected few corporations only, it would collapse.

Systems have a fascinating characteristic of self-organization, wherein the system evolves and learns on its own. However, self-organization means that humans lose control over it. Thus systems often have man-made limitations. Such limitations can result in a different set of problems, and hence, it is better to let systems self-organize.

When the goal of a system changes, the entire system learns to adapt to the changed goal. Hence, when systems hold incorrect goals and paradigms, they can run into problems. Paradigms, however, are the deepest beliefs that form the base of a system. Hence an incorrect paradigm needs to be changed.

For example, the paradigms of environmental protection have changed. Hence, there have been changes in a number of connected systems such as industries, countries, cities, and people, in how they manage waste.

Understanding The Inner Working Of Systems

How does one understand and increase the efficiency of systems in a world of systems?

Firstly, learning the history and collecting information about a system helps to understand its behaviour, as the more information one has the better judgements can be made. 

Once the information about the system is collected, one can note down how the system works, its functions and arrangements. This ensures that the models drawn are consistent and complete.

The second step is to distribute the data collected so that the system can function properly. During this process, it is essential to focus on the important measurable and immeasurable factors. Often, people tend to pay more attention to measurable factors, as they can be quantified, easily visible, and tangible, than the immeasurable factors such as quality. For example, justice, freedom, security, etc. cannot be quantified.

Additionally, one must keep an eye open for what behaviours are produced by which external or internal factors, and if they can be controlled.

Following these steps helps in understanding wherein a system, the responsibility lies, and what consequences are results of which action.


The world is full of systems. These systems are interconnected and interdependent.  In order to make some semblance of these systems that govern the world, it is essential to learn to recognise and study the patterns and behaviours they exhibit.