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  • Writer's pictureThupden Gurung

The Simple Science of Everything Complex

In my previous article, The Hidden Patterns of Everyday Chaos: Introduction to Systems Thinking, we covered an overview of what we can expect from this new way of seeing the world that we live in, let us get down to the basics of systems thinking.

Let's start by defining what a system is: A system is an interconnected set of elements, coherently organized to achieve a function or a purpose.

Looking closely at the definition, we can see that a system consists of only three things:

  1. Elements

  2. Interconnections

  3. Function or purpose

If we consider our digestive system, we can now say:

  1. Elements: Teeth, enzymes, stomach, and intestines.

  2. Interconnections: Physical flow of food, regulating chemical signals.

  3. Function: Break down food into basic nutrients, and transfer nutrients to the bloodstream (which is a different system) while discarding waste.

Or, if you look at a football team:

  1. Elements: Players, coach, field and ball

  2. Interconnections: Rules, strategy, communications, laws of physics.

  3. Purpose: Win games, have fun, get exercise, make money, or all of these.

Everywhere we look, we will almost certainly find a system. School, city, factory, corporation, national economy, a forest (consisting of embedded subsystems like trees and animals), solar system and the galaxy.

Now we can safely say what a system is. But can we say what a system is not?

Yes, any conglomeration with no interconnections or function, such as sand scattered on a road by happenstance. If you add or take away some of it, you'll still have just sand on the road.

Now if we were to do the same by adding or taking away football players or pieces of our digestive system, it would no longer be the same system.

When a living creature dies, it loses its system properties or "system-ness". The interrelations in it no longer function and dissipate while its materials become part of a larger food-web system.

The behaviors that a system can exert can really surprise us. They are adaptive, dynamic, resilient, goal-seeking, self-preserving and evolutionary. They may or may not consist of non-living things.

Now that we've learned about what a system is and what it is not, we can dive into each of its characteristics including elements, interconnections and purpose.

Let us start with the elements.

The elements of a system are the easiest to notice because most of them are visible and tangible.

For example, the elements of a tree consist of roots, trunk, branches, and leaves. Upon closer evaluation, we can see specialized cells, such as vessels carrying fluids and chloroplasts.

Elements need not necessarily be physical, they can also be intangible. For example, school pride and academic prowess are important elements of a school system despite being non-physical.

Now let's look at the interconnections.

It is easier to learn about the elements than the interconnections of a system.

If we go on dissecting a system into its elements, and subsequently into its sub-elements, leading onto sub-sub-elements, we will eventually lose sight of the system.

Therefore, it is better to look for interconnections instead.

Interconnections are the relationships that hold the elements together. For example, when a plant loses water on a sunny day, the drop in pressure in the water-carrying vessel of leaves results in drawing more water from the roots. Conversely, if the roots experience dry soil, the water pressure signals the leaves to close their pores to prevent more loss of water.

Interconnections like the flow of water in a plant body or students progressing through a university are actual physical flows.

However, interconnections may be non-physical as well.

Many interconnections are flow of information which signals for decision and action. Such as how someone's buying decisions are dictated by their income level.

These interconnections are harder to see, only revealing to those who look.

Many interconnections operate through information flow, because information holds systems together, determining how they operate.

For example, savings, credit ratings, stock of goods, prices and availability of goods for purchase.

Finally, let's understand the function or the purpose of a system.

If seeing interconnections is hard, seeing functions or purposes is even harder. A system's function or purpose is not necessarily expressed explicitly except through operation.

The best way to deduce the purpose of a system is to step back and watch how the system behaves, without your intervention. As an agency founder, this was one of the most difficult tasks I've had to do because the control freak in me was too scared to let go of the vine. The only way I could save our failing business was to make changes in the system - and this required the conscious decision to step aside and evaluate the entire organization as a system.

Consider a frog jumping left and right just before it catches a fly, we can safely say that the purpose of the frog was to catch the fly, and not to jump left and right. If the government advocates saving the environment but does not allow any budget or effort towards it, we can say that saving the environment is not the purpose of the government.

The purpose is deduced from behavior, not stated goals or rhetoric. It is not necessary that system purposes have to be human purposes. If we look at the curious case of drug addiction, it is quite clear that society does not intend it to exist. But the combined purpose created by the consequent actions of the actors including consumers, dealers, producers and policymakers eventually adds up to this phenomenon.

The purpose of the system isn't intended by a single actor in the system.

In the case of addiction, consumers seek out drugs to get quick relief from psychological pain. Farmers, dealers, and bankers want to earn money. The government wants to make harmful substances illegal and use police power to interdict them. Non-addicts want more to protect themselves than to encourage the recovery of addicts. Altogether, they make up a system where it is extremely difficult to eradicate drug addiction and crime.

Systems can be nested within a system, thereby nesting purpose within purpose. One of the essential functions of a successful system is to keep sub-purposes and the overall purpose of the system in harmony with each other.

How to change a system?

Part of the reason you are still reading this is that you can visualize the systems that you are already a part of, and you want to make positive changes to them.

But where do we start? Which is more important? Elements, interconnections, or purpose?

To ask such a question, in the first place, is a very unsystematic question. Because all are essential. Each contributes to the proper working of a system.

Having said that, there is a hierarchy of effectiveness we can follow when changing the characteristics of a system.

  1. Purpose (highly effective)

  2. Interconnections (effective)

  3. Elements (least effective)

Changing elements have the least effect on a system. For example, if you change players in a football team, it is still technically a football team. The body replaces its cells after a certain time, and we still technically have a body. A university's constant flow of students and a slower flow of faculty generally do not change the university.

If the interconnections change, however, a system is greatly altered. It may even become unrecognizable. Changing the rules of football to basketball will lead us to a whole new ball game. A tree no longer remains a tree, if we can somehow change its interconnections to take in Carbon dioxide instead of Oxygen.

The least obvious part of a system, its function or purpose is the most crucial determinant of its behaviour. As mentioned before, it is often very difficult to observe or deduce a system's purpose. Even if the elements and interconnections stay the same, changing the purpose of the system profoundly changes the system.

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