Master’s Degree Programme, FutuS2 Futures Research Methods
Otavan Opisto 15 February, 2012
Systems Thinking is ...
…a way to understand phenomena and events,
their characteristics and the relationships
between them as one entity;
…a family of methods/methodology which
creates a flexible and manifold tool to help
human problem-solving in practice.
The principles of systems thinking
A system is
• created by the Nature or human beings,
• physical, abstract, or human,
• a whole separated from its environment by a border (eg.
skin, cell membrane, water pipes, Declaration of
• open or closed.
A system is built on a hierarchical way. It is composed of different
levels which have their own laws. Those laws cannot be directly
derived from the laws of a higher level, but the laws of a certain
level affect the functions of the levels below them.
Peter Checkland 1985
Systemic world view
• Universal principles of organisation apply to all systems
(physical, chemical, biological, social)
• Mechanistic world view: Full understading of any
phenomenon can be achieved by reducing it to its basic
components and analysing those parts. Universal
anwers can be achieved this way.
• Systemic world view: Phenomena are more than their
parts. Universal answers can only be achieved by
exceeding the material basis and concentrating on the
abstract characteristics of the system.
Definitions of a System
A System is…
… a limited number of factors (actors, actions, interactions)
between which there are continuous tensions and
connections to distinguish them as separate wholes;
…an organism which functions according to laws and rules
of its own. The organism is composed of smaller organisms,
but it cannot be directly understood by merely analysing its
… a group of characteristics which form a whole and the
parts of which are related with each other in a definable
The Hierarchy of a System
• To be eligible for being defined as a system, a being has to
have at least two parts which are interconnected.
• The parts of a system form sub-systems (i.e. a human being
blood circulation blood cells genes human being, etc.)
The top system is called super-system. The super-system is
always more abstract and more general by nature than its sub-systems
• As such, a system is always more than a mere sum of its parts,
• The higher in hierarchy a system functions, the more abstract
and general it is by nature (i.e. a human being family
community municipality state, etc.)
Inflowing information which grows in amount or quality and for
which the system is not properly prepared is called critical
The more critical information is flowing into the system, the more
unstable it becomes and the closer it approximates to a chaotic
The system’s ability to self-regulation determines the level of its
i.e. The Universe is not merely a combination of phenomena acting
on their own, separate laws, but a whole of intermediating complex
Natural and Human Systems
1. Natural systems form the Nature as we
2. Human systems have either been consciously built, or they
have emerged as a result of human actions.
• Rational material systems (= planned by people)
(i.e. the distribution network of electricity in a city)
• Planned abstract systems (= human-made conceptual wholes)
(i.e. mathematics, philosophy, education system, etc.)
• Operational human systems (= the systems which have been
created in order to carry out some purpose or to reach a goal
(i.e. a choir, or political parties)
3. Transcendental systems (of which we cannot know anything)
Self-regulation and fluctuation
New energy or information into human systems causes
fluctuation in its internal processes.
At the same time, the system pursues development (=
fluctuation) with the help of cumulative and positive
Tendency to self-regulation
(to achieve balance by
using amendatory or
more and more specific
and diverse state.
• receives matter, energy and/or information from its
• changes that energy, matter and/or information to some
other form, and
• produces that matter, energy and/or information back to
its environment in a changed form (= output);
• while it simultaneously maintains its own inner condition
(=homeostasis) by eliminating extra fluctuation (of matter,
energy and/or information) and by disturbing the influence
of external factors;
Open system (cont.)
• Aims at negative entropy, i.e. strives for survival and
maintaining its opertion;
• is hierarchically composed of sub- and super-systems;
• aims at separation and specialisation.
In the feedback process, the system utilises energy which it
takes from its outer environment. The feedback process is
important as the conveyor of information transportation
and the success and development of the system are
dependent on the functionality of the feedback.
Therefore regulation is crucial in maintaining the system’s
The Emergent Nature of a System
The third law of thermodynamics
The law of entropy
To understand a system…
…focus has to be turned on
• the technical form of information output (i.e., how it is
transmitted and what symbols are used);
• the accuracy of information (i.e. how well the symbols
describe the acitivities of the system);
• how effective the information is (i.e., how that information
influences the environment of the system and how the
output process is necessary for the survival and
managing of the system).
The Role of Feedback
in Open Systems
• necessary for the self-direction and learning ability
of the system;
• guides the system to keep on the right track.
• result, product, i.e. output
• the sum of avoided negative alternatives.
• the ability of a system to
maintain its inner condition;
• takes place by eliminating
redundant fluctuation and
the disturbing influence of
external stimulae or noise.
In keeping up the economy of the open
system, the crucial process is regulation.
The systems which have been created by human activity can be
divided into three wholes:
1. Planned material systems which are formed as the result of
purposeful planning (eg. the heating system of a building).
2. Planned abstract systems are large, human-made wholes which
may also include conceptual and deliberately-designed parts
3. Planned functional systems which are composed as a result of
people fulfillling some mission or carrying out an assignment.
They form systems in order to create something, or to act
together, or to achieve a goal, etc. (eg. The Finnish learning
Learning beings and learning systems
Open systems are”learning beings” (Kuusi 1999; de Jouvenel
• are controlled by deterministic natural laws and their own
• are less predictable than non-learning beings and systems,
• their characteristics, abilities and needs can be observed.
The aim of a learning being is its survival, development and
reproduction. These processes call for processes which can be
passive (eg, registering perceptions in memory) or active
(retrieving them back to conscious consideration and changing
them into activity).
Learning beings and learning systems (cont.)
• Learning organisation is a special case of learning
• The essential feature of an organisation as a learning
system is its self-understanding (its conception that its
function has a direction and meaning).
• are open systems but in a different way than the learning
beings (closer to closed systems);
• are predictable when their history (previous stages, states
etc.) is recorded and can be established eg. by time series,
and their present state is known;
• may seem like non-predictable, if their origins or state of the
beginning cannot be stated on sufficient accuracy (eg.
machines, thermostats, gases);
• are not able of self-regulation, and
• therefore are on the way to decomposition
of their parts, i.e. entropy.