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Thinking in Systems

A Primer

By Donella H. Meadows
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Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows

Thinking in Systems (2008) is an introduction to systems thinking. These blinks will teach you how to see the world in terms of interconnected networks while detailing how different elements, relationships and goals make any given structure run.

Key idea 1 of 9

A system is a group of connected elements with a shared purpose.

Have you ever paused and tried to identify the different systems around you? If you did, you’d quickly notice that they’re just about everywhere – from your body to your favorite football team to the company you work for and the city you live in.

That’s because a system is simply a group of elements, connected by relationships and paired with a purpose. These elements can be visible and physical, but they can also be intangible. For instance, while you can both see and touch the roots, branches and leaves of a tree, things like academic prowess in a university are more amorphous.

But whether they’re physical or not, all elements of a system are held together by relationships. For instance, in the system of a tree, the relationships connecting the elements are metabolic processes and chemical reactions. In the system of a university they might be standards for admission, examinations and grades.

And the purpose of a system?

That’s defined by the system’s observed behavior, not its stated goals. For instance, a government might say that it has a goal of environmental protection, but not put its money where its mouth is. Therefore, environmental protection is not the government’s purpose as it isn’t reflected by what it actually does.

It’s important to know that the relationships and purpose of a system will always determine it, even if its elements change. A football team might acquire an entirely new roster, but its relationships between positions and unified purpose of winning games are the same.

Furthermore, the behavior of a system breaks down into stocks and flows, which change over time.

Here’s how they each work.

Stocks are the elements of a system that can be accounted for at any given time. For instance, water in a bathtub, books in a store or money in a bank. On the other hand, flow is the change in stock over time as a result of inflows, which add, and outflows, which subtract. Examples of these are births and deaths or purchases and sales.

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