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Thinking in Systems: A Primer

4.22  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,542 Ratings  ·  223 Reviews
In the years following her role as the lead author of the international bestseller, Limits to Growth—the first book to show the consequences of unchecked growth on a finite planet— Donella Meadows remained a pioneer of environmental and social analysis until her untimely death in 2001.

Meadows’ newly released manuscript, Thinking in Systems, is a concise and crucial book of
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Paperback, 240 pages
Published December 3rd 2008 by Chelsea Green Publishing (first published 2008)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Jan-Maat
This is a nice basic text about systems. The layout is clear. The diagrams are helpful. The volume is an introduction. Much of it overlaps with what is in The Limits to Growth The 30Year Update but without the specific focus. The opening chapters here I felt could have been boiled down, I found myself skipping and sliding over paragraphs, but if you completely new to systems thinking the slow pace is probably helpful.

In chapter four Meadows argues that one of the reasons why economic modeling is
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Kent
Mar 08, 2015 Kent rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Kent by: Mark Tattersall
Shelves: favorites
Ever read a book that you're sad to finish because you borrowed it from the library, rather than bought it? Also, you were sad you couldn't write notes in the margins or highlight passages? Yeah, that's this right here.

This is essential reading for anyone, and I say that without hyperbole. You should do it especially if you're in business, technology, or policy (god, especially policy) but also just generally if you live on this planet and care about a thing. I think perhaps it puts a lot of pe
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Jonathan Yu
Mar 25, 2012 Jonathan Yu rated it really liked it
The world is unspeakably complex and unfortunately our inferior lizard-evolved brains are nowhere near capable of comprehending this. The world is complex and that is why our Hollywood movies have sucky plots, our politicians say idiotic things that idiotic people believe, and the word "accurate economist" is an oxymoron.

So here is the progression/evolution of a man who learns about the complexity of the world. He starts by watching Hollywood movies and Fox News and thinks that the world is bla
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Francis Norton
Jun 11, 2012 Francis Norton rated it it was amazing
I recommend Thinking in Systems because it has changed the way I understand and relate to my world. Published after Donella Meadow's death, it introduces Systems Thinking by way of definition, illustration and application.

In Part 1, System Structure and Behaviour, Meadows uses two graphical tools to analyse systems: stock and flow diagrams to show system structure; and charts mapping stock or flow levels over time to explore system behaviour for specific scenarios. The diagrams can be used to d
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Keith Akers
Dec 22, 2011 Keith Akers rated it really liked it
If you're interested in "limits to growth," climate change, peak oil, and things like that, you should at least take a look at this book. It is, as the title advertises, a "primer," so anyone can read it, and it is very readable. It isn't real technical (and technical people may find it not technical enough), but the results are important and often surprising.

Donella Meadows is one of the original authors of the "Limits to Growth" study in 1972, and she shows the kind of systems reasoning that
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Mark Longo
Jan 04, 2014 Mark Longo rated it it was amazing
What a wonderful, wonderful little book. It started off a bit dry and not very engaging but a chapter or two in it started to build intellectual momentum. Donella Meadows was, in a word (which I don't think I've ever actually used to describe a real person), wise. Her breadth and depth of understanding of a wide range of systems is incredible, her analogies and explanations are both accessible and spot on, and her entire outlook is quite simply, reasonable. It would be a better world if this wer ...more
Jan
Sep 08, 2015 Jan rated it really liked it
Easy to read introduction into systems theory with several practical implementations which often goes against the naive way.
Preston Kutney
Word for word, this is one of the best books I've ever read. It simply packs a TON of useful, paradigm-shifting information into a fairly short book. Many times I felt myself underlining whole paragraphs and entire sections, I kept thinking "jeez, maybe I should just screenshot this whole chapter into Evernote".

Systems Dynamics is neat. It's a way of analyzing, mapping, understanding, and attempting to predict (even systems researchers at the top of their fields admit it's an art as much as a s
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Anna
Apr 08, 2016 Anna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was initially somewhat disconcerted by ‘Thinking in Systems’, because it reads a lot like a textbook, and I haven’t read a textbook for ten years. It doesn’t take the tone of an academic book (the passive voice, for example), as I'd expected. This is hardly a complaint; it was much more readable than I thought it would be. Indeed, it’s a very accessible introduction to systems thinking, which I’ve come across here and there in my academic research (mostly in spatial planning and mobility studi ...more
Aaron Bolin
Jun 11, 2012 Aaron Bolin rated it it was amazing
Shelves: business, pop-science
Donella Meadows is a genius. Rather, she was a genius; she passed away before this little gem of a book was published. I didn't know her or her work personally, so it is probably more conservative to only comment on this one little book --- which I thought was brilliant.

Meadows delivers exactly what she promised: a primer on systems thinking. She digs deep enough and provides wide enough coverage to provide a strong grounding in the topic with a style that should be understandable for most reade
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Eivind
May 01, 2016 Eivind rated it liked it
Recommends it for: People interested in, but very new to systems thinking.
Recommended to Eivind by: Vipassana
Shelves: abandoned, nonfiction
This book deserves a star more if the concepts and the ideas in it a completely new to you. For me, unfortunately, too much of this was too long-winded considering that it concluded with concepts that are extremely well-known to me.

The best part of this book is the first few chapters; where the basic concepts and vocabulary is explained. Stock. Flow. Balancing and Strengthening feedback-loops. After that it spends too many words for too simple concepts making it fairly boring in the latter parts
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Bill
Mar 28, 2014 Bill rated it really liked it
This is really two books in one. One of those books is excellent, the other quite mediocre.

The excellent book is the one that talks about how to view and model our world in terms of systems where we have stocks of things with in/out flow and various forms of feedback and control. There's no one thing in what she says that I could point to and say it was something I wouldn't have already known (computer science definitely puts you in a systems frame of mind) but the way she puts them together op
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Michael
Aug 17, 2010 Michael rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction-read
Although the manuscript for the book was completed in 1993, the author did not have an opportunity to publish it before her death in 2001. Diana Wright of the Sustainability Institute saw the manuscript to publication in 2008. The work is a wonderful introduction to systems thinking, and many of the examples chosen to illustrate systems concepts relate directly to issues of sustainability. Meadows discusses the principles of systems, including: stocks, flows, and dynamic equilibrium; feedback lo ...more
Diane Kistner
Oct 28, 2012 Diane Kistner rated it it was amazing
In "Thinking in Systems," Donella H. Meadows helps us understand that not only do we live in a dynamic world of systems, we can impact that world in positive ways by understanding better how simple systems work and how those systems feed into larger and larger systems.

I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to understand this book, but I happily found that not to be the case. The author offers concrete diagrams and real-world examples throughout, with "interludes" and bits of poetry thrown in for
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Ryan McCormack
Mar 16, 2013 Ryan McCormack rated it it was amazing
Despite the fact that it took me a few tries to get into this book, I found it to be seminal and essential as a means of looking at the world around us. In particular, I found the section devoted to "System Traps" to be fascinating, as it lays some some common systems that occur in society, what causes them, and how to break the cycles. I'm certain that I'll be referring back to it, likely re-reading several of the later chapters.

If I could levy one complaint against the book, it's that it doesn
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Will
Aug 21, 2011 Will rated it really liked it
A good introduction to systems theory. It's well laid out, has diagrams in all the right places, deals with the subject matter chapter by chapter, and even has footnotes and callout sections to detail information. This book does only cover the introductions, and so is not the compendium of odd and counterintuitive cases that say, "Systemantics" covers, nor does it have any math involvement. Although the author has a background in ecology, this is not a biased book in any way, shape, or form.

I th
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Bricoleur  (David) Soul
the subtitle says it all; this is an excellent introduction to the field of systems thinking.

Meadows clearly introduces all of the concepts critical to the foundation of learning in this area including: systems concepts of stocks, flows, feedback, time delays, resilience, bounded rationality, and system boundaries. More importantly she includes countless real world examples, ranging from the level of the personal to the level of global social institutions, that bring the richness of the field a
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Michael Culbertson
Apr 13, 2015 Michael Culbertson rated it really liked it
A very good introduction to systems concepts, easy to read and full of examples from familiar systems. The main thing I felt the book lacked was a completed "worked" example, taking readers through the whole process of starting with a social problem, developing a model for the relevant systems, understanding the potential behavior of the system, and identifying possible system levers for change to address the problem. There are lots of examples for each of these pieces, but a single, unified exa ...more
Mark
Apr 24, 2011 Mark rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
The strength of this book is in the comparisons the author makes between different kinds of systems, showing how completely different kinds of systems may have similar feedbacks and arrangements of "stocks" and "flows", and therefore exhibit similar behavior. The book only skims the surface, but it seems like a good introduction to thinking about systems. I would love to see a more in-depth survey of common systems and system behaviors. Alas, Donella Meadows isn't around any more to provide it ( ...more
Luke
Sep 18, 2012 Luke rated it it was amazing
Shelves: environment
Dana's clear and illustrative use of language shines through this (and is immediately recognizable from Limits to Growth). Really outstanding short introduction to systems thinking, why systems surprise us, and why systems thinking is also no silver bullet for control of the complex systems that make up our world. The best (and final) chapters of this book are available online http://www.donellameadows.org/archive... and http://www.donellameadows.org/dancing...
David Oren
Mar 24, 2015 David Oren rated it really liked it
Great book! Was interesting to see how she thinks at high level talking about world problems and challenges
that countries face etc. Never thought about it that way before. Main point for me is think on the business not in it.
also making the systems resilienct to change and making it develop by itself. Cool shit

"goals are for losers. Winners have systems."

Good summary: http://consciouscapitalism.typepad.co...

thinking in systems
- Best leverage point - Trancending current thinking or "thinking out
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John Rogers
Jul 26, 2014 John Rogers rated it it was amazing
Shelves: systems
I don't think it's possible to over-rate this book. Quite simply teaching genius. I wish I could have attended a class by Donella Meadows!

Donella Meadows takes us step by step from the absolute basics of how you define a system through to the deeper complexities of stocks, flows and feedback loops. All written in layman's terms, with simple examples so anyone can understand.

At the risk of 'spoiling' but I hope acting as a taster, here are one or two titbits:

"We know a tremendous amount about ho
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Richard
Feb 08, 2014 Richard rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: thesis, own-it
This book should be required reading in the school syllabus and for everyone. Its essence is quite simple, but awareness of these fundamental concepts is almost completely - dangerously - absent in our modern world.

Donella Meadows explains some of the basics of systems thinking that she learnt from a lifetime of systems modelling, beginning with the (in)famous and mostly completely misunderstood The Limits to Growth. It is very accessible, and quite simple really, with a non-mathematical approac
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Daniel Aguilar
Such an amazing and pleasant read! Focused on systems analytics and design, offers a complete introduction to the most important concepts with references to examples and metaphors from science, literature, philosophy, pop culture, anthropology, politics... you name it. The author is obviously interested in (and, I dare to say, in love with) the whole world, treating many different subjects with respect and inviting the reader to look at them equally with love, interest and respect. A must read.
David Ranney
May 13, 2014 David Ranney rated it really liked it
Hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, economic instability, unemployment, chronic disease, drug addiction, and war, for example, persist in spite of the analytical ability and technical brilliance that have been directed toward eradicating them. No one deliberately creates those problems, no one wants them to persist, but they persist nonetheless. That is because they are intrinsically systems problems—undesirable behaviors characteristic of the system structures that produce them. They wi
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John Kowalczyk
May 07, 2016 John Kowalczyk rated it it was amazing
I love reading books by people who are truly talented and have a passion for their work. When these two attributes combine, I find that they usually result in a work that just flows right from the page to my brain. It communicates the message in such a way that it cannot be ignored. Debated? Yes because an honest author who is confident in their work sends an open invitation to start a dialogue; to discover truth through observation and discussion. I find Malcolm Gladwell to write in this fashio ...more
N
Mar 15, 2015 N rated it liked it
1) "A system is a set of things---people, cells, molecules, or whatever---interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system's response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world."

2) "We are less likely to be surprised if we can see how events accumulate into dynamic patterns of behavior. The team is on a winni
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Armen Chakmakjian
Oct 02, 2010 Armen Chakmakjian rated it it was amazing
I wrote a more extensive commentary on this book and agile methods on my blog. https://mynamemeansflintstone.wordpre...

but let me say that the late professor had a lot of insight into how things work, and what happens when you try and fix one thing and cause another thing to happen.
Michael
May 30, 2011 Michael rated it it was amazing
I teach systems thinking at an Ivy League University. I only wish I had one-tenth the wisdom of Donella Meadows. If we could only learn to live in the language of systems -- feedback, self-organization, thresholds,uncertainty, and nestedness -- just maybe we could nudge the world a little.
crystal
Mar 29, 2010 crystal rated it it was amazing
I deeply love this book and its author. She describes systems thinking and interconnections in a way that is incredibly easy to read. She also gives advice for systems thinkers toward the end, and her 12 leverage points to intervene in a system are here too.
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Donella H. "Dana" Meadows was a pioneering American environmental scientist, teacher, and writer. She was educated in science, receiving a B.A. in chemistry from Carleton College in 1963, and a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard in 1968. After a year-long trip with her husband, Dennis Meadows, from England to Sri Lanka and back, she became, along with him, a research fellow at MIT, as a member of a ...more
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“Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be viewed. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own.” 12 likes
“We can't impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.” 9 likes
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