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Thinking in Systems: A Primer

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  5,845 ratings  ·  559 reviews
Meadows’ Thinking in Systems, is a concise and crucial book offering insight for problem solving on scales ranging from the personal to the global. Edited by the Sustainability Institute’s Diana Wright, this essential primer brings systems thinking out of the realm of computers and equations and into the tangible world, showing readers how to develop the systems-thinking s ...more
Paperback, 240 pages
Published December 3rd 2008 by Chelsea Green Publishing (first published 2008)
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4.26  · 
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 ·  5,845 ratings  ·  559 reviews

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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 modelling i
Dec 10, 2017 rated it it was ok
As a collection of guidelines for understanding and intervening in problematic situations this book is quite useful. But I have never liked it because of two reasons, one internal to the book and one related to its effects in the outside world.

As a primer, it’s perfectly fine that a book skids over some of the finer points of the theory. But my feeling is that this informality hides a quite damaging conceptual incoherence. Epistemologically the book oscillates between a naive realism (there is
Oct 17, 2014 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
Jonathan Yu
Feb 19, 2012 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
Francis Norton
Apr 10, 2012 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
Keith Akers
Dec 22, 2011 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
Sebastian Gebski
It's not the first book on Systems Theory I've read, but even if this one is described as a "primer", it was not time wasted (definitely).

It starts very low-level (stacks & flows), but don't get discouraged by that - w/o some foundations it's really hard to get a proper grasp of the what ST is. All this stuff is supported with nice, simple examples expressed with stacks+flows notation. You learn about balancing, reinforcing, delays, corrective flows, feedback, renewable vs non-renewable stoc
Mohamed Yehia
Jul 13, 2016 rated it it was ok
This book was meant to grasp the basics of systems thinking, which it does but its writing style is not clear enough. Also some examples are clules and not accuratly relevant.

The number of pages could be reduced by at least 40%, without harming the content delivery. If it was will written, it would be an outstanding book, but unfortunately this is not the case.
May 17, 2015 rated it really liked it
Easy to read introduction into systems theory with several practical implementations which often goes against the naive way.
How to see the the big picture 101: how often do you get the sense that we are too consumed with micro issues to see the looming macro tidal waves that will wash away our elaborate sand castles into oblivion?

--I have been semi-consciously learning and applying “systems thinking” as a survival mechanism while exploring the dismal realms of economics and geopolitics (in particular: global division of labor and market externalities i.e. environment, cheap labor, reproductive labor, violenc
Erin Weigel
Apr 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Wow. This book was incredible. When I picked it up I honestly had no idea how much it'd end up pulling me in.

I love how Meadows approached a very complex scientific and mathematical subject and broke it down into easy-to-understand diagrams and concepts. Reading it at times was almost like reading poetry mixed with a text book, especially near the end.

What I enjoy most about her way of thinking is that it arms you with a practical lens for viewing the world. She also advocates for constantly q
Jan 07, 2016 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
Katia N
Jan 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
It is the one of the areas I’ve been interested for quite a while. But I could not find concise introductory book about system thinking for social science and/or policymaking. I think, in spite of its limitations, this book is as close as you could get. It is not technical. It explains the basics very clearly. It could be claimed, that the book is representing only one part of the rapidly developing and diverse field. But I would argue, that it does not go deep into the specifics of any field, w ...more
Kent Beck
Jan 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is an absolutely fundamental book if you want to understand and influence the world. I appreciate the simplicity of the language and the humility of the presentation. Just because you have a model, that doesn't mean that you know what to do. Or that what you do will have just the intended consequences. Or even the intended consequences at all.
Sandro Mancuso
Sep 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Although I had looked at Systems Thinking in the past, I did it very superficially. This book really helped me understand more about it and gave me knowledge I could apply immediately in my work environment.

As I’ve been told before reading the book, I would see systems everywhere. And that’s exactly what happened while going through the book and after I finished. Systems Thinking makes you look at things in a different way and gives you tools to better deal and influence the environment around
Rahul Ramchandani
This book should be made compulsory reading for pretty much everyone. Thinking in systems is one of the most powerful mental models to ingrain, the lack of which is the source of innumerable problems.
Jan Martinek
May 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I had big expectations and oh wow, this book is so much better than I expected in every imaginable way!

I love how every page shows how theory and practice, quality and quantity or any other methodological dichotomy needs to be bridged to arrive at clear understanding of a situation. Closing chapters add a welcome and sober reflection.

Wow. Recommended to anybody, really. I'm really sorry that I left on my shelf for almost three years. (And that I did not meet it already in my studies years befo
Tyson Titensor
TLDR of my review: Reading this book doesn't make one an expert on complex systems. In fact it probably makes one dangerously hubristic when it comes to systems thinking. It's a decent primer but it only scratches the surface. And it is flawed in a number of ways.


I first became interested in Systems Thinking a little over 5 years ago and this book was one that I used to kick start my study. It was interesting re-read it after a few years as I now have a much more comple
Eliise Peelo
Feb 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An eye-opener in every sense. An absolute essential for anyone aiming towards even the slightest understanding of this incredibly complex world we live in.
Sep 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: self-learning
Nice introduction to systems thinking.

Warning: after reading this book you'll start noticing feedback loops all around you.

It touches on system thinking fundamentals like stocks, flows & feedback loops.
I love how it provides real-life examples (fish population, economic failure modes,...) and offers pointers on how to intervene in failing systems.
I read this work through the eyes of a consultant/software developer and a lot of the advice offered translates directly to my day job. Highly reco
Max Tolstokorov
Sep 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, systems
Despite this book was written in 1993 it deserves 6 stars even nowadays. It's an excellent primer for systems thinking.
C. Hollis Crossman
Apr 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
At first glance, it's hard not to be dismissive of systems theory. Oh, the world is comprised of various interrelated systems that can only be manipulated for different outcomes with great care if they aren't to end in collapse and chaos? Tell me something else I already know. But that's not really the point of systems thinking—though it is the starting point.

Donella Meadows was a Harvard-educated scientist who worked at MIT and taught at Dartmouth, and was among the vanguard of systems thinkers
Jason Glasser
Mar 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Slow start if you already have some systems knowledge but the conclusions are worth it. Every one who has responsibility for a system (which is basically everyone) should read this book.
Aug 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good book that reads very quickly, it gives you mental ‘tools’ to analyzes systems, where a system is defined by relationships between different things. It encourages you to look at the world through the lens of feedback loops which allows you to answer questions about why things are the way they are.

Also we are so fuuuucked when it comes to climate change
Jul 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Ismail Dhorat
Jan 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Good intro to systems thinking

Good introduction to systems thinking specifically about the world. Covers the basics well. To get a better understanding of the systems archetypes read braun.
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
Nick Klagge
May 22, 2017 rated it liked it
I got interested in this a while ago after reading "The Limits to Growth," of which Meadows was one of the authors. It took me a while to get around to it! It is an interesting book but starts off very slowly, so I encourage readers to stick with it at least until chapter 5 or so. (It's not very long in total anyway!) The first couple of chapters deal with very elementary concepts relating to stocks and flows, inputs and outputs, and are accompanied by some rather dorky diagrams. I actually thin ...more
Henri Hämäläinen
Mar 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I've been wanting to get in to a systems thinking for some time already. As I often do, I'll try to find the best book for the subject. With systems thinking, book from Donella H. Meadows seemed to be it. Thinking in Systems was written already in 2001, but it feels as fresh as any book.

Book starts from very basic systems and theory round those. Even though it goes to very basics, it's not dull and boring, but interesting way to look on familiar systems. Via these basic systems book explains the
Mar 17, 2014 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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Science Book Club: Thinking in Systems 1 11 Sep 01, 2019 03:44PM  
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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
“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.” 35 likes
“There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion.” 24 likes
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