Katia N's Reviews > Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

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, while providing the starting point.

Donella Meadows, professor of MIT, she has written the manuscript in1992, but never came to publishing it. It has been published after her death in 2001, I believe. While reading, i felt she did not have a chance to edit it properly. It is a mixture of a basic system theory, her views on certain social issues, personal experiences and even sometimes more general philosophic thoughts. So you have to be a patient reader to get what you want out of it. I’ve almost ended up reading it twice. But it is very rewarding at the end. You start see systems everywhere.

Some of her examples are obviously very outdated. In spite of this, I did not feel her explanations and approach has aged. She came up with the suggested methodology, how to change social systems and this is already quite a lot.

What is the system?

It is something which is more than the sum of its parts and it is source of its own behaviour. She gives more formal definition: “a set of elements or parts that is coherently organised and interconnected in a pattern or structure that produces a characteristic set of behaviours often classified as its function or purpose”.

The difference between a system and a set of objects:
1) there are connections (called flows) between the elements (often called stocks or agents) in the system;
2) there are certain feedback mechanisms communicated through these connections. Respectively, a change in one part of the system would course the change in another part. The main point here, that the system would course its own behaviour by itself. So it would function in time (“dynamic” is the scientific word).

Non controversial examples is a thermostat, or a human body. Apparently, in the 90s to consider an individual, society or economy as a systems examples was controversial to the extent that she uses the word “heretical”…

In the book she briefly describes different types of systems. She also brings natural resources into social system.

What is thinking in systems?

It is a critical tool applying the knowledge of systems to the chosen object of research in order to understand it better or solve related problems. Practically, it is done through building a model of the underlying system. It is just one type of analysis, the “lens” how to understand the world around us. The book delves deeper into how it works and describes the properties of the systems.

What are feedbacks?

Feedback loop is much easier to understand intuitively than define. But it is a chain of rules or physical laws which defines how the initial change in the element (stock in the system speak) of the system courses the next change at the same element. It comes in two varieties:

- balancing feedback - there is a defined goal and the current state is compared to this goal (the targeted temperature in thermostat vs the current temperature for example). This type of feedback makes the system more stable, but more resistant to change as well.

- reinforcing feedback loop - it is self-enfacing mechanism when the initial change triggers even bigger change. This type of feedback left alone is leading to the exponential growth or runaway collapses of the system over time. The example could be a bank balance with the compounded interest rate; population growth of rabbits or escalation of a political conflict.

Or, I dare say, a rating on GR website - the higher the rating, the more people would read the book, the more people would rate it positively - the more rating would grow - the more people would read and…. you’ve got the picture. But unfortunately, for some wonderful, but underrated books, it works in negative way as well.

What a boundaries?

“there are no separate systems. The world is continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion.” It is very important point which illustrates the relevance of systems thinking to our life. She notes: “Ideally we would have the mental flexibility to find the appropriate boundary for thinking about each new problem. We are rarely that flexible. We get attached to the boundary our minds happen to be accustomed to. To think how many arguments have to do with boundaries- national trade ethnic, boundaries between public and private responsibility, and boundaries between the religious ch and poor, polluters and pollutees, people alive now and people who cone in the future.” This lack of mental flexibility is the source of a lot of unnecessary conflicts and mistakes, systems or not…

What are “systems’ traps”?

Systems could be counter-intuitive. More often than not a system would “surprise” you - come up with the results which you would not expect. This is because the majority of systems are complex - contain subsystems. And there are a lot of connections and feedbacks. Feedbacks might pull the performance in an unexpected direction. Or, the goals of subsystems might contradict to each other and “may not lead to decisions that further the welfare of the system of the whole”.

The bad “surprises” she calls “systems traps”. She defines about 9 different traps encountered in the social systems and the recommended ways out. They are all very important, but I’ve picked up just three to give you a jest of what is all about:

- Escalation - When the state of one stock (agent) is determined by trying to surpass the state of another stock (agent) and vice versa. “It is a reinforcing feedback loop carrying the system in an arms race, a wealth race, a smear campaign, escalating loudness, escalating violence. The escalation is exponential and can lead to extremes surprisingly quickly. If nothing is done, the spiral will be stopped by someone collapse.” As the way out, once side could refuse to compete unilaterally. Or some balancing feedback loop could be negotiated to compensate for the reinforcing one.

- Success to the Successful - “The winners of a competition are systematically rewarded with the means to win again, a reinforcing feedback loop is created. And if it is allowed to proceed uninhibited, the winners eventually take all, while the losers are eliminated.” One might recognise the monopolisations of the industries and the mechanism for inequality, currently big issues on the social radar. As the way out - diversification, strict limitation of maximum fraction of a winning pie (antitrust law for example); periodically levelling the playing field for everyone; policies that device the rewards for success that do not bias the next round of competition.

- Seeking a Wrong Goal - if the system has got a poorly defined or plainly wrong goal, it would obediently tick-tack towards it. Way out - define the goal carefully and redefine if wrong; not to try accept the goal just so it is easy to measure.

What to do with all of this?

You can answer this question on two levels. On the personal level, the system thinking is a good tool to understand the world around you; that everything is interconnected and some of your decisions might come back and affect you in a surprising way. On the other hand, you always have an ability to learn and to change (to adapt in system speak).

On the level of society and social science, it is much more complicated of course:

“Self-organising, nonlinear, feedback systems are inherently unpredictable. They are not controllable. They are understandable only in the most general way. The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and preparing for it perfectly unrealisable.”

In plain speak, no-one can control such system and no-one would be able to predict what it would do in future. To add insult to injury: “Social systems are the external manifestation of cultural thinking patterns and of profound human needs emotions strength and weakness. Changing them is not simple.”

Why to bother then?

Because, though the systems cannot be controlled and predicted, but it can be understood (to some extent)! The new system can be designed and the existing ones can be re-designed.

Redesigning of the existing systems is probably the most interesting bit. For this she defines “Leverage points”, the terms borrowed from Physics - places in the system where a small change could lead to a large shift in its behaviour.

Leverage points (levels of impact from the weakest to the strongest):

1. Numbers/parameters - characteristic of rates of flow, levels of stock, buffers. They are the least effective in terms lasting impact on the system behaviour. Examples are tax rates, spending rates, caps on ambient air quality, minimal wage and cap at prices. Even such things like firing people and hiring the new ones, including politicians — but of the structure is the same and info flows are the same would not help. She compares in with shifting chars on Titanic in order to restore the balance.

“Whatever cap we put on campaign contributions, it does not clean up politics. The Fed’s fiddling with the interest rate has not made business cycles go away. (We always forget that during upturns and are shocked by the downturns). Spending more on police or education does not make crime go away.”

Only one exception is when the goal of the whole system is expressed as a numerical value. But more about it below.

2. Nitty-gritty stuff (my term) - basically the other elements embedded in the system:

- buffers of stock - more buffer more stability, but if it is too big - lack of flexibility.

- physical structures and networks

- delays in feedback loops - the system cannot response to short-term changes if it has got a long-term delays; but her advice is counter-intuitive - slow done the system rather than shorten delay in many cases is better.

- balancing feedback loops - regulate the strength of them; I liked very much her example for this feedback:

“Democracy - system was invented to put self-correcting feedback between the people and their government. The people informed what their elected representative do, respond by voting those representative out of the office.” She farther notes “the process depends on the free, full, unbiased flow of information back and forth between electorate and leaders. Billions of dollars are spent to limit, and bias and dominate this flow of information.”

- reinforcing feedbacks are sources of growth, explosion and collapse with they are unchecked - so should have some sort of balancing feedback attached

- missing feedbacks altogether - the lack of accountability. The one of her examples is to depose a bit of production waste to the garden of the relevant CEO would add a missing feedback.

3. Self-organisation or evolution - divine creator (if there is one) does not have to produce evolutionary miracles. “He, she or it just has to write marvellously clever rules for self-organisation.” The current development on AI comes to mind here. But she means more social rules i guess.

4. Goals of the system - to change the purpose of system’s function. She has to put it above self-organisation in terms of effectiveness because of “diversity destroying push for control”.

Her example is a corporation (in theory could be any organisation or institution). To make profit is just a rule. The real goal “to make more under control of a corporation so it is shielded from uncertainty.”. It is a goal of any living population but only a bad one when it isn’t balanced by a higher level balancing feedback that never let “an upstart power-loop-driven entity to control the world.” And on the level of the goal, the parameters do have a big impact. The same the individual if he/she can change the goal of the system by her decision. It brings to my mind the old debate about the role of an individual in the historical process… It certainly makes sense from the system perspective…

5. Paradigm is the highest leverage point. It is unstated assumptions in the minds of the society and the deepest set of beliefs how the world works. Her teacher, Jay Forrester came up with this observation:

“It doesn’t matter how tax law of a country is written. There is a shared idea in the minds of the society about what a fair distribution of the tax load is. Whatever the laws say, by fair means of foul, by complications, cheating, exemptions or deductions, by constant shipping at the rules, actual tax payments will push right up against the accepted idea of “fairness”.

The assumptions are unstated because everyone knows them. So they are shared social agreement about the nature of reality. More examples from her:
- One can “own” the land.
- Money have real meaning and measure something real; so people who paid less are literally worth less. …
I would add from myself two more:
- the business profit is real and that measures the added value;
- nationality is real and defines the identity.

Paradigms are sources of systems. From them the systems are built. How too change it - by building the model of the system which would take us outside the system and “forces” us to see it as a whole. Thought experiments then! Sometimes people like Einstein, Smith, Lenin hit the leverage points and managed to totally transform the system.
But in general, it is the hardest thing to do and she talks about it quite a lot.

Though one could disagree with her views on certain political issues, it should not stop the reader benefiting from systems thinking she describes. The time was well spent for me.


Whatever cap we put on campaign contributions, it does not clean up politics. The Fed’s fiddling with the interest rate has not made business cycles go away. (We always forget that during upturns and are shocked by the downturns). Spending more on police or education does not make crime go away.

Balancing feedback should be adequate to the goal - The power of a big industry calls for the power of big government to hold it in check; a global economy makes global regulations necessary.

If the goal is to bring more and more of the world under the control of one particular central planning system (the empire of Genghis Khan, the Church, the Peoples Republic of China, Wal-Mart, Disney), then everything further down the list, physical stocks and flows, feedback loops, information flows and even self-organisation would conform that goal.

Allowing species to go extinct is a systems crime, just as randomly eliminating all copies of particular science journals of a particular kind of scientist would be. The same could be said of human cultures of course, which are the store of behavioural repertoires, accumulated over not billions, but hundreds of thousands of years. They are a stock out of which social evolution can arise. Unfortunately, people appreciate the precious evolutionary potential of cultures even less that they understand the preciousness of every genetic variation in the world’s ground squirrels. I guess that’s because one aspect of almost every culture is the belief in the utter superiority of that culture.

4 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Thinking in Systems.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

January 11, 2018 – Started Reading
January 11, 2018 – Shelved
January 13, 2018 –
page 85
35.42% "Hierarchical systems evolve from the bottom up. The purpose of the upper layers of the hierarchy is to serve the purposes of the lower layers."
January 14, 2018 –
page 148
61.67% "Electing Bill Clinton was definitely different from electing the elder George Bush, but not all different, given that every president is plugged into the same political system. Changing the way money flows in that system would make much more of a difference. (The book is written in 1992)."
January 24, 2018 – Finished Reading

No comments have been added yet.