A system is a set of interconnected elements which form a whole and show properties which are properties of the whole rather than of the individual elements. This definition is valid for a cell, an organism, a society, or a galaxy. Joanna Macy says that a system is less a thing than a pattern—a pattern of organization. It consists of a dynamic flow of interactions which is non-summative, irreducible, and integrated at a new level of organization permitted by the interdependence of its parts. The word “system” derives from the Greek “synhistanai” which means “to place together.”
In his seminal book Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, Peter Checkland defined systems thinking as thinking about the world through the concept of “system.” This involves thinking in terms of processes rather than structures, relationships rather than components, interconnections rather than separation. The focus of the inquiry is on the organization and the dynamics generated by the complex interaction of systems embedded in other systems and composed by other systems.
From a cognitive perspective, systems thinking integrates analysis and synthesis. Natural science has been primarily reductionistic, studying the components of systems and using quantitative empirical verification. Human science, as a response to the use of positivistic methods for studying human phenomena, has embraced more holistic approaches, studying social phenomena through qualitative means to create meaning. Systems thinking bridges these two approaches by using both analysis and synthesis to create knowledge and understanding and integrating an ethical perspective. Analysis answers the ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions while synthesis answers the ‘why’ and ‘what for’ questions. By combining analysis and synthesis, systems thinking creates a rich inquiring platform for approaches such as social systems design, developed by Bela H. Banathy, and evolutionary systems design, as Alexander Laszlo and myself have developed to include a deeper understanding of a system in its larger context as well as a vision of the future for co-creating ethical innovations for sustainability.
Just like the first image of Earth from outer space had a huge impact on our ability to see the unity of our planet, systems thinking is a way of seeing ourselves as part of larger interconnected systems. Most importantly, this new perception creates a new consciousness from which the possibility of a new relationship emerge:
"From the moon, the Earth is so small and so fragile, and such a precious little spot in that Universe, that you can block it out with your thumb. Then you realize that on that spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you - all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it right there on that little spot that you can cover with your thumb. And you realize from that perspective that you've changed forever, that there is something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it was." (Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 17 astronaut)
Systems thinking is a gateway to seeing interconnections. Once we see a new reality, we cannot go back and ignore it. More importantly, that “seen” has an emotional connection, beautifully captured in the statement by Rusty Schweickart after his experience of seeing his home planet from space.
What are the emotions evoked by perceiving for the first time the unity, interconnectedness, and relatedness of a system? What are the feelings evoked by perceiving and experiencing disconnection and isolation? Humberto Maturana says that “emotions are fundamental to what happens in all our doings” and yet, bringing up emotions in a scientific or business conversation is in many cases considered irrelevant, inappropriate or simply uncomfortable. Following Maturana’s views, I would say that the simplified answer to my two questions on the emotions evoked by unity and disconnection are love and fear, correspondingly. Love is the only emotion that expands intelligence, creativity and vision; it is the emotion that enables autonomy and responsibility. Maturana defines love as “relational behaviors through which another (a person, being, or thing) arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself.” Only in a context of safety, respect and freedom to be and create (that is, a context of love) can people be relaxed and find the conditions conducive to engage in higher intelligent behaviors that uses their brain neocortex. Learning, collaboration and creativity happen when we are able to function from a consciousness capable of including a worldcentric awareness of “all of us”, as Ken Wilber puts it. On the contrary, in a situation of stress, insecurity, or any other manifestation of fear, we are conditioned to react more instinctually and to operate from our reptilian brain to fulfill more rudimentary needs linked to survival.
The first image of our whole Earth from space created a sense of awe and beauty. From space, we can see (and feel) its wholeness: there are no political lines dividing our national territories, there is only one whole system. However, from our terrestrial and regionally bounded experiences, we can feel that the neighbor tribe is sufficiently different and threatening to be considered an enemy.
“Before we can change the way we live, before we have saved the rainforest and the whales, we need to change ourselves. Humanity with all its different races is one. We and all other living things are nourished and sustained by the same earth” (Rema, a 14 year old girl from New Zealand).
This is the leading edge of the sustainability movement: the realization that no matter how many solar panels we install, how many green products we consume, how much CO2 we remove from the atmosphere, we will not be living better lives if we do not transform ourselves, our lifestyles, choices and priorities. Sustainability is an inside job, a learning journey to live lightly, joyfully, peacefully, meaningfully.
Systems being involves embodying a new consciousness, an expanded sense of self, a recognition that we cannot survive alone, that a future that works for humanity needs also to work for other species and the planet. It involves empathy and love for the greater human family and for all our relationships – plants and animals, earth and sky, ancestors and descendents, and the many peoples and beings that inhabit our Earth. This is the wisdom of many indigenous cultures around the world, this is part of the heritage that we have forgotten and we are in the process of recovering.
Systems being and systems living brings it all together: linking head, heart and hands. The expression of systems being is an integration of our full human capacities. It involves rationality with reverence to the mystery of life, listening beyond words, sensing with our whole being, and expressing our authentic self in every moment of our life. The journey from systems thinking to systems being is a transformative learning process of expansion of consciousness—from awareness to embodiment.
NOTE: This post is an excerpt from the plenary presentation “Beyond Systems Thinking: The role of beauty and love in the transformation of our world” by Dr. Kathia Laszlo at the 55th Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences at the University of Hull, U.K., on July 21, 2011.