Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Understanding systems … in plain English


A system can be defined as an integrated set of elements that perform a desired function.

Although systems vary in complexity, they all share some basic elements. A stock flows into the system and is subject to some form of control, such as rate or temperature. The stock is then catalyzed or depleted in some form, which results in an outflow from the system, usually in the form of energy. At the same time, one or more sensing mechanisms monitor the process and provide feedback to the control elements, which tune the system’s performance in order to achieve optimal performance.


Basic systems include switches, signals, and most pumps. A classic system (and a fairly simple one, too) is an automobile engine. Gasoline flows into the engine at a rate determined by the driver’s speed. The gasoline is mixed with another stock, air, and undergoes combustion. The resulting energy is outputted to the drive train, which propels the car. Inflows of gasoline are regulated by valves which are themselves controlled by the driver’s brain (as it perceives the speedometer or road conditions) and foot (as it depresses or releases the gas pedal).

Complex systems include the human body, the environment, digital networks. In fact, while simple systems are pure – one input, one purpose – all complex systems are really systems of interlocking sub-systems. Systems of systems, if you will. These systems tend to have redundancies or multiple feedback mechanisms built into them to prevent failure, but all of the components of a system, whether redundant or not, are important, or else the system is poorly designed and wasteful.

Look more closely at the human body. It is truly a system of systems. One body housing the respiratory, circulatory, musculoskeletal, digestive, and nervous systems, as well as many others, in order to achieve a desired objective: life. Many of these systems are independent of each other – the endocrine system isn’t apparently connected to the skeletal system, for instance – and yet they must all work, and work together,  for the body to survive.


When  systems of systems interact with each other – as when human beings form friendships – we have networks. And when multiple networks are interacting with each other, especially when they predominate a given field or scale, we have a plexus.

As human beings, we inhabit multiple concurrent systems, networks and plexuses. Social systems (family, friends, associations, clubs, churches), the economic system (at various scales), the political system, the built form (physical infrastructure), digital networks, the ecosystem, and more. In fact to the extent that our lives and identities are relational – that is, to the extent that we are defined by reference to others, such as brother, mother, wife, worker, citizen, friend, etc. – we are integral parts of systems.

Next up in this series, we’ll talk about scales.

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