Overview: The Systems Perspective

This website is about providing a perspective on systems considered in the most general sense.  What aspects are common across the whole range of systems, particularly man-made systems such as organizations and economies?  Why do so many systems seem to be malfunctioning today? How can we make our systems sustainable over the long term? What must we understand about systems in order to create a future we would want to pass to our children’s children? 

Scope of Topics Covered

This website addresses a wide range of topics under the general heading of a systems perspective.  A number of disciplines and areas of study have developed as a result of the modern appreciation of the nature of systems and the growth of systems thinking in general.  Broad disciplines include

  • General systems theory
  • Systems dynamics
  • Systems analysis
  • Systems modeling
  • Systems engineering

A number of specialized fields have emerged that fall under the general heading of the systems sciences, such as

  • Cybernetics
  • Complex systems theory
  • Chaos theory
  • Information theory
  • Living systems theory
  • Systems ecology

A systems perspective is important in the study and application of intelligent systems, including

  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • Cognitive science

In connection with the systems perspective, this website also explores topics associated with creativity, innovation, invention, and problem solving.  We certainly need to focus on these capabilities to deal with the systems conditions humankind currently faces.

My Background

My career focus has involved the understanding and application of systems knowledge in developing complex high-technology systems.  I have always oriented towards being a generalist, rather than a deep specialist in a particular field or discipline. I have endeavored to work in interdisciplinary/multidisciplinary environments, where multiple perspectives have to be brought together to solve a problem.  

I have a deep interest in looking for patterns that connect the dots and show a bigger picture.  I am an incorrigible maker of lists, tables, and charts, looking for the connections between things in such structures.  I have always had a passionate desire to understand why things are the way they are, how did they come to be that way, what are the forces keeping them in place, and what is driving their evolution forward.  

I had an early exposure to concepts of ecology and other complex interdependent natural systems.  My early career designing ultra-critical systems (for nuclear submarines and ultra-deep diving manned submersibles) gave me a perspective on the consequences of failing to take factors into account and making system errors.

I had an early vision of making information available to everyone through a networked information utility. I participated in the extension of computing to everyday people through co-founding a pioneering personal computer startup firm.  Then I had 36 years of experience as a senior systems engineer for SRI International (previously known as Stanford Research Institute). At SRI, I worked on an extraordinarily wide range of cutting-edge system technologies.

System-Based Cognitive Dissonance

From an early age, I frequently experienced strong feelings of cognitive dissonance from my observations. I looked at things around me and saw how hypocritical people were, especially those who I was supposed to regard as authority figures.  They would get away with blatantly outrageous, even criminal, behavior. I couldn’t understand how they could be seen as worthy of trust. And I observed double standards everywhere I looked. Bankers could employ fraudulent practices to steal billions with no consequence, while some poor soul stealing a few dollars to feed his family would be thrown in jail for years.

Furthermore, I saw lots of things that appeared to me to be sheer lunacy.  I grew up in terror of nuclear war. I had a vivid awareness of just how terrible a nuclear exchange would be.  Potentially, all higher forms of life on Earth could be extinguished. Yet it appeared to me that my own country was systematically provoking and intensifying the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union.  The U.S. has never adopted a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, and always maintained a capability for an unprovoked first strike.

I also had a strong sense that I was routinely being lied to and subjected to deceit, propaganda, misinformation, secrecy, and selective reporting by people in positions of power.

There were many things that just didn’t compute because they involved fundamentally incompatible goals.  For example, how could it be possible for a nation to have a permanent positive balance of trade? Wouldn’t it being necessary for other nations they traded with to have negative balances and become impoverished?  And how could corporations continue to grow their markets while holding down the earnings of the people who they expected to buy their products? Everywhere I looked I saw inherent contradictions in the systems I observed, which other people seemed to view complacently.  Weren’t they bothered?

I would read about how many years of some key item, such as phosphate for fertilizer or rare earth minerals, that humanity had left at projected rates of consumption, and thought it was frighteningly short.  What was one or two hundred years remaining, in the context of human history? And after that resource was effectively used up, what do we do then?

Early on I understood the difference between interest and the principal that generated the interest.  Yet it looked to me as if humanity was systematically spending the principal of its inheritance (e.g., fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources of many kinds) instead of arranging to live on the interest.  This did not seem to me like it could end well.

I have always had a strong desire to understand just what causes something to not make any logical sense.  What would make them be that way? What were the underlying mechanisms at work? And what could be done to return them to being sensible?  

Systems Thinking

I have been thinking about how complex dynamic systems work, and the way that they exhibit characteristic behaviors that are a consequence of their design, for most of my life.  I have tried to see patterns that connect systems in different contexts, to identify underlying similarities.

Today, we are conscious of how we interact with many different systems, at a wide range of scales.  Unfortunately, we frequently lack the understanding to navigate our way in such a manner to avoid unexpected and unwanted effects from these systems.

Systems thinking is still a developing discipline with many aspects that have yet to be fleshed out.  Nonetheless, systems thinking already has a number of models with strong explanatory and predictive power that have a great deal of utility.  I want to share the understandings about systems that I have gained from a lifetime of thinking about them so that others can benefit.

Emerging Awarenesses

There is a growing awareness that things aren’t working well any longer.  Society’s gears are making increasingly distressing grinding noises. Lots of alarm lights are flashing.  Societal divisions are increasing rapidly. People perceive that we are operating in unfamiliar conditions now.  Strategies that used to work don’t apply in the new environment. Most of our current social-economic-political institutions are floundering. 

People now recognize that authorities who make the major decisions affecting our lives don’t really know what they are doing.

  • They are not asking the right questions.
  • They don’t understand the connections between things.
  • They don’t anticipate the effects of their actions.
  • They are not accountable for the consequences.
  • They are thinking only in the short term.
  • And, in most cases, they are actually working for the interests of a narrow group, not for the interests of most of the population.

Much of what is being done today is directly counterproductive.  More people perceive that things have become rigged for the benefit of various privileged groups.

  • For example, the wealth gap between the top 0.1% and 1% and the rest of the population is becoming enormous.
  • Increasing fractions of the population worldwide are falling into economic insecurity and poverty.

Many current actions in the geopolitical sphere are directly contrary to the interests of the vast majority of the population.  Furthermore, these matters are beyond ordinary peoples’ ability to influence. Peoples’ belief in the legitimacy of key societal institutions is evaporating quickly.  The institutions of electoral representative democracy are increasingly viewed as being facades. Most of the decisions of real consequence are made on the basis of benefits to people at the top of the pyramid and to institutions such as multinational corporations.

Widespread hypocrisy is obvious.  For example, there is much agitation about illegal immigrants in the United States, at the same time that illegal immigrants are woven into the basic fabric of the American economy.  Today, that economy cannot function without having large numbers of illegal immigrants performing the lowest-paid jobs.

New Ethical Dilemmas

The ethical systems prevalent in society today originated at a time when human actions tended to have a limited sphere of influence.  Ethical principles primarily concerned what individuals did, and how their behavior affected other individuals or groups of individuals.

Thus we have ethics developed within the major religious traditions.  These were supplemented by subsequently-developed legal frameworks. Legal systems prescribing ethical behavior primarily function within government jurisdictions (e.g., municipalities, counties, states, and nations).  We have only very weak legal systems that cross the boundaries between nations, regions, continents, etc.  

However, today the reach of our actions is vastly greater, both in location and time.  Things we do in our own neighborhood affect people across the whole Earth and impact people many generations hence.  We have come to a point where our actions have effects planet-wide on the entire biosphere. Human-caused climate change effects are affecting the entire globe.  We are damaging whole ecosystems, such as the world’s oceans.

We have yet to create ethical frameworks that provide good guidance for how to function ethically with this new scale of our effects.  There are now numerous stark ethical dilemmas. For example, it is abundantly clear that we must limit the number of people born to stay within the sustainable capacity of the Earth’s life support systems.  Who should have the privilege of having children? How many children should they be able to have? How should the Earth’s resources be allocated among people? Today, the allocation is almost entirely on the basis of financial wealth, and that wealth is being systematically concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.  What is a just division? How can different cultural beliefs be honored at the same time avoiding conflicts between them? How should the beliefs and values of one cultural group be kept from being imposed on others?

A Sense of Urgency

These contemporary problems are both huge and urgent.  We have to recognize their scope and marshal the greatest resources we can to address them.  A continuation of current technical, social, and ecological trends will lead to collapse. Addressing them is imperative.  

The really important problems we now face are beyond the scope of our existing institutions—nations, non-governmental organizations, religious bodies, scientific societies, university departments, etc.

  • These institutions weren’t created to address matters that are long-term and planet-wide in extent.
  • The institutions aren’t set up to deal with the scope and interaction of the problems. 
  • Politics as currently being conducted is not equal to the problems facing us.
  • Key organizations and institutions have become controlled by oligarchies.

We are realizing that our present problems are interlocking.  Many forces are acting in ways that are extremely harmful for the long-term health of humanity and the planet that supports us.  Multiple catastrophes appear to be converging so as to hit us at about the same time. 

The long-term survival of humanity, and even the continuation of higher forms of life on earth, can no longer be taken for granted.

The fact that the constellation of current trends is terrifying is not a justification for falling into denial or closing our eyes.  A major reset is essential.

It’s All Precariously Balanced

Instead of things being stable and self-correcting, major systems in the current world are precariously balanced.  Everything is dependent on things going smoothly with no big shocks and no one making a critical mistake. Like a high wire act, we don’t have the ability to recover from any serious missteps or big external shocks.  

In many of the situations we are facing we have only one chance to get it right.  If we make a mistake, we won’t get the opportunity to do it over. Many forms of damage are irreversible.

If You’re Not Frightened, You’re Not Paying Attention 

People who look deeply at present conditions and trends recognize just how dire a situation we are in.  By a combination of inaction and greedy pursuit of private benefit, humanity has gotten into an array of binds, without routes out that don’t involve serious pain.  It’s easy to become frightened silly. But that prevents action to make corrections.

Bracing For Impact

It is too late to avoid crashes of many of the systems on which we have come to depend.  Massive changes are already inevitable, as the result of dynamics that humans set in motion decades, even centuries ago.  Effects like coastal inundation from rising sea levels, stronger storms, increased wildfires, water shortages, food scarcity, key resource depletion, and ecosystem devastation are now inevitable.  We will have massive flows of refugees from areas that have become uninhabitable.   

Like passengers in an airplane being prepared for a water ditching, the best we can do is to brace for impact.  We can at least seek to minimize the injuries we suffer in the crash and allow us to be better able to deal with the aftermath.  Recognize that some people won’t make it. Triage principles are going to essential, as resources are going to be limited.

The Need to Address the Problems at a Systems Level 

To an ever-increasing degree, the systems which we inhabit are coupled with each other.  Our most serious problems are world-wide in scope, with no restriction to national boundaries, institutional structures, or other human groupings.

Big complex human-influenced systems tend to be brittle, inherently prone to breakage.  Our focus is flawed—there is too much concentration on things that don’t matter, while ignoring other things that matter hugely.  It is critical to really understand how the systems with which we interact really work. Otherwise, we are destined to do counterproductive things.  We have to address causes, not just focus on symptoms. And we have to be careful to avoid confusion between causes and effects.

It has become abundantly clear that the traditional answers to problems that are put forward by society’s existing mainstream institutions are completely inadequate to turn around the trends that we all are observing now.

Just changing the people in power (individuals, ideological factions, political parties, other institutions) is not enough.  The underlying system dynamics that keep things functioning the way they are now have to be fundamentally altered to address the global crises of this century.

A World Perspective

I write from an American perspective, and use American examples because they are familiar and convenient and many of the readers are expected to be American.  However, the fundamental processes and problems I discuss are not confined to the American environment. The fundamental needs for system health are worldwide, because most of the key problems are worldwide.  Unfortunately, the United States has had a disproportionate influence on the current situations. This is largely due to America’s wealth and power and consequent global reach that emerged as a consequence of World War II.  Logically, the United States should take the leadership in fixing systems problems that it has created or made worse.

The Really Important Problems Transcend Nations and Creeds

Up to the recent past, problems have been addressed primarily at the level of national systems.  Each nation pursued actions that would benefit it, with little attention to effects beyond its boundaries.  However, the most critical problems of the 21st century are ones that are planetary in nature—climate change, ocean acidification, keystone species extinction, resource exhaustion, weapons of mass destruction, refugees, and many, many others.  Taking only a national perspective will make it impossible to coordinate a planet-wide approach to mitigating the problems.

Similarly, we have to go beyond the boundaries of particular human groupings, such as religious creeds, political ideologies, economic systems, and other belief-based organizational structures.  The global problems are bigger than these, so trying to prevail over one’s competition has to be secondary to cooperating for the planetary good.

Speaking for Those Who Cannot

In addition to focusing primarily on the human world, our ethics and indeed our political systems are prone to what has been called presentism.  The focus is on present-day time and possibly the near future. Effects that are well in the future tend to be discounted, even when these effects may be negative and severe.

We need to have effective advocacy for the interests of the future human generations who will live in the planetary environment that is being created.  Decisions that benefit only people living in present time, to the detriment of those who are not yet alive, need to be mitigated. In addition, we need to consider the interests of the non-human world.  It is crucially important to speak for those who cannot, either because they have no capacity to speak in human forums or because they do not yet exist. Decision-making bodies need to incorporate members who act as proxies for those who cannot speak but need their interests to be appropriately considered.

Society's Fundamantal System

Humankind has used a series of cumulative innovations (e.g., the control of fire, edged tools, agriculture, domestication of animals, watercraft, fossil-fueled engines, medicine, etc.) to spread over the whole Earth, take progressively greater advantage of all natural environments, and allow the human population to grow exponentially.  Today the population is over seven billion and continues to grow rapidly. Unfortunately, sustaining that population requires far more resources than Earth’s systems can continue to provide. Humanity doesn’t have an existing means of scaling back its demands on the planet to get back to an equilibrium state. This is a system that is inherently self-destructive, similar to a parasite that kills its own host.  

One system pathology is a particular contributor to this.  Rather than rewarding on the basis of contributions to the common good, society is currently set up to have its greatest rewards go to individuals and institutions whose actions result in long-term harm to the society as a whole.  For example, fossil fuel corporations maximize their profit by knowingly damaging the global environment and climate. Wealth and influence are obtained through entities’ ability to exploit for their private gain those assets and resources that would otherwise be shared by all.  

Why is it critical to understand systems and systems behavior

The contemporary world is full of technical, social, political, and economic systems that behave in complex interactive ways.  Many of these systems are functioning in undesirable manners. Only by understanding the behavior of these systems will we be able to mitigate adverse effects, correct malfunctions, and develop new systems that function in the manner we want.

System Mechanisms

Systems have inherent mechanisms that operate based on how the system is constructed.

In the same way that one can’t properly adjust a machine without an understanding of the mechanisms by which it operates, it is necessary to understand the inherent mechanisms of any type of system in order to adjust or correct its operation.

Science has made many of its major advances through elucidating various mechanisms by which nature operates.  Once a convincing mechanism is understood, all sorts of observations of phenomena suddenly fit together and make sense.  Following are some examples of the understanding of system mechanisms and their impact on science:

  • Darwin explained the evolution of species of plants and animals by showing the mechanisms of mutation and natural selection.
  • Wegener explained the processes by which large-scale geologic forces operate by describing the concept of continental drift.
  • The recognition of microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, and many forms of microscopic parasites) and the mechanisms by which they affect macroscopic organisms explained many forms of disease.

By understanding underlying mechanisms that operate in various dynamic systems, we can show why things are the way they are, and how they are likely to behave under different conditions.  Many of the system mechanisms are fundamental, and apply across broad categories of different systems. Unfortunately, the study of system mechanisms is not yet taught widely, particularly in a unified treatment. 

Exponential Curves and Compounding Effects

It is difficult to grasp the operation of exponential effects.  We tend to make projections using linear extrapolations. But exponential curves rise ever more steeply in the future, with increases much faster than one would ordinarily expect.  Many of the phenomena that we are currently experiencing are on exponential trend curves. Unfortunately, our intuition is not good at anticipating the future effects of exponential increase.

Many of current phenomena involve interacting exponential effects.  This is particularly true of many technological areas, such as genetic manipulation and artificial intelligence.  Each technical breakthrough opens the door to additional interacting technological breakthroughs. As an example, the amount of computer software deployed in systems of various kinds is increasing at a rate with a very high exponential factor.  Typical automobiles sold in 2019 incorporate tens of millions of lines of software code, while some high-end automobiles have hundreds of millions of lines of code.

Managing things that are changing at high exponential rates is inherently very challenging.  Consistently keeping ahead of the curve is fraught with difficulty, and regaining that position once it is lost is a real struggle.

Academic Discipline Silos

Universities and learned societies have organized themselves around technical disciplines.  The disciplines create boundaries and create their own unique thought frameworks, vocabularies, practices, etc. within those boundaries.  The metaphor is many silos of knowledge—tall, full of content, but isolated from each other.   

Disciplines resist working across those boundaries.  Interdisciplinary work has many institutional impediments.  For example, funding agencies are accustomed to working within the context of single disciplines.  However, the real world has problems that cross many disciplinary boundaries. The challenges modern society faces do not appear in disciplinary packages.  Only an integrated response will be effective. The systems perspective is inherently cross-disciplinary/multidisciplinary in scope.

System Malfunctions

Many/most of the problems we confront are, at their root, the result of flawed systems structures and system malfunctions.  Many current systems have intrinsic internal contradictions and can’t possibly work satisfactorily. For example, their system goals are incompatible.  

Fixes and mitigations have to deal with the system aspects of the problems.  Without correcting these, the problems cannot be dealt with. Changing the set of people in charge won’t change things.  The systems themselves have to be changed.  System problems need to be addressed at the right system level.  One can’t repair a systems deficiency or correct a systems pathology without a proper diagnosis.


What is disconcerting is to become aware of the range of vulnerabilities that modern society has created in the systems underpinning everyday life.  In exchange for the increased convenience of networked digital systems, we have exposed ourselves to numerous vectors for attack. For example, recent data breaches have exposed the personal data of hundreds of millions of people, and there is relatively little that individuals can do to fully protect themselves from identity theft and financial harm.  For another example, major infrastructure systems (the electric power grid, water and gas distribution systems, sewage treatment systems, transportation networks, telecommunications grids, and the like) have not developed robust protections against cyberattack from a wide variety of malevolent entities.

Time Factors

It’s important to understand time aspects for fixing system problems.  Many systems problems have long histories and can only be addressed with a significant amount of lead time.  Time horizons are critical for decision making about systems. Too often, matters that will occur a ways in the future are simply ignored.  For example, setting aside money to pay for replacements of current facilities and infrastructure at the end of their lives is seldom done, and maintenance gets repeatedly deferred.  Future costs and other negative consequences of current activities are not considered or at least are deeply discounted.

System Resistance to Change

People and institutions in positions of power have taken advantage of their situations for private benefit to the detriment of the populace as a whole.  They have worked hard to obscure this process so that the majority doesn’t fully realize what is happening. They have strong incentives to maintain and extend the status quo.  Institutional systems that are functioning in pathological manners will push back against attempts to set them right. This effect has to be taken into account.

Conditioning of the Populace

The populace has been conditioned over multiple decades to accept the current situation as just the way things are.  They don’t have clear ideas of the existence of alternatives. This conditioning has been active and deliberate by various groups benefitting from the status quo.  The conditioning has become ever more sophisticated as the technical understanding of individual and group psychology has increased. Professional manipulators of public thought are becoming increasingly capable.  Understanding these techniques is key to resisting them.  

Business As Usual Is No Longer Viable

Business As Usual is no longer a plausible strategy for the 21st century.  Unfortunately, no one seems to be able to imagine a future that is significantly different than what we are experiencing right now.  We have been living like there is no tomorrow. However, the piper has already presented his bill. Debt-fueled growth is over, never to return again.  We can no longer postpone dealing with problems by kicking the cans down the road.

The Big Picture

The need is to look at the big picture.  One must draw the frame around the problem with the right area encompassed.  Additionally, the need is to take the long view. It may not be possible to prevent short term gyrations.

The most critical problems in the early 21st century are at the humanity-wide system level.  Major trends are interacting with and reinforcing each other.  Changes in one area result in corresponding changes in another.  Piecemeal solutions will not accomplish the intended results. Activist efforts need to be coordinated to have a relevant impact.  Sometimes systems need to be reset, regardless of the short-term discomfort and disruption that entails.

Levels of understanding systems

Systems and their behavior can be understood at different levels.  At the lowest level, one can give an explanation for the observed behavior of a system.  Note that a given explanation may have little to do with understanding the reality of the system.  For example, one explanation is that the system is possessed by an evil spirit.

At a higher level of understanding, one can make a prediction about how the system will behave in a condition that has not previously been observed.  The prediction may only apply to a particular set of conditions, however.

At a substantive level of understanding, one can design the architecture of the system so that it will behave in an intended manner in a particular set of conditions.  This level of understanding requires insight into what is really going on with the system.  

Choosing & Choices

At any given time, one can only choose from the options that are available then.  Previous options may have already disappeared. Future options may not yet be accessible. Some future options require positive action now in order to be available in the future.  One must choose.  Not to choose is to choose—by default, one chooses the consequences of one’s inaction.

Humanity has made many choices through inaction in the last few decades.  Desirable options that were available earlier can no longer be chosen.  

The Need for Wisdom

The concept of wisdom gets little attention in current times.  However, we need wisdom more than ever. We as a species can’t continue to make unwise decision after unwise decision.

We have to prioritize wisdom and cause it to progress faster.  There is an accelerating race between the growing influence of technology and the wisdom with which we manage it.

Technology is continually used to create more powerful technology.  We can’t allow wisdom to lag behind. There are many situations where we can’t afford to learn from mistakes.  We have to get things right the first time, as that may be the only chance we get. We have to change our approach to risks from reactive to proactive.  We have been astoundingly lucky in many areas so far, such as barely avoiding nuclear war more than a dozen times. We can’t count on being lucky indefinitely.   

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