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Thinking in Systems – A Primer –

Donella H. Meadows, edited by Diana Wright, Sustainability Institute

Living in a World of Systems
The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is.
(G. K. Chesterton, 20th century writer)

System analysis

People who are raised in the industrial world and who get enthused about systems thinking are likely to make a terrible mistake. They are likely to assume that here, in systems analysis, in interconnection and complication, in the power of the computer, here at last, is the key to prediction and control. This mistake is likely because the mind-set of the industrial world assumes that there is a key to prediction and control.

We all assumed it, as eager systems students at the great institution called MIT. More or less innocently, enchanted by what we could see through our new lens, we did what many discoverers do. We exaggerated our findings. We did so not with any intent to deceive others, but in the expression of our own expectations and hopes. Systems thinking for us was more than subtle, complicated mind play. It was going to make systems work.

What we found

Like the explorers searching for the passage to India who ran into the Western Hemisphere instead, we had found something, but it wasn’t what we thought we had found. It was something so different from what we had been looking for that we didn’t know what to make of it. As we got to know systems thinking better, it turned out to have greater worth than we had thought, but not in the way we had thought.

Our first comeuppance came as we learned that it’s one thing to understand how to fix a system and quite another to wade in and fix it. We had many earnest discussions on the topic of “implementation,” by which we meant “how to get managers and mayors and agency heads to follow our advice”.

The truth

The truth was, we did not even follow our advice. We gave learned lectures on the structure of addiction and could not give up coffee. We knew all about the dynamics of eroding goals and eroded our own jogging programs. We warned against the traps of escalation and shifting the burden and then created them in our own marriages.

Social systems are the external manifestations of cultural thinking patterns and of profound human needs, emotions, strengths, and weaknesses. Changing them is not as simple as saying “now all change”, or of trusting that he who knows the good shall do the good.


We ran into another problem. Our systems insights helped us understand many things we hadn’t understood before, but they didn’t help us understand everything. In fact, they raised at least as many questions as they answered. Like all the other lenses humanity has developed with which to peer into macrocosms and microcosms, this one too revealed wondrous new things, many of which were wondrous new mysteries. The mysteries our new tool revealed lay especially within the human mind and heart and soul.

There were not just a few but several questions that were prompted by our insights into how systems work…

Unique about search

What was unique about our search was not our answers, or even our questions, but the fact that the tool of systems thinking, born out of engineering and mathematics, implemented in computers, drawn from a mechanistic mind-set and a quest for prediction and control, leads its practitioners, inexorably I believe, to confront the most deeply human mysteries. Systems thinking makes clear even to the most committed technocrat that getting along in this world of complex systems requires more than technocracy.

Self-organizing, 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 is unrealizable. The idea of making a complex system do just what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily, at best. We can never fully understand our world, not in the way our reductionist science has led us to expect.

Science and conqueror

Our science itself, from quantum theory to the mathematics of chaos, leads us into irreducible uncertainty. For any objective other than the most trivial, we can’t optimize; we don’t even know what to optimize. We can’t keep track of everything. We can’t find a proper, sustainable relationship to nature, each other, or the institutions we create, if we try to do it from the role of omniscient conqueror.

(For more info, read the book or ask for our ‘long read’)