4.02. What is Systems Science?

What is Systems Science?

The study of Systems is a relatively recent scientific endeavour, one which has been steadily gaining momentum since its origins in the 1970s.

Systems science is an interdisciplinary field that studies the complex systems that exist in nature and society. It is a way of analyzing the dynamics of our world by looking at it as a whole rather than separating it into parts. Systems science concentrates as much on the links and interactions between things as it does on the things themselves.

Some of the key insights from Systems science include:

  • Complex Adaptive Systems – How complex systems, both natural and human-made, have their own behaviours and properties including the ability to spontaneously self-organize and adapt;
  • Interconnectivity – How the different parts of a system are interconnected, and how those links can often operate in surprising and unexpected ways;
  • Feedback Loops – The idea that links can form feedback loops –some parts of the system feed into other parts which feed back again, and so on, and how those loops can sometimes get out of hand;
  • Tipping Points – How a system can reach a threshold and then suddenly and unexpectedly undergo a rapid transformation into something that looks and behaves very differently;
  • Resilience – How some systems can absorb shocks and retain their functioning, while others can suddenly collapse or transform – what is it that makes a system fragile or robust, and what does it mean to be resilient?
  • Stakeholders – That a complex system involves different stakeholders who want and value different things and those different priorities need to be kept in balance to keep the system flourishing.
  • Trade-offs – Managing a system is all about trade-offs and compromises –squeezing the most out of one part of the system will inevitably involve making sacrifices somewhere else;
  • Scales – How complex adaptive systems work on a range of space and time scales – and how dealing with a problem or understanding an issue is often a matter of viewing it at the right scale.

Over the last three decades, scientists in the field of Systems Science have gained a new understanding of these issues, creating a toolkit of vital concepts for understanding and grappling with real-world complexity.

Increasingly, Systems scientists are using these tools to help people – from farming communities to tourist resorts to government agencies – understand the systems they are part of, so that they can make better decisions.

One of the key tools Systems scientists use to help people understand the behaviour of complex systems are models.