What we can learn from the history of Systems Thinking

This article is the first in our series, where we will explore Systems Thinking through origins and history, with a vision to create our own set of tools. We hope this series will be useful for everybody — particularly to those who are involved in problem solving or designing for the future, and want to gain a macro-view on their subject areas.

The beginning

In the beginning of the 20th century, there was an emerging trend where experts in various fields, such as Biology, Mathematics and Computer Science, began to ‘think in systems’.

Source: Complexity Map, Brian Castellani, via Theory Culture Society https://www.theoryculturesociety.org/brian-castellani-on-the-complexity-sciences/)

Some say that it appeared shortly before World War II as engineers needed to solve complex communications and control problems — which eventually became new disciplines in their own right.

General Systems Theory

Others say that Ludwig von Bertalanffy was one of the first to conceptualise the term Systems Theory through his ‘Organismic Biology’ theory, as early as in the 1920s. He was a Biologist from Austria, who came to a realisation that you cannot explain biological phenomenon in parts, without thinking about how interactions of different parts influence the behaviour as a whole.

“We believe that the attempts to find a foundation for theoretical biology point at a fundamental change in the world picture. This view, considered as a method of investigation, we shall call “organismic biology” and, as an attempt at an explanation, “the system theory of an organism.” — Ludwig von Bartalanffy

His thoughts became more widely known through his later English-translated books, such as General Systems Theorypublished in 1968.

System Dynamics

By the 1960s, Systems Theory was widely applied to many other fields, including Sociology, Management, Psychology, and Law.

Jay W Forrester developed System Dynamics Theory at MIT. He created computer models that calculated how dynamic systems behaved to predict industrial business cycles.

When Forrester moved to the Sloan School of Management, he began applying his expertise of complex systems to Management, exploring how to make organisations more effective. He applied his theories and computer models to solving real world business challenges through working with companies such as General Electric and IBM.

Jay W Forrester, in front of Whirlwind in the MIT Digital Computer Lab, is interviewed by Boston’s Channel 7 in 1957. Via MIT Technology Review

Forrester did not only work with organisations, but also with cities; he explored urban systems to “identify and describe the systemic structure responsible for the dynamics of urban development and decay” in his book, Urban Dynamics (1969). Forrester simulated a city’s growth through multiple factors such as population, industry, housing and unemployment rate.

Forrester’s book revealed many surprising results; one of them being how well-intended policies, such as financial aid can actually be detrimental to the city’s growth in a long-term. His theory and computer model showed that the dynamic system of a city cannot be understood through a linear mindset because it is counterintuitive, and therefore many policies that was set in place through this linear mindset did not create the outcomes policymakers anticipated in a long-term.

System dynamics for the environment

Being concerned about the future of the world, in 1971, Jay W Forrester wrote a book, World Dynamics, detailing complex interactions between the world economy, population, environment and natural resources. Jay W Forrester developed computer simulations to calculate the relationships between these natural and man-made systems to forecast potential futures.

His student, Donella Meadows continued to explore systems theory in Ecology, through her book, Limits to Growth (1972). In this book she used dynamic systems modelling to describe the relationship between human activity and the environment.

This book began the debate on the effect of exponential economic and population growth on natural resources in the 1970s, when the world was in economic upheaval, and was pivoting towards a new change. It helped to spark important conversations around sustainable growth.


Another branch tightly related to systems theory is cybernetics. Gaining its popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, cybernetics is a study of control systems and information flow. In cybernetics everything, whether it is a human or a computer, is seen as a system automatically self-regulated by feedback. Cybernetic principles found its applications in Computer Science (particularly AI and Robotics), Biology, Sociology, Behavioural Psychology, and Mathematics.

British cybernetics theorist, Stafford Beer, pioneered the use of cybernetics in management. Beer’s books, Brain of the Firm (1972) and Decision & Control (1966), are still considered to be key business and management texts. In the Brain of the Firm, Beer describes a concept entitled, Viable System Model — which is an autonomous system that is able to adapt to constantly changing environment.

The Chilean Socialist government became aware of Beer’s research, and in 1970, he was invited by Salvador Allende, the president of Chile at that time, to lead a highly ambitious, political and technological project called ‘Cybercyn’. The goal of the project was to control the Chilean economy in real-time. A real-time feedback system was built to receive information from factories that were connected directly to the Cybercyn control room through an early version of the internet. Based on received information and factory performance indicators, computer software was able to do statistical analysis and to automatically produce an early warning if the performance fell below the set standard. Aided by computers, the Cybercyn team would then analyse the factory’s performance and act upon it in real-time.

Cybersyn control room. (Image source: from the article ‘Allende’s socialist internet’ via Red Pepper, https://www.redpepper.org.uk/allendes-socialist-internet/

The Cybercyn team mapped the interdependencies between key components of the economic processes, starting with the individual worker and scaling up all the way to the whole nation. The system was meant to encourage the autonomy at every level, empower workers, and reduce bureaucracy.

Image source: via Metaphorum http://metaphorum.org/cybersyn

Cybersyn was, in a way, a political experiment, and was ended immediately when Salvador Allende was assassinated and Augusto Pinochet took power in 1973.

Conclusion & Next articles

In this article we briefly touched upon the history of systems thinking from systems theory in Biology to cybernetics in political experiments. We aimed to illustrate how different disciplines adopted systems theory principles and methods to improve and innovate their own field of study; systems thinking had proven its usefulness and value to a diverse range of disciplines.

Since Forrester’s time, managing complex organisations has attracted attention particularly from the business world; the vision of systems thinking has matched with business leaders’ wishes to effectively manage organisations through understanding interactions between various components on the overall organisational performance. Therefore, it may be no surprise that systems thinking that we hear about today have been adopted by those involved in strategy and organisational change management. Of course, systems thinking is not exclusive to business management — it is common for economists to use systems modeling to analyse the potential economic effect of government policies, for instance.

Through our own experience of working in interdisciplinary environments we realised the need for a set of systems thinking tools and methods that would be useful for everyone and at different stages of projects.

In the next article, we will present existing tools for systems thinking, from mapping, question exercise to modelling and simulations; we will also begin to explore a new set of tools and methods for the future, leading onto our third article.

This series of articles on systems thinking is written by Anastasia Vikhornova and Ruko Kuga.

Systems Thinking for Non-systems Thinkers

A series of articles on systems thinking, from origins, applications to new tools.

Anastasia Vikhornova

Written by

Designer Researcher ~ Technology ~ Futures~

Systems Thinking for Non-systems Thinkers

A series of articles on systems thinking, from origins, applications to new tools.

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