Complexity... & Beyond Systems Thinking

The predominant ways of thinking in most contemporary societies are characterized by a desire to find simple cause and effect relationships that are easily predictable. Such a desire is almost primal in nature. Wouldn't it be nice to have a simple, nicely packaged world, with easy to understand relationships? However, our biological, ecological, and social worlds do not operate in such simple, linear ways. There are multiple causes and effects that are intertwined across diverse and seemingly separate situations and contexts. There are rarely single correct answers.

On the other hand, we can think in ways that elucidate the complexity and that allow us to begin to understand the complex sets of intricate relationships around us. The skills of such thinking allow one to analyze a variety of situations where multiple "systems" interact.

For instance, the classroom or workplace not only involves the specific location and people that are part of the particular situation, but also involves (a) the families and social contexts of the people in the setting; (b) the personal histories of experiences of each person in the setting; (c) the economic situation and stresses of the people and their families; (d) the diverse beliefs and cultural backgrounds of the people; (e) characteristics and dynamics of the local and regional communities; (f) the characteristics and dynamics of the school, business, or institution; and (g) a range of other local and global contexts and systems.


Another example is a simple mechanical system such as a bicycle. A simplistic systems analysis can examine the linear physical mechanisms that provide for the working of the bike, but this does little to provide an understanding of bicycles in the context of modern society. To do a systems analysis from the perspective I am suggesting we need to look at the following:

  • The mechanical systems as described in the previous paragraph.
  • The energy costs and resources needed for each component in the manufacture of the bicycle.
  • The labor contexts (social justice issues, pay equity, etc.) for the extraction of materials and manufacture of parts.
  • The energy and transportation costs for sending the bikes to sales outlets.
  • How often do parts have to be replaced? What are the energy, transportation, and resource costs for these replacements?
  • The markup prices, profits, etc. for each part of the chain of sales, including marketing and advertising.
  • The psychological, social, and cultural contexts of "owning" the bike. How much of and to what extent is one's identity associated with the type and style of bike?
  • What is the primary use? Is it for primary transportation, recreation, exercise, sport, etc? (Different cultures and societies tend to have very different trends in uses of bicycles.)

As you can see from this example, what may appear as a rather simple situation of owning a bike is much more complex. Almost everything we do involves the same degree of complexity, yet we rarely pay much attention to the cascading systems involved in what we do.

But, as suggested in the photo and by the word "system," there is a sense of mechanism, of a series of steps in sequence. In the recent work of Nora Bateson1 2, she takes aim at "systems thinking" and "systems research" for just these reasons. As humans living in a world permeated by mechanistic assumptions, we immediately think of systems in terms of these assumptions. We need to move beyond such views of systems thinking. In my descriptions of thinking about a bicycle, we are not thinking about mechanisms, but rather about meanings, interrelationships, and vast interconnecting patterns. Such thinking is moving beyond systems thinking.

1 Bateson, N. (2015). Living systems are learning systems. A paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, Berlin.
2 The paper that has resulted from the ISSS 2015 meeting: Bateson, N. (in preparation). Symmathesy: Proposing a new word that refers to living systems.

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