What is a System?

According to Merriam-Webster, a system is “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole.” At a more basic level, this means that a system is a conglomeration of relationships between different components that work with or influence each other. This definition, however, limits the scope of a system’s characteristics and capabilities. In Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows elucidates that a system is more than simply a sum of its parts. It is an “interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something” (11).

What does this mean for us as humans?

(U.S. air traffic as a system)

One thing it reveals is that our world is not as small as it seems. We structure many systems into manageable models in order to have a sense of understanding and control, but history has shown that keeping with only this mode of thought has lead to disastrous results. Where we believe that some actions are inconsequential in the larger system of life there is in fact a multitude of outflows, expenditures, and feedbacks.

For instance, in the case of the Roman Empire, constant military expansion was believed to be one of the only major solutions to the ills of the state. The benefits of conquering new lands and peoples helped to relieve some stresses. This process also continuously fed into itself and eventually helped point to the emergence of new cosmopolitan political, cultural, and religious systems in the Mediterranean and beyond. However, a succession of incompetent emperors, a corrupt political system, an efficient but not resilient military, and other factors led the system to develop a behavior which could not be easily controlled thus leading to the decay of Rome.

(Rome, and any city for that matter, both ancient and modern, are systems)

What this example illustrates are some of Meadows’ definitions of a system. It also reveals the necessity for a certain degree of sensitivity in all the things we do because of their implications. An average individual may never have to face the daunting tasks of a Roman emperor, but we all play a part in the larger machinations of the universe and should thus at least try to think about the world in new ways. Systems should not be seen as too daunting to understand. They should rather be seen as a source humility, that we are not demi-gods but are part of the larger systems of the world.



2 thoughts on “What is a System?

  1. mercedfigueroa says:

    Do you think that if an item within a group is removed but the group continues to function normally, the group is still considered a system?

    • If with the removal of said item within the group does not cause any shifts in the remaining group, then it is likely that the item removed was not actually interconnected to any part of the system, yes?

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