This guide presents an overview of the key principles of systems design. The guide should help you gain a basic understanding of key concepts in systems thinking and complexity theory and how these can be applied in the design of complex systems of all kind.
The systems approach is a holistic one, this means we seek to understand something primarily in the context of the whole that it is part of. Before we go about changing parts we seek to gain an understanding of the overall context in which the parts exist and how they are interrelated in affecting each other and the whole system. Systems design likewise starts with a holistic consideration of the system we are interested in designing.
Complex systems are fundamentally open systems. The Internet, a city, or social networks are all open in that anyone can join or leave and their boundary is permeable. This characteristic of complex systems changes fundamentally how we should go about designing for them as without boundary conditions we do not have the same kind of control that we may have when designing simpler systems. Without the capacity to directly impose order on the system we have to work with processes of self-organization and emergence.
At a low level of connectivity what defines an entity is simply its set of elements, but as the degree of connectivity is turned up it is the connections between the parts that comes to define the whole organization as a system. At a low level of connectivity and integration, the system’s parts define the relations and the whole, but given an integrated system with a dense network of connections, this is inverted as the parts come to be shaped by the connections and the whole. At this stage of complexity we have to switch to a relational design paradigm to start to look at and design networks of connections.
As we go from a system with a relatively low level of connectivity to one with a very high level of connectivity, the make-up and behavior of the system change fundamentally. In relatively isolated systems, our focus is on the components and their properties. Due to the high cost of interaction the system is typically bound into a centralized monolithic configuration to reduce the organization’s overall cost of transactions. But when we reduce the cost of interaction – as IT and other innovations have done – then connectivity increases and the system can become unbundled from this centralized configuration allowing for components to become distributed out and re-coordinated through a network.
Live Cycle Design
Complex systems are fundamentally dynamic, adaptive, and evolving systems. The net result of this is that the system can change and is not determined to follow a linear life-cycle from cradle to grave. It can learn, grow, and adapt in response to internal and external conditions in order to renew itself. If we want regenerative, resilient, and sustainable systems we have to design for systems to evolve over time.