A System Is a Model

Figure 1

We use system models to understand the natural world and to organize the environment to achieve societal goals. Systems, like all models are wrong, but some are useful. All models ultimately fail when they fail to reflect the underlying reality, no longer make sense, or do not achieve their purpose. 

The model of a system can be very basic such as Donella Meadow’s model published in “Thinking in Systems: A primer”—  a system is three kinds of things: elements, interconnections (inter-relationships and inter-dependencies) and function (nature) and purpose (human systems). This model is high level and conceptual. She uses the model to define points of leverage useful in managing systems. 

From Donella Meadows places to intervene in decreasing order of effectiveness

  1. The power to transcend paradigms
  2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.
  3. The purpose or goals of the system.
  4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
  5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
  6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
  7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.
  8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
  9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
  10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).
  11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
  12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).

This list gives a blue print for how we might design a better system or better manage a system we have. However, to do that we need a way of analyzing and understanding how a system works and what the nature of its environment is.

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