Alberta CoLab was disbanded in March 2020. This page exists as a historical record.
Systems thinking is an approach that focuses on how different things interact to form a whole, as well as how the whole links with the wider context.
For example, a systemic view of the human body would attend to the unique arrangement and interactions among organs, tissues, cells, and other parts in the context of the external environment.
This style of thinking is in contrast with reductionism, which seeks to understand how something works by breaking it down to its components and looking at them in isolation from each other. Systemic thinking is also in contrast with systematic thinking.
Whereas systematic implies an orderly arrangement of components following a repeatable and predictable sequence of steps, systemic means pertaining to the whole system rather than any of its component parts. Neato!
The importance systems thinking places on relationships stems from the insight that a system is more than the sum of its component parts.
For example, an ecosystem is not just a collection of plants and animals in a particular place – it is also the specific ways that all these elements fit together: a system displays properties that differ from its components.
A car cannot be reduced to what its engine does or what its wheels look like, because none of those parts alone exhibit the car’s purpose: the emergent property of locomotion.