Systems Thinking

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.






Systems also have a boundary that distinguishes them from their external environment. Some systems exchange matter and energy with the environment (open systems), while others are isolated from their environment (closed systems).

Whereas closed systems all tend towards equilibrium, open systems are capable of growth, development, adaptation, and evolution.

Systems exist in a hierarchy of systems: a car is a part of larger systems (e.g., the automobile industry) and it has subsystems (e.g., the braking system).

Systemic thinking moves between different levels – the bigger picture and the more detailed picture, distinguishing systems at each level. It helps us zoom in and out.



Engaging with Different Perspectives

Not only does systemic thinking focus on the relations among things, but it also does so from different perspectives – different ways of observing and making sense of the world.

We humans often forget that our perspectives are always limited: they highlight some aspects of an issue, situation, or thing, while keeping other aspects in the dark.

For example, the prison system could be seen as source of jobs from an economic perspective, or a way to punish and potentially deter crimes from a social perspective.

Rather than locking people into one perspective, systemic thinking is about experimenting with different ways of seeing and understanding things.

When we remember that our perspectives are incomplete, it’s easier to have empathy for where other people are coming from.



We can use systems thinking to:

  • Unveil new ways of seeing things and new sets of actions to address a situation
  • Provide a framework through which everyone can contribute to the collective understanding of an issue
  • Understand as much as possible about something and its linkages to the wider context as well as other elements, before taking action that might create unintended consequences
  • Deal with ‘complex’ issues that, unlike ‘complicated’ ones, are characterized by a high degree of unpredictability and require constant adaptation due to reciprocal relationships between component parts (complicated issues can be successfully addressed through reductionist thinking)

To learn more about systems thinking, check out books by some of our favourite systems thinkers, like Rosalind Armson, Donella Meadows, and the duo of Robert Axelrod and Michael Cohen.