Systems Science

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Impression of systems thinking about society
Impression of systems thinking about society

Systems Science, also referred to as Systems Research,[1] or, simply, Systems,[2] is an interdisciplinary field concerned with understanding systems—from simple to complex—in naturesocietycognitionengineeringtechnology and science itself. The field is diverse, spanning the formal, natural, social, and applied sciences.

To systems scientists, the world can be understood as a system of systems.[3] The field aims to develop interdisciplinary foundations that are applicable in a variety of areas, such as psychology, biology, medicine, communication, business management, technology, computer science, engineering, and social sciences.[4]
Systems science covers formal sciences such as complex systemscyberneticsdynamical systems theoryinformation theorylinguistics or systems theory. It has applications in the field of the natural and social sciences and engineering, such as control theorysystems designoperations research, social systems theory, systems biologysystem dynamicshuman factorssystems ecologycomputer sciencesystems engineering and systems psychology.[5] Themes commonly stressed in system science are (a) holistic view, (b) interaction between a system and its embedding environment, and (c) complex (often subtle) trajectories of dynamic behavior that sometimes are stable (and thus reinforcing), while at various ‘boundary conditions‘ can become wildly unstable (and thus destructive). Concerns about Earth-scale biosphere/geosphere dynamics is an example of the nature of problems to which systems science seeks to contribute meaningful insights.


Associated fields

Systems notes of Henk Bikker, TU Delft, 1991
Systems notes of Henk Bikker, TU Delft, 1991

The systems sciences are a broad array of fields. One way of conceiving of these is in three groups: fields that have developed systems ideas primarily through theory; those that have done so primarily through practical engagements with problem situations; and those that have applied systems ideas in the context of other disciplines.[6]

Theoretical fields

Chaos and dynamical systems


Control theory


Information theory

General systems theory

Hierarchy Theory

Practical fields

Critical systems heuristics

Critical systems thinking

Operations research and management science

Soft systems methodology

The soft systems methodology was developed in England by academics at the University of Lancaster Systems Department through a ten-year action research programme. The main contributor is Peter Checkland (born 18 December 1930, in Birmingham, UK), a British management scientist and emeritus professor of systems at Lancaster University.

Systems analysis

Systems analysis branch of systems science that analyzes systems, the interactions within those systems, or interaction with its environment,[7] often prior to their automation as computer models. Systems analysis is closely associated with the RAND corporation.

Systemic design

Systemic design integrates methodologies from systems thinking with advanced design practices to address complex, multi-stakeholder situations.

Systems dynamics

System dynamics is an approach to understanding the behavior of complex systems over time. It offers “simulation technique for modeling business and social systems”,[8] which deals with internal feedback loops and time delays that affect the behavior of the entire system. What makes using system dynamics different from other approaches to studying complex systems is the use of feedback loops and stocks and flows.

Systems engineering

Systems engineering (SE) is an interdisciplinary field of engineering, that focuses on the development and organization of complex systems. It is the “art and science of creating whole solutions to complex problems”,[9] for example: signal processing systems, control systems and communication system, or other forms of high-level modelling and design in specific fields of engineering.

Applications in other disciplines

Earth system science

Systems biology

Systems chemistry

Systems ecology

Systems psychology


Systems scientists

General systems scientists can be divided into different generations. The founders of the systems movement like Ludwig von BertalanffyKenneth BouldingRalph GerardJames Grier MillerGeorge J. Klir, and Anatol Rapoport were all born between 1900 and 1920. They came from different natural and social science disciplines and joined forces in the 1950s to establish the general systems theory paradigm. Along with the organization of their efforts a first generation of systems scientists rose.
Among them were other scientists like Ackoff, Ashby, Margaret Mead and Churchman, who popularized the systems concept in the 1950s and 1960s. These scientists inspired and educated a second generation with more notable scientists like Ervin Laszlo (1932) and Fritjof Capra (1939), who wrote about systems theory in the 1970s and 1980s. Others got acquainted and started studying these works in the 1980s and started writing about it since the 1990s. Debora Hammond can be seen as a typical representative of these third generation of general systems scientists.



The International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS) is an organisation for interdisciplinary collaboration and synthesis of systems sciences. The ISSS is unique among systems-oriented institutions in terms of the breadth of its scope, bringing together scholars and practitioners from academic, business, government, and non-profit organizations. Based on fifty years of tremendous interdisciplinary research from the scientific study of complex systems to interactive approaches in management and community development. This society was initially conceived in 1954 at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences by Ludwig von BertalanffyKenneth BouldingRalph Gerard, and Anatol Rapoport.
In the field of systems science the International Federation for Systems Research (IFSR) is an international federation for global and local societies in the field of systems science. This federation is a non-profit, scientific and educational agency founded in 1981, and constituted of some thirty member organizations from various countries. The overall purpose of this Federation is to advance cybernetic and systems research and systems applications and to serve the international systems community.
The best known research institute in the field is the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) located in Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States, dedicated to the study of complex systems. This institute was founded in 1984 by George CowanDavid PinesStirling ColgateMurray Gell-MannNick Metropolis, Herb Anderson, Peter A. Carruthers, and Richard Slansky. All but Pines and Gell-Mann were scientists with Los Alamos National Laboratory. SFI’s original mission was to disseminate the notion of a separate interdisciplinary research area, complexity theory referred to at SFI as complexity science. Recently, IIT Jodhpur in Rajasthan, India started inculcating system science and engineering to its students through Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate programs. This makes it the first institution to offer system science education to students in India.