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Extract from Open University Poster _A city in the making_
A city in the making


A system is here defined to be

  1. an assembly of components, connected together in an organised way, where

  2. the components are affected by being in the system and the behaviour of the system is changed if they leave it

  3. the organised assembly of components does something, and

  4. the assembly has been identifed as being of particular interest1.

Here we focus on the first two of these. The second two are developed further in our sister course Systems Thinking and Complexity.

Thus a system is composed of a set of at least two elements and at least one relation that holds between them. Each of a system’s elements is connected to every other element, directly or indirectly. As the poster above illustrates2, cities are systems with many elements, many relationships, and many subsystems.

Russell Ackoff, an important early systems thinker, gave great insights into social and economic systems of systems.2 Ackoff argued that many management interventions failed because they attempted to improve the whole by improving the parts in isolation.


1 Jeffrey Johnson, Joyce Fortune and Jane Bromley, Systems, Networks, and Policy, in Non-Equilirbrium Social Science, Johnson et al (eds), Springer, 2017, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-42424-8_8

2 A City in the Making. Poster available from the Open University. The Open University, 2017.

3 Russel L. Ackoff, ‘Towards a system of system concepts’, Management Science, Vol 17, No. 11, July 1971.

Meadow, D. H., 2008, Thinking in systems, Chelsea Green Publishing (Vermont).

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This article is from the free online course:

Global Systems Science and Policy: an Introduction

UNESCO UNITWIN Complex Systems Digital Campus

Course highlights Get a taste of this course before you join:

  • Policy Makers including presidents, directors of NGOs, and citizens
    Policy makers

    In Global Systems Science this article defines policy makers are defined to be politicians, their officers, citizens and other stakeholders.

  • Prediction and the policy dilemma
    Prediction and the policy dilemma

    The Policy Dilemma involves policy makers trying to predict if their policies will work. This article explains why prediction is so hard.

  • Policy design
    Policy design

    In this video Jeffrey Johnson explains that policy, like design, is a coevolution between problem and solution involving compromise and satisficing.

  • Conclusion to the course
    Conclusion to the course

    This article concludes the Global System Science and Policy course by noting that Complex Systems Science is young and cannot solve all problems.