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Systems thinking for a complex world

What is a system? This video gives examples and ends with a definition.
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What is a system? Systems are formed from sets of interacting parts. Every part effects, and is effected by, every other part. The behaviour of the system emerges from these interactions.
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Many systems have a purpose. They do something useful. The hospital system looks after unwell people. The train system transports people and goods. The farming system provides food. But sometimes systems go wrong. Systems thinking can help in preventing or mitigating failures. Systems have subsystems. But combining successful parts does not always create a successful whole. For example, in 1998, Daimler, manufacturer of Mercedes Benz vehicles merged with US vehicle maker Chrysler. But this wasn’t successful nine years later DaimlerChrysler sold a majority stake in Chrysler losing billions of dollars. One reason for this is that Daimler’s executives didn’t pay enough attention to the cultural differences between the companies.
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One of the challenging aspects of a system is knowing where the boundary is with its environment. Sometimes this depends on your point of view. For example, The Open University specialises in distance education, and teaches using the internet. Is the internet part of the Open University system? Or part of the environment? Systems thinking provides methods for deciding what is in a system, and what is in its environment. Very often this depends on the purpose of the system. Feedback is important in systems thinking, and a lack of it is often a cause of system failure. For example, citizens may feel alienated from their country’s political system because they feel their concerns are not feeding back into policy.
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Systems thinking gives the big picture. Just knowing its fundamental principles can help solve problems and avoid systemic failures. Systems thinking can help us design and manage systems more successfully. Even so, some systems are hard to predict and manage. For example, stock markets may suddenly change. And a flu epidemic may spread unpredictably. The science of complex systems helps to understand why this is and what can be done. This new science extends systems thinking by adding new theory, new computational methods, and new forms of data. On this course a system will be defined as
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This course will show how systems thinking can be used for designing and managing systems and avoiding or mitigating failure – no matter how simple or complex the system may be.
Systems are formed from sets of interacting parts where every part effects and is effected by every other part, and the behaviour of the system emerges from the interactions. On this course a system is defined as follows
  1. an assembly of components, connected together in an organised way
  2. the components are affected by being in the system and the behaviour of the systems is changed if they leave it
  3. the organised assembly of components does something
  4. the assembly has been identified as being of particular interest.
The last of these emphasises the use of systems thinking for designing and managing systems, avoiding or mitigating failure, and improving performance – no matter how simple or complex the system may be.
Many systems have a purpose – the organised assembly of components does something useful. The video gives the example of train system transporting people and goods, hospitals looking after unwell people, and farming providing food.
Sometimes systems go wrong because they have systemic weaknesses. This course will show how systems and complexity thinking can help diagnose, prevent or mitigate such failures. Sometimes systems could be improved to give better performance and outcomes, and systems thinking helps to identify those parts of the system or behaviours where improvements are possible.
What do you think? Give an example of a system you know In the comments below. What is its purpose? Does it work well?

Meet the team

The Course Team
Systems Thinking and Complexity and its sister course Global Systems Science are part of an international initiative to bring the best that science can offer into policy. These courses will evolve with the new science aiming at an objective and balanced overview.
You may wish to follow the members of the team so that you can easily see their comments. Click on their name, and then click the pink ‘Follow’ button at the bottom of their profile.
Jeff Johnson is the Lead Educator on this course. His interest in Global System Science comes from a desire to see research in systems thinking and complex systems science applied to real world problems. He is Professor of Complexity Science and Design at the UK Open University and Vice-President of the UNESCO UniTwin Complex Systems Digital Campus.
Joyce Fortune is an Educator on this course. Her interest is in systems and failure. She is Professor of Technology at the Open University.
Evelyn Panagakou is an Educator on this course. She is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Northeastern University in Boston USA and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Open University of UK. She is passionate about education.
Jorge Louçã is an Educator on this course. He is Professor of Computer Science at the ISCTE-IUL – Lisbon University Institute. His research interests concern modelling complex social systems through intensive data collection and analysis. He is a Board Member of the UNESCO UniTwin Complex Systems Digital Campus and chair of its Education Committee.

Tell us why you’re here

We would like to welcome you to the course and learn more about why you are here. Please add to the comments below answering the following questions:
  • What do you hope to get out of this course?
  • What policy problems can be addressed through Systems Thinking and Complexity?
If you haven’t done so already, please fill out our pre-course survey.
If this is your first FutureLearn course, you may find it helpful to browse the Using FutureLearn and Frequently Asked Questions pages before moving on.

Prove what you’ve learned with a certificate

If you want a record of your course, you can upgrade your course for a Certificate of Achievement when you are eligible.
The Certificate of Achievement is a great way to prove what you have learned on the course and is evidence of your Continuing Professional Development. This is a personalised certificate and transcript, detailing the syllabus and learning outcomes from the course. It comes as a printed certificate as well as a digital version which you can add to your LinkedIn profile. To qualify, you must have marked at least 90% of the steps in the course complete and achieved at least 70% on the test in Week 2.
Upgrading will also give you unlimited access to the course and access to tests. You can go at your own pace and return to the material whenever you like, with access to the course for as long as it exists on FutureLearn.

References

[1] Jim Mateja, How Chrysler marriage failed: Merged in 1998 in $36 billion deal, automaker sells for just $7.4 billion. Chicago Tribune, May 15, 2007
[2] BBC,Cerberus buys Chrysler majority: Carmaker DaimlerChrysler has said that it has completed a deal to sell a majority stake in its ailing US Chrysler division to private equity. BBC News, Friday, 3 August 2007
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Systems Thinking and Complexity

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