The Systems View

Applying whole-systems thinking.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”   

– John Muir, naturalist and wilderness advocate


Designs, organizations, and biology are all composed of systems. Systems, in turn, are composed of interacting parts that, together, create a unique behavior or function.

Your body is a storehouse of systems. Listen to your heart, feel the pulse of blood in your veins, sense the electricity in your synapses as you observe the world. Each of these systems also contains smaller sub-systems, and all are connected together to form a whole—your body. In the same way, designs contain smaller systems and are also elements in larger systems.

Since the world  is full of complex systems, systems methodology can be a very effective means to help understand a design challenge at a deeper level. Systems methodology allows a designer to explore a network, structure, or process of interest, understand its components and the relationship between components, and comprehend how that system connects to the world.

For a biomimetic designer, being knowledgeable about and aware of system interconnections can help you optimize design outcomes while considering Earth’s operating systems. Use a systems view to tie a design to nature’s cycles and improve a solution’s effectiveness by creating a better fit with its environment.

What is a system?

“A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something (function or purpose).”

–Donella Meadows, systems analyst


How can a designer identify and use a systems view? The first step is to understand systems and their properties.

As Buckminster Fuller famously observed, a system is more than the sum of its parts. Rather, the parts of a system accomplish something greater together. The function or purpose of a system becomes apparent when the system is placed in the context of its larger system, or supersystem. Every system has one or more boundaries and consists of sub-systems (or modules) that have relations to one another and are organized as a structure. These sub-systems or modules are found across multiple system types and levels.

Various doors

For example, a door is a system found in a building, and a boundary opening between inside and outside. The function of the door is to allow some things to enter and exit the building, while keeping other things from crossing the boundary. A door typically consists of two sub-systems—a closure, and a means to control that closure, each of which can take diverse forms. The door might be wood and have hinges. Or it might be a curtain and have a catch to hold it aside. Or it might be the extended opening to an igloo.

In all cases the door is composed of sub-systems like those above, and in turn the door system is embedded in higher-level systems (a building and wall). At a systems level, the door is similar to windows or electrical wires, which also bridge the boundary. Perceiving the door (or boundary opening) can lead to an exploration of the surrounding systems and system components.

Schematic representation of transmembrane proteins: 1.) a single transmembrane α-helix (bitopic membrane protein) 2.) a polytopic transmembrane α-helical protein 3.) a polytopic transmembrane β-sheet protein. The membrane is represented in yellow.

In biology,  a transmembrane protein in a cell performs a function analogous to the door. It allows certain molecules or signals into the cell, and passes other molecules and signals out to the external system. The external system might be a mass of adjacent cells or a fluid (in the case of a blood cell). There are other structures in the cell boundary or cell wall at the same system level as the transmembrane protein (just as there are windows at the same system level as a door), and the protein is a sub-system of the cell wall and of the cell itself.

Identifying systems

A system can be identified based on its boundary(ies) and connections to the universe, by its behavior or function, and by its elements. Observing many similar elements (patterns or forms) coupled together can indicate a system is present.

When we notice an element or feature in design or in nature, what we perceive may be a system or a component of the system. Every system may be separated into components by observing closely, and every system is contained in multiple higher-level systems.

 

The edge (boundary) of a pond helps identify the pond as a system. A connection between the pond and a water source is a link to higher level systems. A change in appearance or water level in the pond over time is a behavior that indicates a system is present.

A pinecone is a system as well as a component in the larger system of a tree and its reproductive strategy. It is also composed of lower level sub-systems. In the case of a female pinecone, the lower subsystems include woody bracts and seeds.

You can use the following techniques to identify systems and system levels:

  • Explore the environment around the system – what larger systems contain this system as an element?
  • Identify levels inside the system – look for smaller and faster parts.
  • Investigate the connections of the system or component to other elements.
  • If you change the size or speed of one system element, how does it affect other elements and the system itself?
  • Observe other systems at the same level – look “across” for similarities and map these back to the system.

Imagine a branch is blowing in the wind. Looking for larger entities, we can see the trunk and the tree. We also are aware of the air and the sun. Looking at finer detail, we see the leaves on the tree. These are attached to the branch with a stem, and this stem seems similar to the branch. If we look closer, we see fine detail in the leaf—a branching pattern similar to the one of the tree itself. This brief investigation has shown us a pattern (branching) that is common across several levels of scale. We also saw that the motion of the branch is the result of a combination of the external environment (wind) and the structure of the branches and leaves.

Systems Explorer tool

Diagramming a system can help us better understand its components, context, and connections, whether for a design or for a system in nature. It can also help ensure that we have taken into account all of the techniques for finding other systems and systems levels, as noted earlier. Words, graphical elements, or images can all be used to represent components in the diagram.

Below is an example of the Systems Explorer tool, a template for illustrating the known and potential interconnections, resources, and sub and super-systems of a particular design or organism. This tool can also enhance interdisciplinary communication and partnerships when used with a team by ensuring that there is a shared understanding of the system.

Systems Explorer Worksheet

Download this resource for additional information about the tool and how to use it, including a blank version that you can use to diagram your own system(s).

This diagram is based on the systems operator tool (Mann 2002) and is called the Systems Explorer tool (McNamara, ZQ). The design situation or system element of interest is placed in the center of the matrix, with higher level systems above, lower level systems below, and adjacent systems to the left and the right.

Using the Systems Explorer

We recommend using the Systems Explorer diagram to explore the area of interest:

  • Where is the situation located? (i.e., what are the surrounding systems above, below, and adjacent to the design or organism of interest?).
  • What is the goal for design or understanding? (Mann 2002).
  • What is available? Resources can be found in structure, process, system, matter, energy, and information (Vincent 2006).

Creating such a diagram incorporates perception, reflection, and analysis of actual and potential system connections. The output of the process is an increased understanding of the overall system and design. The diagram can be used to explore multiple design alternatives and can illustrate how a design is connected to its environment.

Example:

The center element in a biological system exploration might be the pinecone we discussed earlier. This figure shows that lower levels and smaller parts of the cone include bracts and seeds, while parallel systems include the tree’s needles and bark.

“Zooming out” and re-centering on the conifer that produces the cone as the system of interest, we see that larger systems include things such as the tree, air, water, squirrels, and birds. The arrows in the diagram indicate connections  where energy, material, and information moves between the items. Here we see that there is a connection between the pinecone and squirrels, where seeds (material) are moving from the pinecone to the squirrel.

Boundary Opportunities

Designs and organisms “fit” into their environment by taking advantage of the forces and flows of material, information, and energy in that environment. These forces and flows are sensed and utilized at system boundaries. In the examples given above, there are boundaries at every edge in the diagram.

What are these edges, and how do we find them? Boundaries can occur inside a system (sub-systems within an individual entity), between the same kind of systems (parallel), between unrelated systems, and upwards to whole systems or ecosystems .

Each potential interconnection between system elements can be a resource for the design situation. A design solution may take advantage of the resources available at a boundary, and every system has multiple boundaries (to higher, adjacent, or lower level systems). For example, transportation is moving a system at one level across a super-system at a higher level. There are cases (like transporting a seed) where this is needed. Resources needed to move a seed could be wind or water (super-systems), or birds (adjacent systems). It is also possible that a perceived need for transportation could be solved by communication. In that case, an examination of shared system boundaries and resources could lead to a solution via messaging, or by sharing resources between systems.

Some examples involve boundaries:

Organisms, Functions, and Systems

The discussion so far has focused primarily on the environment of the design and finding connections between the perceived situation and higher and lower levels of system. The same technique can be used from the biological perspective to enable a deeper understanding of a function and how it fits into its environment (Wiltgen et al. 2011).

Biomimicry can be done at the form, process, or systems level. If a match is made between a biological strategy and a design objective at the level of form (structure), it can be a static or fixed pattern (shape or surface), and might not consider the larger context in either biology or design. Velcro is a good example of this—the design solution mimics a biological shape but nothing more (e.g., material or how it’s made). Finding a match based on process (behavior over time) or system (interconnection of components) is more likely to consider the systems context in both biology and design (McHarg 1995). In all cases, it is advantageous for a designer or scientist to use a tool for exploring downwards, upwards, sideways, and within to determine system interconnections.

Identifying Design Leverage Points

Download this document for more tips on how to use systems thinking and the Systems Explorer to identify design opportunities.

This is the essence of systems work: to perceive both the whole and the parts of the subject and the relationships that create the end product or process. Design and analysis are incomplete if they are performed at just one level or perspective. Consider the boundaries and resources in your design solution. Then step back, and describe how the flows of energy, material and information have changed as a result of your solution.

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