what is systems theory?

The terms systems theory and systems thinking describe a worldview derived from related and overlapping theories, models and concepts, such as general systems theory, systems dynamic modelling, ideal system design approaches, complexity theory, cybernetics, ecological thinking and (w)holistic thinking, amongst others.

The following famous statements express the essence of the systemic worldview:

  • “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” (Aristotle)
    This means that the whole has qualities that are not inherent in its parts, but emerge at the level of the whole from the interaction of its parts. For example, the car drives if its parts interact as intended. None of the parts can drive by itself. An organism is alive if all its vital parts function and interact appropriately.
  • “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” (Edward Lorenz)
    This statement describes the systemic truth that every system is connected with every other system and that systems co-produce each other. At the same time, it illustrates that in managing a system one has to make a choice as to which co-producers (or stakeholders) are important and which not. One would certainly not try to manage hurricanes by preventing butterflies flapping their wings.
  • “One cannot solve a problem at the level of thinking that gave rise to it.” (Albert Einstein)
    Systemic (or complex) problems emerge from the co-production of interacting systems. To (dis)solve them requires a change in the functioning and interaction of the co-producing systems. For example, the problem of poverty (or war, disease or unhappiness) cannot be solved by the co-producing systems using the same strategies that produced it. One has to dissolve the problem by creating wealth (or peace, health or happiness) which requires changes in the thinking and behaviour of the co-producing systems.

Systems theory deals with complexity in all areas of life. It aims to identify the organising principles of all systems and provide frameworks for facilitating inter- and trans-disciplinary research. It explains how systems are organised, behave and change; how change in one system impacts on other systems; how unexpected outcomes (emergence) arise from the interaction of systems; how each system is an emergence from the interaction of other systems across dimensions and levels and how everything in the universe is connected to everything else – directly or indirectly. It also explains how complex problems arise, why they defy conventional problem solving and how they can be (dis)solved.

In application it gives rise to methods, tools, frameworks and guidelines to inquire into systems behaviour, analyse problems, the (re)design of systems and their interaction to render them sustainable, as well as to (dis)solve complex problems.

who uses systems theory?

Systems theory is used in various scientific disciplines (e.g. science, biology, psychology, ecology, medicine, technology management, public policy design, business management, etc.) The Biomatrix Group, which co-developed biomatrix theory, represents several of these disciplines.

Although the basic systemic concepts (e.g. emergence, co-production, feedback / impact, etc.) are the same across these disciplines, they do not always use the same language. Also, different disciplines have evolved their own systemic methodologies for analyzing and (dis)solving their discipline specific problems. This gives rise to apparently conflicting concepts and approaches within general systems theory.

However, most of the perplexing problems we deal with in social life are interdisciplinary in nature. Examples are poverty, climate change, disease, wars and economic crises. These problems emerge from the interaction of systems across different disciplines (i.e. levels and dimensions of the biomatrix). To find and implement satisfying solutions to these problems requires an inter- disciplinary and trans-disciplinary cooperation within science, as well as the cooperation of relatively autonomous economic, cultural and political systems (i.e. stakeholders) and more (w)holistic models of societal governance.

biomatrix theory versus general systems theory

The field of systems and related thinking is not a coherent body of knowledge. It is a collection of theoretical concepts, principles, models and approaches that were contributed by thinkers from different scientific disciplines and therefore lacks a coherent terminology and approach.

Nevertheless, a core of related concepts has emerged that is referred to as general systems theory and more recently as complexity theory, which emphasizes the modeling of complex systems using computer science and mathematics.

Biomatrix theory incorporates the key concepts of the most important systems and related thinkers and integrates them into one coherent and internally consistent meta-systems theory. This integration is possible due to unique conceptual contributions by the theory. This integration is also synergistic. To paraphrase the famous systems dictum: biomatrix theory is greater than the sum of the parts derived from the various other systems and related approaches.

The unique conceptual contributions of biomatrix theory originate from the study of governance in biological systems. The term biomatrix is derived from the words bios (life) and matrix (mould, womb or pattern) and literally means pattern of life, or how life is organised.

(W)Holism as a body of knowledge precedes systems and complexity theory and has been equated with systems thinking. One of the reasons for this is that there are no clear definitions that could describe the difference between a system and a whole. Biomatrix theory provides the definitions for different types of wholes and a description of their functioning. It also distinguishes between a whole and a system and clarifies that all wholes are systems, but not all systems are wholes.

More specifically, entity systems (e.g. a planet, society, organisation, organism, cell and atom) and activity systems (i.e. a function of an entity system) are wholes. By comparison, systemic problems such as poverty or climate change are regarded as a system by most systems thinkers, because they behave systemically. (Ackhoff coined the term mess for them, because of their messy nature). However, such systems are not wholes. In fact, these types of system need to be dissolved by transforming the functioning and interaction of the wholes that co-produce them.

The spelling of (w)holism describes the following:

  • wholism (with w) denotes that a whole is complete in itself, while also consisting of different (generic types of) parts. The theory also outlines how the different types of wholes are organised and behave.
  • holism (with h) indicates that the whole displays the characteristic of a system (e.g. emergence, co-production, multi-dimensionality) and functions systemically (e.g. impacts on / adapts to other systems).

The following figure illustrates the difference between general systems and biomatrix theory:


The difference between the typical general systems approach and the biomatrix approach can be described as follows:

  • general systems and related theories tend to look at a system and its interacting (sub-)systems within a delineated system inquiry. A systems dynamics model typically depicts a system as a circle and the impacts between them as arrows, without distinction according to levels in the systems hierarchy.
  • biomatrix theory distinguishes between a web and field perspective:
    • The web perspective of the biomatrix describes the web of life (i.e. the web of all interacting systems on earth). It describes the web as consisting of knot-like entity systems and string-like activity systems which co-produce each other. More specifically, activity systems are supply chains that arise from and serve an entity system, while entity systems arise from the matrix-based interaction of their activity systems.
    • The field perspective describes the underlying information field of the biomatrix (i.e. its conceptual reality) that organizes or in-forms (i.e. puts form into, drives or inspires the manifestation of) all systems within the biomatrix. It consists of the interacting sub-fields that are focalized around entity systems. It is depicted by the large orange dot behind the web and the focalized small orange dots within each entity system)

These distinctions within biomatrix theory give rise to different methodologies for system analysis, problem solving and system (re)design.

Biomatrix theory does not replace the thinking evolved through general systems and related theories. Rather, it extends, contextualises and clarifies it.

unique contributions of biomatrix theory

The contributions of biomatrix theory to the field of general systems and related theories are threefold: new concepts, integrating existing concepts into a larger theory and depicting the theory graphically.

conceptual contributions

Biomatrix theory has contributed the following theoretical concepts:

synergistic contribution

Probably the most important contribution of biomatrix theory is the integration of the key concepts of other systems thinkers with its own into a coherent and internally consistent theory of how the biomatrix (the web of life) is organised as a coherent whole in time and space from both a web and field perspective.

The list of references shows a selection of the systems thinkers whose concepts (albeit with a unique biomatrix terminology) have been incorporated in biomatrix theory.

visual contribution

Biomatrix theory also adds a visual dimension to systems theory through its graphic alphabet.

By combining a few symbols that are the elements of the alphabet, each concept, their combination into bigger theoretical constructs and ultimately the theory as a whole can be depicted graphically.

We believe that this makes the understanding of complexity simple and a shift to systems thinking easier.

application of biomatrix theory

The interdisciplinary Biomatrix Group co-developed the theory as a transdisciplinary theory. It therefore lends itself as a framework for facilitating transdisciplinary interaction and research.

Each member applies it in their area of interest. The list of scientific articles on biomatrix theory is an indication of the variety of applications. Dr Elisabeth Dostal, a member of the group, has made it her mission to teach the theory in general, besides applying it to the (re)design of social systems (e.g. organizations and industries) and the dissolving of complex societal problems. She has established BiomatrixSchool for teaching Biomatrix theory and methodology and BiomatrixWeb for applying the theory and methodology to transform social systems in order to render them sustainable and beneficial to all stakeholders.

transdisciplinary interaction and research

Being a (w)holistic theory and a meta-systems theory, Biomatrix theory lends itself as a framework for exploring the biomatrix (i.e. web of life) and its various systems as coherent and interacting whole across different scientific disciplines.

It can prompt the exploration of the underlying assumptions of the various scientific disciplines, challenge, complement, contextualize and extend their knowledge and serve as a framework for inter- and trans-disciplinary research from a (w)holistic perspective. It is also likely that the generic organising principles of the theory will refocus the research.

By comparison, the current scientific method operates in a reductionist manner. It sets up research under conditions of ceteris paribus (i.e. keeping the environment static) and studies the parts of a system in a reductionist manner. This renders the system of observation as being a closed system and also excludes emerging phenomena that arise from the interaction of systems with other systems in their outer and inner environment. In terms of systems theory, this approach is reductionist and while yielding knowledge of the so-called inherent (or type 1) qualities of a system in increasing detail, it ignores emergent (or type 2) qualities which arise from interaction with the environment.  Thus the traditional scientific method renders only partial truths about a system, while (w)holistic research would reveal other truths about the system under investigation.

Thus, reductionism and (w)holism are complementary paradigms, whereby the latter needs to still be entrenched as an inherent aspect of scientific praxis. We propose that biomatrix theory could be useful in contributing to (w)holistic inter-disciplinary research from a trans-disciplinary and (w)holistic perspective.

teaching biomatrix theory

BiomatrixSchool offers various Courses on system design based on biomatrix theory and methodology.

The courses teach the key concepts of biomatrix theory and apply them to the redesign of the two generic types of systems within the biomatrix, namely to its string-like activity systems (e.g. functions, business processes, industries and public governance systems) and knot-like entity systems (e.g. organizations such as profit, non-profit, government, non-government and public / private partnership organizations). Learners are guided by templates to apply the learning to a case study system of their choice.

The aim of the courses is to enable leaders to facilitate the (w)holistic redesign economic, cultural and political systems in order to render them sustainable, developmental and beneficial to all their stakeholders.

The courses are certified by the Business School – Executive Development, of Stellenbosch University, South Africa

The school also offers a free MOOC on the theory and basic systemic methodology for problem solving and system design, as well as various lectures and speeches on various aspects of the theory and methodology via you tube. A course for school children on “solving the problems of the world” is in preparation.

transforming social systems based on biomatrix theory and methodology

BiomatrixWeb is a consulting organization which offers the Biomatrix transformation programmes. These programmes redesign and transform a social systems (e.g. organization, industry, or government department) for sustainability, learning, development and providing benefits to all stakeholders.

The programmes are education-driven. This means that select members of the client system participate in the relevant system design course. Through their assignments, a stakeholder survey and facilitated team work, they co-create the ideal design for their system and facilitate the implementation of the design. Thereby the system gets transformed.

The programme participants also become internal consultants and change managers who can support and sustain the changes associated with a transformation. They can also design and facilitate future changes without the need for external consultants.