what is systems theory?
We think that the following famous statements express the essence of systems theory:
- “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 from their interaction. For example, the car drives if its parts interact. None of the parts can drive by itself. Or new ideas can emerge from people sharing their ideas with each other.
- “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. I 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 problems that emerge from the co-production of interacting systems require different thinking than that involved in producing it. For example, the problem of poverty (or war, disease or unhappiness) cannot be solved with the thinking that produced it. One has to dissolve the problem by creating wealth (or peace, health or happiness) which requires different thinking.
Systems theory deals with complexity in all areas of life. It aims to identify the organising principles of all systems and acts as a transdisciplinary science that can complement and extend all scientific disciplines.
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 and how everything in the universe is connected to everything else – directly or indirectly.
In application it gives rise to methods, tools, frameworks and guidelines to inquire into systems behaviour, analyse problems, (re)design systems and their interaction as well as to look for solutions to problems that arise within and between systems.
The field of systems theory is not a coherent body of knowledge. It is a collection of theoretical concepts, principles, models and approaches by various systems thinkers that are referred to as General Systems Theory and consists of a variety of approaches (e.g. systems dynamics, ideal system redesign). It overlaps with other disciplines, such as cybernetics, operations research, ecological thinking, complexity theory, chaos theory and others. They share theoretical concepts and approaches, but also differ in emphasis and application.
Biomatrix Systems Theory is a meta-systems theory. Thanks to its unique theoretical insights, it contextualizes the key concepts of the most important systems thinkers and integrates them into one coherent theoretical framework.
It also adds a graphic dimension to systems theory.
who uses systems theory?
Systems theory is used in every scientific discipline (e.g. science, biology, psychology, ecology, medicine, technology management, public policy design, business management, etc.) The Biomatrix Group, which co-developed Biomatrix Systems Theory, spans some of these disciplines.
Even if the basic systemic concepts (e.g. emergence, co-production, feedback / impact, etc.) are the same across these disciplines, some of them have also 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 the cooperation of independent systems (i.e. stakeholders) from different disciplines, as well as new – systemic – models of societal governance.
biomatrix systems theory versus general systems theory
Biomatrix Systems Theory integrates the key concepts of other systems thinkers (typically referred to as General Systems Theory) with its unique conceptual contributions into a coherent meta-systems theory. This integration is synergistic. To paraphrase a famous systems dictum, Biomatrix Systems Theory is greater than the sum of the parts derived from the various other systems approaches.
The core concepts of Biomatrix Systems Theory originated 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. It refers to the whole web of life or the web of all interacting systems on earth.
The figure above gives an example of the difference in emphasis between a typical approach representing General Systems Theory and Biomatrix Systems Theory:
- General Systems Theory tends to look at a system and its interacting 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 Systems Theoryemphasises the
- linking up of activity systems throughout the biomatrix (web of life) as supply chains
- emergence of entity systems from the interaction of activity systems.
The theory also distinguishes between a web perspective of interacting activity and entity systems and a field perspective of interacting organising information fields that in-form (i.e. put form into or manifest) all systems within the biomatrix.
These distinctions give rise to different methodologies for system analysis, problem solving and system (re)design.
Biomatrix Systems Theory does not replace the thinking evolved through General Systems Theory. Rather, it extends, contextualises and clarifies it.
unique contributions of biomatrix systems theory
The contributions of Biomatrix Systems Theory to the field of general systems theory and its related disciplines are threefold: new concepts, integrating existing concepts into a larger theory and depicting the theory graphically.
Biomatrix Systems Theory has contributed the following theoretical concepts:
- distinction between activity and entity systems
- three-fold organisation of entity systems
- interaction and co-production of entity systems and activity systems
- entity system as emerging middle from co-production of the outer and inner environment and the self
- co-evolution across three levels
- three sub-webs of the biomatrix
- the concept of substance as an interacting mei field
- the continuity of mei (substance) through tapping
- physical and conceptual reality of a system
- seven forces of system organization
- clockwise and counterclockwise change within a system
- generic systems dynamics of the biomatrix
- purposeful nature of systems
- dual perspectives within Biomatrix Systems Theory
- holographic / fractal nature of systems organisation
- generic frameworks for and approaches to problem analysis and problem (dis)solving derived from key concepts of the theory
Probably the most important contribution of Biomatrix Systems 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.
For the full list of references on systems theory please visit list of references.
The whole of Biomatrix Systems Theory can be depicted and illustrated through a combination of the following few symbols that are the elements of its graphic alphabet.
It allows the visualization of the theory and we believe that this makes a shift to systems thinking easier.
application of biomatrix systems theory
Like other systems theories, Biomatrix Systems Theory is a trans-disciplinary theory. It therefore lends itself as a framework for research in different disciplines. More specifically, it is a useful framework for exploring the context and interaction of the issue under research within the biomatrix (the web of life) as a whole. It is also likely that the generic organising principles of the theory will refocus the research. The list of scientific articles by the Biomatrix Group (whose members represent different scientific disciplines) is an indication of the variety of applications.
BiomatrixWeb, an organisation founded by Dr. Elisabeth Dostal, a member of the Biomatrix Group, offers an online course on Biomatrix Systems Theory with a special focus on application to management and problem (dis)solving. Based on Biomatrix systems principles and her experience as a futurist and management consultant, she also developed an online programme for managing change in an organisation (i.e. transforming it into a systemic learning organisations wired for ongoing change) and society (i.e. creating systemic public policy analysis and design, public private partnership development and stakeholder governance to dissolve complex societal problems and create stable and cooperative governance).