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Donella Meadows on systems thinking: elements, interconnections, purposes

You can understand the relative importance of a system’s elements, interconnections, and purposes by imagining them changed one by one.

Changing elements usually has the least effect on the system. If you change all the players on a football team, it is still recognizably a football team. (It may play much better or much worse—particular elements in a system can indeed be important.) A tree changes its cells constantly, its leaves every year or so, but it is still essentially the same tree. Your body replaces most of its cells every few weeks, but it goes on being your body. The university has a constant flow of students and a slower flow of professors and administrators, but it is still a university. In fact it is still the same university, distinct in subtle ways from others, just as General Motors and the U.S. Congress somehow maintain their identities even though all their members change. A system generally goes on being itself, changing only slowly if at all, even with complete substitutions of its elements—as long as its interconnections and purposes remain intact.

If the interconnections change, the system may be greatly altered. It may even become unrecognizable, even though the same players are on the team. Change the rules from those of football to those of basketball, and you’ve got, as they say, a whole new ball game. If you change the interconnections in the tree—say that instead of taking in carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen, it does the reverse—it would no longer be a tree. (It would be an animal.) If in a university the students graded the professors, or if arguments were won by force instead of reason, the place would need a different name. It might be an interesting organization, but it would not be a university. Changing interconnections in a system can change it dramatically.

The least obvious part of the system, its function or purpose, is often the most crucial determinant of the system’s behavior.

Changes in function or purpose also can be drastic. What if you keep the players and the rules but change the purpose—from winning to losing, for example? What if the function of a tree were not to survive and reproduce but to capture all the nutrients in the soil and grow to unlimited size? People have imagined many purposes for a university besides disseminating knowledge—making money, indoctrinating people, winning football games. A change in purpose changes a system profoundly, even if every element and interconnection remains the same.

Donella Meadows – Thinking in Systems: A Primer [amazon]

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