System Levels

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

Spring 2016

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


In a previous post, we introduced the idea of thinking about intractable conflict as a complex adaptive system. This post uses Kenneth Boulding's "Skeleton of Science" as a framework for thinking about how the nature of systems changes as one moves up the hierarchy from simple, to complicated, to complex systems.  We end by asking the big question, what would a true social ecosystem / complexity oriented conflict paradigm look like?


Discussion Questions

  • Is there anything we can do the push systems thinking further into the thinking and practice of conflict resolution and transformation?  How can we move beyond a level-three understanding of feedback loops to a level seven or eight-level understanding of social systems?
  • Are you aware of successful (or instructive) efforts to promote the more active involvement of a wider array of citizens in efforts to promote more constructive approaches to conflict (utilizing, however unintentionally) an ecosystem model of conflict response?
  • Add your thoughts in D14.

Full Transcript 

Frontiers MOOS Seminar
Home | Syllabus / Other Posts
This Seminar is part of the...

Find out more...

This is Guy Burgess. I want to follow up on an earlier distinction that I drew between complicated and complex adaptive systems. As I said before, Heidi and I are convinced that the key to moving beyond intractability and dealing with an awful lot of the world’s really difficult problems, is to start thinking about these conflict problems as complex adaptive systems, not merely simple or even complicated systems. But that requires doing a systems analysis of the conflict problem.

I thought the place to start with this discussion would be to go back to an old article that Kenneth Boulding wrote in 1956 called “The Skeleton of Science.” This was one of his most popular articles ever, which for all of the thousands of things that he wrote, is actually quite an accomplishment. This came out in the early days of general systems theory. In it, he outlined a hierarchy of systems where each level of systems becomes increasingly complex.

Boulding’s lowest level (the simplest system) was a static “framework” system. These are systems in which all of the parts exist in fixed and unchanging relationship to one another. The example he used to use was a chair, not a fancy chair like a recliner, but just a simple chair with a seat, a back, and four legs that don’t move. They always stay in the same relationship to one and other.

The next level of system was a dynamic system, in which a change in one thing would cause a change in another and another—producing a simple causal chain.   Dynamic systems are what he called “clockworks” –clock hands go around and around, where all the components of the system exist in a changing relationship with one another, but those changes are thoroughly predictable. They’re often repetitive.

The next level he introduced was the cybernetic system, where you introduce feedback. You can have a negative feedback loop like a thermostat in the room. If the room gets too hot, the thermostat turns off the furnace, and if it gets too cold, it turns it back on again. That keeps the temperature at a relatively stable level. An awful lot of the systems on our planet work like that—it is what allows the planet to remain hospitable to life.  Basic supply and demand systems in economics work like that.  If the supply of oil gets high, the price goes down.  If oil becomes scarce, the price goes up.  That’s negative feedback—it keeps the supply and the demand in balance.

There also positive feedback systems. You can understand that by simply thinking about rewiring a thermostat so that when things get hot, instead of turning off the furnace, it turns it on.  That would make a house get hotter and hotter still. If you then turn the furnace up more and more, that's obviously an explosive situation. That's the mistake, believe it or not, that the engineers made in their design of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. And that's why it was such a catastrophe. 

Despite their catastrophic nature, there are all sorts of positive feedback, explosive-loop systems in the natural and social systems of planet earth. Escalating conflict is an example.  Someone insults someone else who insults them back.  The response to the second insult results in a physical fight, which results in someone getting a gun…which results, possibly in someone getting killed.  That’s a positive feedback system.  Positive here doesn’t mean “good,” it just means more of something (like anger) creates more and more of that same thing, instead of dampening it down, as occurs in negative feedback systems.

At the next level is open-throughput systems. Boulding talked about things like rivers and flames, where you have a system that exists, but the flow of individuals or elements or materials or matter through the system is ongoing. At this level, you start to get the most primitive forms of life. Cells are organizations of atoms and molecules that process a continuing throughput of food and waste products. Open-throughput systems start out pretty simple, and get more and more complicated. Human organizations, too, exhibit system characteristics of open throughput systems when the individuals in the organization change over time, but the organization itself remains. The president of the U.S. changes every 4-8 years, yet the office of President remains the same. Though human systems are more complex than open-throughput systems, those kinds of relationships can be seen in human systems as well.

At the next level, Boulding introduces the biological world. The botanical system of plants and plant ecosystems are the beginning, and not all that long after that came zoological systems. Animals have the ability to sense their environment, make decisions, and move around. So, too, of course, do people. And all the plants and animals interacting create yet another level of systems—ecosystems. Ecosystem analysis is most often applied to biological systems and humans are generally seen as something different, something higher (or by some, more sinister). But humans are actually part of the natural ecosystem, and we have our own social ecosystems as well, which Boulding recognizes in his top two levels.  One is the level of human psychology. It reflects the ability of humans to learn to organize themselves through language into very large-scale social structures (the top-level system).

Now overlay on this hierarchy of systems, the distinction that we had before between complicated and complex systems.  The first three of Boulding’s levels: static, dynamic, and feedback systems are all complicated systems. This is the way the physical world works and it's also the way in which mechanical systems designed by humans work. Everything is predictable (at least until something breaks).

At the next level, you get throughput systems--botanical and zoological system--where you've gotten into complexity. Here you're talking about the organic metaphors of the biological world and biological evolution. Then at the top levels, you pick up human and social systems, and you add the additional level of societal evolution and societal complexity at the top level.

Now one of the problems that we run into when dealing with conflict, we’re really dealing with conflicts at the top level -- the human social level. But often the way we think is at the first level of static frameworks, or at most dynamics and simple feedback systems, mechanical systems. And the difference is enough that solutions developed based on complicated models don't work as well as we would like them to, because conflict isn’t a complicated system, it is a complex social system.

Now, it's also true that the nature of systems is cumulative. So even when you get to the level of human and social systems, a lot of the basic systems principles from lower levels--especially regarding dynamics and feedback loops – still operate at the social level. But higher level dynamics operate here too.

So a problem develops in terms of the way we think about social systems. We tend to think about conflict in static terms, using static frameworks. All too often, we just divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys” and assume that the relationships between those groupings are static, much like the legs and seat of a chair.  And once you've done that, everything is very, very simple. But it is not really very accurate, and it doesn't allow you to really navigate the complex social world in ways that allow you to solve complex problems.

So, in order to solve this, some people have looked up a level to dynamic systems. This is this notion that the social system consists of opportunities for causal chains. So if you just have the right strategy, you can strike the metaphorical billiard ball (or make one change to the social system) and everything will do just exactly what you want. This assumes that in particular situations, people will react in the same deterministic, predictable way every time. We have a lot of social structures that are organized in one way or another around this kind of framework. You certainly have the standard military chain of command which assumes that everyone does what they are ordered to do, just exactly in the way they were trained to do it, like a machine.  This expectation extends into nonmilitary types of large-scale organizations as well. But such expectations generally don’t work, because social systems aren’t complicated systems, they are complex systems that are many levels up Boulding’s hierarchy of complexity.

So then you have the notion that the key to solving a lot of big problems is what has come to be called “unity of effort.” Here you get gigantic institutions and organizations of institutions (such as “whole of government”-type responses) which expect every person in every organization to all act out a predetermined plan. When they do, it is assumed that everything will work out as intended, assuming, of course, that you got your strategy right.  But things don’t usually work like that because social systems aren’t just dynamic systems; they are several layers more complex.

If we had another level to this, we can build in feedback loops and that starts introducing another more sophisticated element of reality into our models. We have simple little feedback loops, like this cycle of violence, and there are more sophisticated versions of this with lots of feedback loops interacting. C. Wright Mills and much later Thomas Piketty both used a set of relatively simple models that explain the stability of the power elite.  You can see the tendency of wealth to become concentrated in the hands of the holders of capital by looking at the feedback loops described in these books. There lots of social issues that seem to behave this way.

Rob Ricigliano and a bunch of other folks working on complexity-related issues in conjunction with Peter Coleman and the Dynamical Systems Group and the Innovation Lab have been developing much more sophisticated models of systems thinking.  They developed some software for doing this with Kumu that gives you a sense of how all the feedback loops operate, where all the connections are, and how the overlay of feedback loops on top of feedback loops affects the system.

So even though this is still down at the level of feedback loops, it is starting to move toward the kind of thinking that is needed to understand the workings of social systems.  It is what we call “systems thinking” which is more sophisticated than a lot of the more simple framework or static kinds of ways in which people thought about conflict before. But it is still down at Boulding’s third level, and social systems operate at levels 7 and 8. So we still have a long way to go to really understand social systems at the level of complexity at which they truly operate.

One of the questions that we want to pose in conjunction with this series of online seminars is whether there is anything we can do the push the model still further.  How can we move beyond a level-three understanding of feedback loops to a level 7 or 8 understanding of social systems?

Heidi and I think we need a new, complexity-oriented, ecosystem-based paradigm that would be built on the foundation of all the earlier ideas, but would help us operate a little more effectively at the higher level of systems, the gigantic large-scale systems that operate at Boulding’s top levels.

Biological ecosystems have lots of independent actors, each acting independently, according to their own interpretation of system status and their own decision making criteria.  Each of their decisions results in an action which then effects much of the rest of the system, either directly or indirectly.  But no one controls the whole thing.  That is true in human systems as well.  One of the things we might want is systems of systems thinker (which is what Boulding’s Hierarchy of Systems really was).

But short of that, if we can get individuals in these large-scale social systems, certainly individuals in prominent roles, to start thinking in more systemic terms, we’re likely to be a lot better off than we are when decision makers think simply in terms of level one, statics or level two, dynamic models.

More broadly, what we need, really, is a way of supplementing all the other paradigms that are out there, with an ecosystem-oriented paradigm that is focused on finding ways of encouraging very large numbers of independent actors to pursue their own self-interest, but doing so in a way that allows the system to approach conflict in more constructive, enlightened ways. Simply getting a lot more people working on the conflict problem, instead of relying on a few experts or leaders or “saviors” to fix everything, is a start.

So this is what we’re going to focus on as we get through this series of seminars and hopefully we will start to put together discussions on how we can really do that. For now the question I'd like to pose is this:

  1. Are you aware of successful, or maybe not successful, but instructive, efforts to promote more active involvement of a much larger array of citizens to work systemically (even if they weren’t aware of what they were doing) to promote more constructive approaches to conflict?  

Referenced Resources

Photo Credits