INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY FOR THE SYSTEMS SCIENCES
BY CHARLES FRANCOIS
Editor: International Encyclopedia of Cybernetics and Systemics
AN INTRODUCTION TO GENERAL SYSTEMS
UNRESOLVED PROBLEMS Those which imply multiple and shifting interrelations and interactions between numerous elements - eventually at various levels of complexity. Examples: - The clinical problem in medicine - The economic changes as viewed from various viewpoints and levels (personal, business. national. global - - finance, production, productivity, employment, consumption, etc.) - Individual and social mental health - Ecological problems created by man: of different types, at different levels, from different angles (social, economic, technical, etc.) WHY ARE THESE PROBLEMS UNRESOLVED MESSES IN MANY CASES? Because no merely piecemeal approaches can lead to a good understanding of the structure and dynamics of the complex wholes. WHAT DO WE NEED A set of concepts and models which can be used to understand relationships and moreover, simultaneous, transient and shifting relationships. By their nature, such models and concepts are necessarily nonlinear. They should never be isolated from each other: they really must conform a conceptual network. Accordingly they must transcend disciplinarian work, but should at the same time integrate all specialized insights in an organized synthesis, i.e. modelize the synergies. MORE SPECIFICALLY We must collect all synergetic concepts and models. We must integrate them in multiple cross ways. We should construct sets of any number of them and use these specific tools to resolve or at least better manage unresolved complex problems.
INTRODUCTION TO GENERAL SYSTEMICS
Real world new unresolved problems Our Western culture is accustomed… and addicted… to success, and especially to technical triumphs. As an example, just two centuries ago, the quickest way to travel was still by horse and the most complicated organization related to transport - when existing at all - was a network of muddy or dusty earthen roads between widely scattered inns where the most hurried travelers could change horses and run along. As to sea travel, it was completely dependent on the whims of the winds. And air travel was an impossible dream.
Then, in less than 200 years, human ingenuity developed the railroads, the steam ships, the internal combustion engine and the automobile, the airplane and the space vehicle. Each of these innovations brought its own complex material structures, needed for its pratical use. Moreover, each in turn (and synergetically all together) generated new forms of material organizations and finally a new and much more complex economic and social life.
Much of all this was completely unforeseen and developed in haphazard ways, with unpredicted and surprising consequences, many of them positive… and many others resulting in intractable new problems. Technical triumphs are mostly derived from what we call “hard sciences”. Our scientists and technicians, by reducing difficult physical and chemical (and now biological) problems to simpler elements and processes, have been the artisans of these extraordinary changes. No physicist, or chemist, or engineer feels obliged to assume any responsibility for the new ecological, economic, social or ethical situations which derive from such work. The general attitude of these scientists (much valuable in their own field) is to absolve themselves of the questionable uses of their inventions by people in general: “My job is to construct good cars, not to make laws about their use, or to study their ecological or social consequences”.
Meanwhile, it is obvious that the massive economic development and social change resulting of this scientific and technical progress has deeply modified the ways individuals and nations relate among themselves and with their environment. In particular, it is clear that these phenomenally increased and shifting interrelations - and now interrelations inbetween interrelations - are a global result of the development of all means of communications.
It is however also obvious that we all are growingly staggered and feeling helpless, facing this new complexity challenges, as for example: - New massive pandemics, as f. ex. AIDS - Global and sudden financial upheavels - Problems of general management in megalopolises - New worldwide social ills: Massive unemployment, increasing mental illness, drugs, crime, terrorism - The general plundering of the planet (“Tragedy of the Commons”) - The growing resistance of pathogens and pests to chemicals - Man-made global climate change - Global and local poisening of our environment
Why are these problems unresolved messes?
The main feature of all these new situations is that they cannot be reduced to small separated components. An internal combustion engine is in itself an assembly of interrelated parts. But it can be stopped, taken apart and repaired. Most failures are specific of some of its parts and, by replacing the failing part and reassembling the whole in accordance with a corresponding blueprint, the unit can be made functional again. Note, however, that, when functioning, it cannot be taken apart and that we need specific gauge instruments to monitor its dynamic performances as a whole.
However, a similar systematic but piecemal approach is impossible for the complex entities evoked in the above examples. The main reason is that, in such entities, the parts can generally not be separated from the whole without damaging the part, and the whole itself, beyond repair. This is because the parts become different when integrated into the whole, losing and acquiring peculiar characteristics. Moreover, the interrelations between the parts are dynamic, which means that the whole cannot be stopped for such a repair. This is why anatomy is in need of corpses, while physiology and surgery make sense only for living beings.
As a result, our problem with complex situations is that we have no good understanding, nor models of complex and shifting global interrelations and processes. If we cut the whole into pieces, we suppress its functionality, and also its intelligibility. But, on the other hand, we still lack that good understanding of wholes as wholes, made of co-functional and co-evolving unseparable parts. This is our true challenge.
The need for new concepts and models
The unattended features of complex entities, that we will from now on call “systems”, and related issues, are thus the interconnections in space and the shifting interrelations in time among their elements. It should be observed that these types of relations are not merely proper to human societies. Among other complex systems we should consider, for example: - the societies of neurons in the brain - the animal societies, from amoeba to beehives, anthills, locusts swarms and fish schools - the ecosystems at different levels, from the local pond to the so-called “Gaia” - the man-planet system in the making New concepts and models should refer to the processes dynamics as well as to the structural aspects of systems, as more or less integrated wholes.
Moreover, both aspects cannot really be isolated because no structure could exist outside the time dimension and any process is necessarily related to structural permanence or transformation. This should never be forgotten.
On the other hand, when we speak of models and concepts, we obviously postulate the existence of a modeller who constructs concepts through her/his activity as observer depending on physiological, psychological and cultural constraints in this task of representation of outside (and even inside) reality. This also should never be forgotten.
Structural aspects have “anatomical” characteristics. Any human or animal group can be described as composed of parts. But we should always carefully remember that such description must be considered merely as a useful artefact. Let us remember that H2 and O, when we study H2O, are H2 and O, plus their chemical bonds, their relationships, within the water molecule.
As systems can exist only in time, processes are the other indispensable part of our description. Processes are the changing aspects of structures and relationships within an active system.
A very fundamental feature of most (if not all) systemic processes is their nonlinearity, which results precisely of the ever changing interplay of numerous elements which take place simultaneously at different locations within the system. Still, no system is ever isolated. Thus its interactions with other, external, entities must be explored and understood.
Structures and processes are of many different kinds. We thus end up with a corresponding number of different models. Growth, for example, can be lineal, exponential, asymptotic, logistic, cyclical, etc. These different types should be modelized and clearly distinguished from each other. But, as they may be related, their characteristics should be explained, compared, and put in perspective. As all these features are somehow interrelated, we end up with a network (in itself a “system”) of new concepts and models, deeply different from the classical ones, used in “hard sciences”, but complementary to these.
One of their general characteristics is that they transcend the boundaries of strictly disciplinarian work. Some complex phenomena may well have a physical, or physiological explanations, but not merely so. We must thus cross disciplinarian limits and reach for the synergies that surge from all types of interactions. That is, we should seek a synthetic view. Indeed, “well tempered systemics” is always a complex composition, which integrates locality with globality, and the instant within the long term view, whether historical or tentatively predictive.
Towards a toolbox for the understanding of complexity
Systemics and cybernetics - two inseparable aspects of our new conceptual frame for the understanding of complex systems - lead us to the progressive collection of new conceptual and practical tools. This is probably a result of human mind's stimulation by the new kind of problems that are multiplying everywhere. This is what we call the “toolbox”.
Our effort aims at expanding and completing as much as possible the “toolbox”. Many systems related models and concepts have appeared during the last 50 years. But this occured in a casual and even random way. Some arised in specific disciplines and their general value did not become immediately obvious. Some others were shaped by globally oriented minds, but their usefulness in a transdiciplinarian sense was not perceived by specialists in widely separated fields. It is now time to search everywhere for these scattered bits of systemic knowledge. They should be gathered, related, ordered and explained in a global perspective.
We should moreover try to discover which special sets of specific connected tools could be used to understand, explain and better manage complex issues. This is an urgent need if we want to avoid future disasters at gigantic scale. It is altogether the only way to give systemics its real dimension and importance for the future of mankind.
This is what the members of the Primer project are trying to achieve.