2012/07/16 Rethinking Systems Thinking: Learning and coevolving with the world


David Ing


Much of systems thinking, as commonly espoused today, was developed by a generation in the context of the 1960s to 1980s. Almost all of the luminaries of that era have passed on. In the 2010s, has system thinking changed with the world in which it is to be applied? Is systems thinking learning and coevolving with the world? Some contemporary systems thinkers continue to push the frontiers of theory, methods and practice. Others situationally increment the traditions of their preferred gurus, where approaches proven successful in prior experiences are replicated for new circumstances. Founded on interactions with a variety of systems communities over the past 15 years, three ways to rethink systems thinking are proposed:

  1. Reorient systems thinking beyond “parts and wholes” towards “learning and coevolving”.
  2. Learn where the service economy and the anthropocene are new, anticipating deutero and trito levels.
  3. Coevolve the episteme, techne and phronesis across systems thinking, for both the living and non-living.

These proposed ways are neither exhaustive nor sufficient. The declaration that systems thinking should be rethought may itself be controversial. If, however, systems thinking is to be authentic, the theory, methods and practices with which we engage a changing world may require attention.


David Ing, "Rethinking Systems Thinking: Learning and coevolving with the world", (plenary address), 56th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, at San Jose State University, July 16, 2012.