Systems thinking is gaining popularity and becomes increasingly influential. Its origin goes back far in history. The International Institute for General Systems Studies (IIGSS) developed a family tree going back as far as 2500 years (see http://www.art-sciencefactory.com/complexity-map_feb09.html). The origin of systems thinking is spread out over many intellectual knowledge domains. In the recent 20 to 30 years systems thinking is applied in a fast growing number of knowledge domains (e.g. sustainability, weather forecasting, social problems, public health,…).


Systems thinking is closely linked to the paradigm of complexity. During the early 1950s a number of scientists (e.g. Ashby, Bertalanffy and Boulding, founders of the ‘systems-movement’), recognized the need for a trans-disciplinary approach in order to deal with growing complexity (Nys 2014). The idea was to develop a ‘general systems theory’ (von Bertalanffy 1956).

From the study of non-linear dynamic systems (e.g. weather patterns) a new family of systems theories appeared in the late 20th century, heavily nurtured by research at the Santa Fe Institute of Complexity (Nys 2014). A paradigm shift in scientific thinking developed with at its core the shift from an orientation towards equilibrium and statics towards a kind of thinking that is oriented towards disequilibrium, self-organization, non-linear dynamics, emergence and unpredictability (Nys 2014).

Kefalas (Kefalas 2011) formulated the following main characteristics of systems thinking:

  • Systems thinking is a view of the world: it is the conceptual schema by which one organizes one’s thoughts and actions with respect to reality;
  • Systems thinking is interdisciplinary. It attempts to build a general viewpoint by borrowing from many seemingly diverse disciplines which is a departure from conventional scientific thinking;

Systems thinking conceives real-world phenomena as systems and stresses interrelationships and interactions among the entities generating these activities rather than on the entities themselves.