In the 20th century human populations expanded, cities grew larger, information increased in density and complexity and human problems followed ancient traditions but with increased fury and destructive ability. The Second World War promoted unprecedented, rapid development of industrial complexity and technological sophistication. The post-war world has been transformed by science and technology.
Systems theory emerged in many forms as attempts to describe and understand the complexities manifest in human organizations and the deeper more compelling complexities revealed by the scientific study of the natural world. I first encountered Wiener’s Cybernetics that described the theory of control mechanisms and the importance of information and feedback, as essential components of system regulation. Later, I read von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory and learned to think in terms of the dynamics of complex systems. The emergence of systems theories depended on multidisciplinary, integrative approaches to the analysis of organizations of many types. The study of living systems contributed much to the understanding of recursive, self-regulating systems and emergent properties. In my way of thinking, the understanding of human organizations must be based on understanding how natural systems work.
The addition of computers, systems analysis and programming to the management of all organizations was the occasion for systems theory to flourish and evolve into administrative and engineering tools that are now indispensible. Any new organizational project begins with a system analysis to define system requirements. System design follows and proceeds to the physical implementation. Computer programming is essential to implementation, usually aided by software engineering tools. Without sophisticated electronics and computer programming, the modern industrial world would not exist.
Forrester is considered to be the founder of System Dynamics which focuses on the dynamic behavior of complex systems. One insight is that when components of a system interact emergent properties become important determinants that cannot be anticipated by understanding the properties of each component. For example, you can design an airplane with advanced engineering software and define the required properties of all the components. You can test subassemblies exhaustively to try to eliminate failure of one component but you do not know how the plane will work until you assemble the whole thing and fly it. Even if your prototype runs well with initial testing, you do not know if the plane will continue to fly as well as the interaction of the parts changes their properties over time. You have to test prototypes in many different conditions to become confident that the plane will perform well in extended service.
The Airbus A380 was a multinational project of the European community, a marvel of computer software-based design, engineering and manufacturing. The A380 became the largest passenger airliner in the world that made its first test flight in 2005 and its first commercial flight in October 2007. The test aircraft were elaborately wired with sensors that sent voluminous data to data-logging computers. The exhaustive testing involved five A380s, 1,364 flights lasting 4,565 hours. Assembly problems led to delivery delays; full production was promised by 2010. On a project of this complexity that required perfect performance from different assembly plants, you would expect some errors to show up. A major problem occurred when different sections of the fuselage arrived at the assembly plant in France with incompatible wiring connectors. The A380 has 530 km of wiring, 100,000 wires and 40,300 connectors.
One of the great accomplishments in the 20th century emerged from a systems approach to monitoring planet earth. Many disciplines, government and non-government organizations in several countries combined resources to study the atmosphere, oceans, climates and habitats.
The Nature journal December 2007 edition focused on earth monitoring. Here is an edited version of the editorial: “Nearly fifty years ago, Charles Keeling and colleagues began a series of measurements of atmospheric CO2 on Mauna Loa in Hawaii. The Mauna Loa measurements constitute the longest continuous record of atmospheric CO2 in the world. The steady rise in CO2 that they record now forms the accepted backdrop to today's climate science and economic and political decision making. As well as being an important resource in itself, the Mauna Loa record highlights the vital importance of Earth monitoring programs. Data sets describing the behavior of the Earth’s systems are among the greatest technological achievements of our age. In the past two decades, computer applications have changed things yet again, introducing a capacity to bring what was previously non-visual to the eye, and an almost infinite range of points of view impossible to reach in any other way. The ability to change point-of-view and depth-of-field massively and arbitrarily has created a new way of seeing. The planetary scale has a particular significance. It links every image of the world to the great image of Earth that contains them all. It builds on the changes first introduced by space flight almost 50 years ago — the ability to stand outside what was previously seen only from within. Computers are a means of marshalling vast data sets — as users of Google Earth can testify. Geospatial imagery becomes a great uniter of data; whether the data come from satellites looking down, or sensors deep in the oceans, or tracking systems strapped to walruses or gas monitors sitting above forest canopies, scientists and computer programmers can put them all together. “
Earth monitoring has revealed the destructive aspects of expanding human populations. An emergent bad news emphasis from monitoring sciences has created resistance and denial from many groups protecting their vested interests. The basic equation is that environmentally friendly business is more expensive to build and operate.
There is another opportunity for systems theorists to understand how populations of humans respond to problem descriptions. The goal would be to invent new ways for humans who know what is going on to teach other less-informed humans to persuade them to change behaviors in a constructive fashion. Of course, there has been a proliferation of helping agencies who go to countries in trouble, and a host of lobby groups in affluent countries who seek changes in consumer behavior and government policy. While there may be benefits to all this activity, a world view cannot be optimistic. Problems proliferate faster than solutions. Climate change is underway with uncertain outcomes. I agree with threshold ideas that predict sudden collapses in systems that are pushed beyond their ability to adjust. Individually, humans are alive because of their adaptive capacity and fail suddenly when their individual adaptations fail.