The idea that nothing exists in isolation−but only as part of a system−has long been embedded in folklore, religious scriptures, and common sense. Yet, systems dynamics as a science has yet to transform the way we conduct the public business. This article first briefly explores the question of why advances in systems theory have failed to transform public policy. The second part describes the ways in which our understanding of systems is growing−not so much from theorizing, but from practical applications in agriculture, building design, and medical science. The third part focuses on whether and how that knowledge and systems science can be deployed to improve urban governance in the face of rapid climate destabilization so that sustainability becomes the norm, not the occasional success story.
Reducing wholes to parts lies at the core of the scientific worldview we inherited from Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and their modern acolytes in the sciences of economics, efficiency, and management.The decades between 1950 and 1980 were the grand era for systems theory. However despite a great deal of talk about systems, we continue to administer, organize, analyze, manage, and govern complex ecological systems as if they were a collection of isolated parts and not an indissoluble union of energy, water, soils, land, forests, biota, and air.Much of what we have learned about managing real systems began in agriculture. One of the most important lessons being that land is an evolving organism of interrelated parts soils, hydrology, biota, wildlife, plants, animals, and people.The challenge is to transition organized urban complexity built on an industrial model and designed for automobiles, sprawl, and economic growth into coherent, civil, and durable places.A systems perspective to urban governance is a lens by which we might see more clearly through the fog of change, and potentially better manage the complex cause and effect relationships between social and ecological phenomena. The application of systems offers at least six possibilities to improve urban governance.
A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something . . . . [it] must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.
—Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems1
A system [is] (a) a set of units or elements interconnected so that changes in some elements or their relations produce changes in other parts of the system, and (b) the entire system exhibits properties and behaviors that are different from those of the parts.
—Robert Jervis, Systems Effects 2
One of the most important ideas in modern science is the idea of a system; and it is almost impossible to define.
—Garrett Hardin, The Cybernetics of Competition3