Max Sprenger on Complex Systems

System: “a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done” (defined by Google)

Complex systems are a key element to sustainability. Problems that are difficult to solve are often hard to understand because the causes and effects are not obviously related. The field of complex systems cuts across all traditional disciplines of science, as well as engineering, management, and medicine. It is about studying the individual components, the whole and their collective behaviors.

complex systems

Simple System

In order to understand complex systems, one needs to understand what a simple system is.

This simple system consists of:

complex system  - 1 ball -The ball

-The air

-The gravitational force

We can calculate where the ball is going to land (approximately)

Complex systems

Complex systems are made of more simple systems. The word “complex system” does not mean that a system is necessarily difficult to understand. It means there are more simple systems that interact.

The major principle of complex systems is that the collective behaviors of the individual components will determine the functionalities of the whole. That final functionality cannot exist individually. Little changes in one component can have big consequences for the system as a whole.

complex system  - 5 ball

This system consists of several simple systems and is therefore a complex system. Each individual system is still affected by:

  •  -The ball
  • -The air
  • -The gravitational force

But all balls will also be affected by other balls. They will bounce against each other, for example, and make it impossible to know where each ball is going to land. This is because there are too many variables.

Negative feedback loops

Important part of complex sytems are negative feedback loops. They help control the complex system. It is a mechanism by which change results in a dampening (negative feedback) of that change.

Negative feedback loop is not actually bad. It is not the meaning. We use the terms positive and negative feedback because of their output. Each feedback keeps the variables of a system within a specific range.

Negative feedback occurs when some function of the output of a system is fed back to reduce the fluctuations in the output, whether caused by changes in the input or not. Example:

complex system  - feedback loops

* Want more?A good short essay with additonal links and references at

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Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the IMBA Seminar on Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy of the Institut Supérieur de Gestion, Paris, March 2015.

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