What is Systems Dynamics?

System dynamics is an approach to understanding the behaviour of complex systems over time. It uses a computer simulation modelling technique to deal with internal feedback loops and time delays that affect the behaviour of the entire system, incorporating feedback loops and stocks and flows. This approach allows us to frame, understand, and discuss complex issues and problems to help us better understand the dynamic behaviour of complex systems. The basis of the method is the recognition that the structure of any system — the many circular, interlocking, sometimes time-delayed relationships among its components — is often just as important in determining its behaviour as the individual components themselves. It is also claimed that because there are often properties-of-the-whole, which cannot be found among the properties-of-the-elements, in some cases the behaviour of the 'whole' cannot be explained in terms of the behaviour of its parts. Thus, a systems dynamics approach to examination of an issue considers all the aspects of that issue, taking holistic view of how changes in one component impact on the other components within the system, which may then in turn impact back upon the original component that underwent a change.

What is a 'system'?

A system is an organised collection of parts (or subsystems) that are highly integrated to accomplish an overall goal. The system has various inputs, which go through certain processes to produce certain outputs, which together, accomplish the overall desired goal for the system. So a system is usually made up of many smaller systems, or subsystems. Systems range from simple to complex. Complex systems, such as social systems, are comprised of numerous subsystems, as well. These subsystems are arranged in hierarchies, and integrated to accomplish the overall goal of the overall system. Each subsystem has its own boundaries of sorts, and includes various inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes geared to accomplish an overall goal for the subsystem. Complex systems usually interact with their environments and are, thus, open systems. A high-functioning system continually exchanges feedback among its various parts to ensure that they remain closely aligned and focused on achieving the goal of the system. If any of the parts or activities in the system seems weakened or misaligned, the system makes necessary adjustments to more effectively achieve its goals.

Systems Thinking:

The approach of systems thinking is fundamentally different from that of traditional forms of analysis. Traditional analysis focuses on the separating the individual pieces of what is being studied; in fact, the word "analysis" actually comes from the root meaning "to break into constituent parts." Systems thinking, in contrast, focuses on how the thing being studied interacts with the other constituents of the system, a set of elements that interact to produce behaviour, of which it is a part. This means that instead of isolating smaller and smaller parts of the system being studied, systems thinking works by expanding its view to take into account larger and larger numbers of interactions as an issue is being studied. This results in sometimes strikingly different conclusions than those generated by traditional forms of analysis, especially when what is being studied is dynamically complex or has a great deal of feedback from other sources, internal or external.

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