'System' is anything that is composed of system elements connected in a characteristic system structure (Figure 1). This configuration of system elements allows it to perform specific functions in its environment. These functions can be interpreted as serving a distinct system purpose. The system boundary is permeable for inputs nO
System environment - Feedbacks
System inputs System structure
Figure 1 System notation.
System boundary from, and outputs to, the environment. It defines the system's identity and autonomy.
When we talk about a viable system, we mean that this system is able to survive, be healthy, and develop in its particular environment. In other words, system viability has something to do with both the system and its properties, and with the environment and its properties. And since a system usually adapts to its environment in a process of coevolu-tion, we can expect that the properties of the system's environment will be reflected in the properties of the system; for example, the form of a fish and its mode of motion reflect the laws of fluid dynamics of its aquatic environment.
Systems are termed complex if they have an internal structure of many - qualitatively different - processes, subsystems, interconnections, and interactions. Besides assuring their own viability, the individual systems that are part of a complex total system specialize in certain functions that contribute to the viability of the total system. Viability of subsystems and the total system requires that subsystem functions and interactions are organized efficiently (or at least effectively). In the evolution of complex systems, two organizing principles in particular have established themselves: hierarchy and subsidiarity. They can be found in all successful complex systems: biological, ecological, social, political, technological.
Hierarchical organization means a nesting of subsystems and responsibilities within the total system. Each subsystem has a certain degree of autonomy for specific actions, and is responsible for performing certain tasks contributing to the viability of the total system. For example, body cells are relatively autonomous subsystems, but contribute specific functions to the operation of particular body organs, which in turn contribute to the viability of an organism.
Subsidiarity means that each subsystem is given the responsibility and the means for keeping its own house in order, within the range of its own abilities and potential. Only if conditions occur that cannot be handled by the subsystem would the suprasystem step in and help. The principles of hierarchical organization and subsidiarity require that each subsystem has a certain measure of autonomy. In its particular environment, each subsystem must be viable. The total system can only be viable if each of the subsystems supporting it is viable. Each subsystem reflects the properties of its individual environment; its behavior is informed (oriented) by that environment.
Note that this way of looking at complex systems is recursive. If necessary, we can apply the same system/ subsystem dichotomy of viable systems again at other organizational levels. For example, a person is a subsystem of a family; a family is a subsystem of a community; a community is a subsystem of a state; a state is a subsystem of a nation, etc.
It is not enough to be concerned with the viability of individual systems. There are no isolated systems in the real world; all systems depend in one way or another on other systems. Hence their viability, and ultimately the viability of the total system are also preconditions for sustainable development. This means that a holistic system view must be adopted.
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