Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A brief history of (ancient) systems thinking

October 26, 2008 by Daniel Montano

Systems thinking is not new. I have been thinking about its ancient history and so far this is what I have gathered:

  • 600 B.C. - philosophers used systems thinking to organize their thoughts (e.g. Lao Tze)
  • 2,700 B.C. - Egyptians, like Imhotep, showed evidence that he was using systems thinking during his roles as architect, physician and engineer in Egypt.
  • 4,000 B.C. - Cuneiform, a system of writing appears thanks to the need to keep track of multiple economic transactions.
  • (date pending) - the beginnings of economic (value exchange systems). My assumption here is that value exchange systems were designed by systems thinkers.
  • (date pending) - the beginnings of religious belief systems. You can find traces of these belief systems going back as far as 130,000 years. Rather than being “designed” the earliest belief systems may have emerged through various individuals. They were eventually linked, organized, and synthesized into coherent systems. Nevertheless, the result became a coherent system of thought - perhaps an example of one the earliest human systems.
  • (date pending) - the emergence of spoken language systems. The organization of symbols, signs and gestures with spoken language had to be one of our earlier systems. Our very own ability to communicate is the result of systems thinking.

Did systems thinking aid the emergence of civilization?
In some aspects we may be able to chart a parallel line between the emergence of human civilization and the emergence of systems thinking. One could make the argument that spoken language may have been

Why is systems thinking so rare in our society?
So, now the question is…if systems thinking is such an old way of thinking, and if systems thinking has played such a key role in the development of many tools of civilization for thousands of years, then why isn’t it more popular as a thinking method in our cultures? (According to some sources only 3% of our population are systems thinkers).

I suspect one reason for this lack of adoption has something to do with a lack of value associated with it and a lack of recognition of the role it has played within our societies.

Acknowledging its historical presence and its contribution to civilization may help us recognize its value.

Addendum: 10-31-08
Everyone is a systems thinker?
Another way to think about this is that systems thinking has permeated most aspects of our civilized existence to the point that we no longer realize that we’re using systems thinking - but instead systems thinking has become like the air that we breathe, highly important but mostly invisible and undetectable to our socialized minds. (see bullet points for examples like economics, language, writing etc as examples of systems thinking we are using today).

But there is a huge difference between doing something consciously and doing something unconsciously. One is a skill, the other is more like a reaction.

- Daniel Montano