Dynamic Systems Theory

For the purpose of this paper, we will be discussing Dynamic Systems Theory (DST) as it applies to human systems.

A Set of Faulty Assumptions

To begin with, human systems are generally multi-leveled and interconnected. For example, a human system can be an individual, family, group of people, an organization, a country, or anything else as long as there is an inter-relationship between system components, and some form of purpose for the system to exist. Human systems are multi-leveled because an individual can participate in any number of sub-systems larger than itself through its connection to those larger sub-systems. It is possible to conceive of the entire human race as one large system, because people in the world today are becoming increasingly inter-connected with one another through various means – even though most of us don’t yet see it that way.

Human systems have always been dynamic (active and changing over time), but in the past they have been slow to change because people mostly hung out and communicated with other people like themselves. People rarely picked up and moved to another location, or interacted openly with people having a different belief system. Major changes within entire societies usually only occurred as a result of migration, war, plague, or major discoveries. Most of our ancestors probably perceived very little change occurring over their lifetimes – that is until more recent centuries when the rate of change in the world began to escalate.

This lack of perceived change in the past has given rise to a set of faulty assumptions upon which most of us still base our thoughts and actions. These assumptions usually include the desirability of stable states, a closed system perspective, simple cause-and-effect thinking, linearity (progress following a step-by-step progression along a straight path), the predictability of future events, the ability to control people and situations, and an underlying belief that change is undesirable and avoidable. The decisions we make to run our lives, our organizations, and our governments are usually influenced by some combination of these outdated assumptions.

The study of DST arises from the recently escalating levels of unpredictable change we are experiencing in the world today. Change – which was once thought to only be a last resort – is now a constant in most of our lives. This bite of reality is giving rise to a new set of assumptions, which haven’t yet been adopted by most people. These new assumptions support the desirability of open systems and non-equilibrium states, non-linearity, multiple interactive causality, continuous external change, unpredictability, and the idea that order can only be achieved by instability and continuous fluctuation. These new assumptions are the foundation for DST.

Complexity, Interaction, and Change

It is perhaps easier to initially understand dynamic systems theory from a macro perspective, using as an example the accelerating “complexity” we see in the world today. I have defined complexity as a condition arising from “an increasing number of independent variables interacting with each other with accelerating frequency” (Tower, 2002). It is a simple fact that accelerating complexity will increase the dynamism of a particular system and, in this process, escalate the rate of unpredictable and uncontrollable change. Let me explain.

Simply illustrated, the world is becoming increasingly complex (and changeable) because there are an increasing number of individuals, organizations, countries, and entire societies now interacting with each other over differences in goals, methods, opinions, perspectives, culture, religion, values, ideas, technology, resources, morals, etc. And, this type of interaction is occurring with accelerating frequency.

This interaction is unprecedented in world history – since it is primarily due to the recent development and proliferation of communications technology such as computers, the internet, cell phones, social networking, TV, and other devices which make it possible to share ideas instantly with someone next door, and simultaneously with someone else half-way around the world. Furthermore, since major portions of the world (such as parts of China, India, Africa, Indonesia, and South America) have not yet been completely exposed to this latest technology, the world’s trend towards increasing complexity is probably both accelerating and irreversible.

Change will occur at all levels of human systems simply through this type of interaction. For example, a person might become exposed to an idea they have never thought about before over the internet, and then change an existing opinion as a result of this exposure. It is fairly easy to see how these types of changes are occurring at an escalating rate through the growing use of cell phones, IPads, and the like. We literally have almost all the world’s diverse knowledge at our fingertips. We can now immediately find the answer to a question, or investigate multiple sides of an issue – without moving from our chair.

Slow vs. Rapid Change

A characteristic of this type of interactive change is that it can slowly build and develop over time, or it can escalate and occur all at once. The difference between slower and more rapid change is usually due to the particular circumstances present in the surrounding environment of the interacting variables, and the sensitivity of the system to what is referred to as “initial starting conditions.”

An example of a change occurring quickly from interaction involving communications technology is the so-called “Arab Spring” a few years ago, which quickly accelerated into a revolution in Egypt and then Libya. The internet, cell phones and social networking combined to allow thousands of people to simultaneously interact with each other over the discontent they were experiencing with their governments. Then suddenly, the idea of rebellion emerged from the interaction – quickly gaining support from masses of people.

Other things happening in and around the environment of these Arab countries probably also contributed to this uprising – perhaps recent events of cruelty and injustice, repression of dissonance, government controls and corruption, economic problems, weather conditions, etc. – so that a set of particular initial starting conditions, combined with the people’s interactions, aligned themselves at just the right moment in time to create the perfect storm. If external conditions were any different, or if their timing were different, or if there were no social networking, these revolutions might not have occurred.

There is another important factor that contributed to the huge change occurring all at once in these countries – rather than these changes developing slowly over time. The dictatorships in both Egypt and Libya had spent the last few decades trying to suppress any form of social change other than what they tried to control. This seemed to be working well for a while, but no one can stop social change from occurring indefinitely in today’s increasingly complex world. Eventually, each sub-system of a larger system must catch up to the changes occurring elsewhere. The following axiom of dynamic systems theory explains why these revolutions occurred so suddenly and with such violence:

A system can take steps in the short run to stabilize itself, but only at the expense of a larger adjustment occurring in the future – usually all at once in the form of a crisis or catastrophe.

In other words, change is occurring in the world around us every day, but it is possible for a person or a government to take measures to remain stable and not change for an indefinite period of time. This usually occurs when a sub-system attempts to close itself off from its connection with the outside world, thereby reducing interaction and its sensitivity to the changes occurring around them. But, eventually each component of a system (individuals, countries, whole societies) must change to keep pace with the evolution of the larger system. So, the components of a larger system that resist the gradual changes occurring daily in their environment, must someday experience a not so gradual larger correction, usually all at once – like a rubber band suddenly breaking from the strain of stretching too far.

A less chaotic, and perhaps more efficient way to experience this type of change is to allow the system to become more open to and interactive with its environment, so that through a process called “self-organization” the entity can continuously adapt to the changes occurring all around it – and within itself – in smaller and less disturbing increments.

There is one further advantage of applying this strategy to most individuals, organizations, and governments. Only an “open system” – one that is open to and interactive with its environment – can ward off “entropy” (decline and eventual dissolution) by obtaining infusions of new, outside energy. This process is called “self-renewal,” and has the effect of postponing a system’s eventual decline.

Application of Dynamic Systems Theory

DST tells us that the most effective human sub-systems – individuals, organizations, nations, etc. – will be those who engage most openly and actively with their rapidly changing environments. By becoming an interactive component within the larger dynamic system, a human sub-system will adapt more fluidly to changing external conditions, grow and actually become more viable with each adaptation, and stave off entropy or decline through the infusion of outside energy.

The alternative to this type of interactive engagement with one’s environment will be periodic and increasingly traumatic change through crises, a steady loss of viability and capabilities, declining functionality and usefulness, and an escalation of system entropy or decline.

Stated simply, the most effective strategy for any human system in today’s world is to become a dynamic system itself. This type of system is continuously engaging and interacting with its environment in a meaningful and mindful manner, experimenting, analyzing feedback, inquiring into all that it experiences, always learning more about itself and the world around it. It is constantly operating on the “edge” of its own capabilities, skills, experience, and comfort levels. It is not overly influenced by societal rules governing behavior and action, or its own conditioned past. There is no defensiveness, or resistance to change, and its only goal is to move closer to its unique potential through its growth and interactions. As these conditions become ingrained, the system will experience an increasing flexibility and adaptability to external change – and with each change the system will grow and develop through this learning process to greater and greater levels of intelligence, creativity, and viability. Through this interactive developmental process, the system will experience constant infusions of new energy and vitality – in spite of whatever else it is experiencing – and increasingly develop the capacity to positively affect its own evolution and the evolution of its surrounding environment.

This is about all I have to say from a purely theoretical standpoint on DST. If you would like to learn more about how these ideas apply directly to the aging process, please check out “What is Dynamic Aging” on this website.

Stability is not an option