Topic:Definition of systems

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This topic forms part of the systems and complexity area of study. People who are competent in the topic can describe the fundamental attributes of systems using appropriate language.


Expected competencies after study of this topic are:

  • know the definition of a system
  • know key terms used in describing systems


A system is a group of interconnected elements that function as a whole. In general, a system can be described in terms of its inputs, outputs, processes, and feedback.

  • Inputs are the resources that a system receives from its environment. These can include raw materials, energy, information, or other types of resources.
  • Outputs are the products or services that a system produces. These can include physical products, energy, or information.
  • Processes are the activities that transform inputs into outputs. These can include chemical reactions, mechanical processes, or information processing.
  • Feedback is the information that a system receives from its environment about the results of its outputs. This information can be used to adjust the system's processes and improve its performance.

Key concepts

A system is a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system’s response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world.
—Donella H Meadows, Thinking in Systems
A system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.
—Donella H Meadows, Thinking in Systems
Although a system’s function is determined by its products, the goal or purpose of a human system depends on the worldviews of the actors and observers. One system can have many purposes, depending on the perspectives of the observers.
—Les Robinson, What is a system?


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