Article by Angus Jenkinson FCybS, June 2021

Systems indicates the aspect of cybernetics that has affinity with and can partner various system sciences.  Cybernetics tends to be attractive to those interested in the system sciences and has often been taught in academic courses along with them.  There are various “pure” system sciences — pure in the sense that they focus on a systems methodology that can be applied to many problems or analyses, such as general systems theory, systems dynamics, and soft systems methodology.  Like all system sciences, cybernetics is transdisciplinary, analytical, appreciates that any local behaviour depends on some field of interaction in which context is important (for example as the “whole system”), and therefore also synthetic.  In addition, however, many fields have been influenced by the development of the system sciences or have always been more or less systemic.  As a result, as Ramage and Shipp note,⁠1 systems thinkers may come from many areas including biology, management, physiology, anthropology, chemistry, economics, public policy, sociology, psychotherapy, environmental studies, and ecology. Some of these may have their own sub-disciplines, such as systems biology.

Some [systems thinkers] are core innovators in systems ideas; some have been primarily practitioners who also advanced and popularised systems ideas; others are well-known figures who drew heavily upon systems thinking although it was not their primary discipline.  (Op. cit.)

Cybernetics has affinity with and can partner various system sciences

The Cybernetics Society values those who are knowledgeable in other “systemic” professional or learner disciplines.   Cybernetics can partner — or in the metaphor being used, dance — with these. Several have grown out of or been influenced by our discipline, and this may have been two ways.  For example, von Bertalanffy was a member of the original Macy group who pioneered the development of cybernetics from the late 40s into the 50s of last century.  All of the members of this group were systemic in their approach.  Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead were anthropologists, Norbert Wiener was involved in control engineering, von Neumann and Turing in design of computing systems.  Coming from many diverse fields, they introduced ideas from them and then returned to their own fields bringing the new thinking from cybernetics, so that these many fields as indicated above became permeated with at least some aspects of cybernetic thinking.

The question therefore arises: How is cybernetics similar to all the system sciences and how does it differ?  Does this difference moreover constitutes something of sufficient importance that it provides a special value for the systems thinker? Naturally, nuances arising from different streams and their focus will vary.  A few examples of partnership may be helpful.


Russell Ackoff is in many ways one of the closest to cybernetics itself.  Towards the end of his life he wrote:

Here is a very small sample of the obvious things I have had great fun denying:

That improving the performance of the parts of the system taken separately will necessarily improve the performance of the whole.  False.  In fact it can destroy an organization, as is apparent in an example I have used ad nauseam: installing a Rolls-Royce engine in Hyundai can make it inoperable. this explains why benchmarking has almost always failed.  Denial of this principle of performance improvement led to a series of organizational designs intended to facilitate the management of interactions: the circular organization, the internal market economy, and the multidimensional organization.

That problems are disciplinary in nature.  Effective research is not disciplinary, interdisciplinary, all multidisciplinary; it is transdisciplinary.  Systems thinking is holistic; it attempts to derive understanding of parts from the behaviour and properties of holes rather than derive the behaviour and properties of holes from those of their parts.  Disciplines are taken by science to represent different parts of the reality we experience.  In effect: science assumes reality is structured and organized the way universities are.  This is a double error.  First disciplines do not constitute different parts of reality; they are different aspects of reality, different points of view.  Any part of reality can be viewed from any of these aspects.  The whole can be understood only by viewing it from all the perspective simultaneously.  Second, the separation of our different points of view encourages looking for solutions to problems the same point of view from which the problem was recognized.  Paraphrasing Einstein, we cannot deal with problems as effectively as possible by employing the same point of view as was used in recognizing them.  When we know how the system works, how its parts are connected and interact to produce the behaviour and properties of the whole, we can almost always find one or more points of view from which better solutions to the problem can be found then can be found from the point of view from which the problem was recognized.  For example, we do not try to cure a headache by brain surgery, but by putting a pill in the stomach…. (Op. cit. 143-144)

 There are many aspects of this with close affinity to cybernetics, including the notion of aspects itself.  Cybernetics deals with points of view, recursive levels of observation, analysis, and organization, and it eschews the notion that behaviour can be understood in isolation.  Ackoff also introduced the notion of “desired present”, recognised by some cyberneticians as a fundamental principle.   Like Ackhoff, it rejects the idea that the world is fundamentally divided when considered as an artefact of points of view.   Systemic models, whether cosmological or sociological, cannot be brought into a unified theory when they derive from different points of view and levels of analysis.  But this is an analysis of analysis not of the world.  

Ackoff had connections with members of the Macy circle and his thinking is permeated with aspects of it.  They influence his operations research so that those from that discipline can find much of interest in cybernetics.  Given that much of his work was also concerned with project design in the attainment of outcomes, yet another aspect it is shared with cybernetics.

The distinction therefore is subtle but serves to illustrate the general difference.  Cybernetics is not fundamentally concerned with the interaction of parts.  It is concerned with the interaction of observers.  Parts may be acted upon.  Observers act.  Moreover they act to cancel out being acted upon so far as possible when they do not wish to be, while they seek out being acted upon when they do.

  A detailed investigation of tools will therefore find common elements used in common ways along with useful distinctions.  They are useful because they enable different kinds of analysis to be done.

Cybernetics is not fundamentally concerned with the interaction of parts.  It is concerned with the interaction of observers. 

Prigogine — complexity theory

Prigogine was a chemist and physicist — his background therefore derives from the aspect that has been called Matter in this introduction.  Both deal with the material world and the forces understood to be operating within it.  He was profoundly interested in thermodynamics in the behaviour of energy, heat, and work in physical systems.  His phrase ‘far from equilibrium’ it is a foundational principle of complexity theory.  All of this is precisely where it differs from cybernetics.  He also rejected the notion of design.⁠2   His analysis of ‘far from equilibrium’ conditions calls on the notion of dissipative structures, that is systemic loss of energy, i.e. entropy.  

Ramage and Shipp cite a reading (233-234) in which Prigogine discusses instability.  He does so from the perspective of physics, considering a pendulum, arguing that: 

The notion of instability it is in some way been idealogically suppressed, for the phenomenon of instability leads naturally to very important serious problems.

The first of these is the problem of forecasting.  Clearly if I take a stable pendulum and agitated I predict what will happen; it will return to a minimum swing.  If on the other hand I hold it upside down, it is very difficult to predict whether it will fall to the right or to the left — this depends on fluctuations… The pendulum on its minimum swing is a deterministic object: we know what will happen.  In contrast, the problem of the pendulum turned on its head it involves a nondeterministic object.

This is very interesting — and we should remember that those polymath founders of cybernetics were interested in almost everything.  We should not therefore assume that everything that they were interested in or wrote about should be considered by them or us as cybernetic.  His analysis here focuses on a physical frame, material objects acting under the influence of gravity, an external force.  To suggest that there might be a nondeterministic element was revolutionary.  It offered another aspect into the breakdown of the deterministic worldview of the 19th century.  But it really has nothing to do with the way that living organisms behave except if they happen to be losing their balance on a high wire or the equivalent.  And if they are losing their balance on a high wire what they will do it is not at all what a pendulum will do turned upside down. 

Prigogine goes on — in another reading cited — to discuss the implications of this nondeterministic world of matter and forces for the worldview of science and our understanding of nature.  “In a deterministic world nature is controllable, it is an inert object susceptible to our will.  If nature contains instability as an essential element, we must respect it, for we cannot predict what may happen.”  That is true insofar as we are dealing with the inanimate.  But it falls short if we want to analyse what happens when we have active agents, the animate with their goals, their reading of the world as feedback, and their internally determined actions to overcome instability or the unwanted.

Ashby describes how cybernetics does not depend on physics.  Moreover, it is not fundamentally concerned with energy, and therefore dissipative heat structures, entropy, thermodynamics, in the way that physics is and perhaps chemistry.  None of these factors is ignored.  They are no more ignored than it is possible for an organism to go for long without wanting to feed.  Certainly, frogs and people run short of energy if they don’t eat, but cybernetics is interested in the organization by which they go about the business of securing their food, eating it, digesting it, and using it.  They assume that energy exists as a resource in multiple forms.  The interesting question is how the particular individual or species navigates its world in relation to the energy it requires, the warmth it needs, and how it uses that energy for its own purposes (or directive actions).

 Modelling and ethics

Cyberneticians are commonly very interested in some of the tools and approaches used also in the systemic sciences such as modelling and the relation between the model and what is being modelled (map and territory). Here another interesting possible distinction sometimes arises.    Many models — such as those in systems dynamics — aim to be thorough and detailed in their analysis of the interaction of parts.  In this there is a danger that they do exactly what Ackoff counselled against, i.e. the building up of the holistic from the parts (with its associated concept of emergence).  But the general stance is somewhat objective and tends towards the process of looking from outside at a set of interacting factors.  A tendency towards that is quite natural in the analyst but the prime aim of the cybernetician has been described as the “close and delicate observation of the situation” from the perspective of the observers.  How do they see it, how do they respond?  How does the situation arise in their process of seeing it to be what they think it to be?  And therefore what intervention could be made to change the situation into something quite different as they understand it and therefore behave.

Naturally, this can lead to some ethical concerns.  As interventions can be made to achieve benefits, they can also be designed to achieve asymmetrical benefits.  One country might choose to design interventions into the political situation of another in order to destabilise it by influencing how voters see one particular candidate who they — the intervening country and its Secret Service — regard as desirable because of their weakness, instability, an likelihood of causing harm within their own country.  What can be done at this scale can also be done in small scale.  Because systemic thinkers understand the patterns they also understand how these patterns tend to become stable and how they can become destabilised, how they can be shifted to become something else.

It is of immense importance that schooling in these disciplines is profoundly associated with the development of an ethical and indeed empathic approach to nature and to others.

Melting permafrost

Two examples are not comprehensive but they are perhaps indicative.  A particularly interesting case would be the consideration of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, who was both closely connected and then separated from cybernetics. (It is worth bearing in mind that personality differences between individuals was also a factor in what happened — science is sociological an psychological, not a bloodless objectivity.  Indeed, looked at positively, one of the great characteristics of the systems thinkers in general is that despite their various differences and the fact that they did not always get on, they almost all are motivated by strong ethical concerns and the wish to resolve real problems that they perceive in the world, therefore to be of assistance.)

It is of immense importance that schooling in these disciplines is profoundly associated with the development of an ethical and indeed empathic approach to nature and to others.

Other examples have already been mentioned — specific cases.  If we are concerned about permafrost melt, and we surely should be, then it behoves us to understand what is happening and what can be done.

  • Understanding the basic mechanics of the circular causality in which increased carbon dioxide leads to heating of the atmosphere melting service levels of ice and snow, which in turn leads to more absorption of sunlight and therefore warming of the frozen soil, leading to the release of carbon dioxide in perpetuating and amplifying cycle.  This is a good topic for various system sciences as well as specialist fields such as physics, chemistry, meteorology, and geography.
  • Understanding the mechanics of the patterned ground phenomenon, in which roughly circular forms arising from cracks that fill with water, freeze, widen the cracks, melt, and disturb local life, with shifting fluid patterns it is another related area, open to chemistry, physics, and botany.  At least.  Of course those who study these transcend individual disciplines.
  • Understanding how ecological responses take place, from the growth of bacteria, the growth of trees and plants and their absorption or release of carbon dioxide and modification of the landscape offers more scope for cybernetics.
  • But perhaps the most important area for cybernetics would be in designing interventions at an international and local level, whether to modify the original release of CO2 from human civilisation or the design of interventions into the natural world to stabilise the situation.  This is not just technical, it’s also political, social — it benefits from cybernetics considerable expertise in the design of change. 


1 Ramage, Magnus, and Karen Shipp. Systems Thinkers. Milton Keynes, United Kingdom: Springer, 2009. A

2 Bejan, A, and Sylvie Lorente. “The Constructal Law of Design and Evolution in Nature.” Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. 365(1545),, no. Series B, Biological sciences, (2010): 1335-47.