Serving the growth of interest in systems thinking in public policy, scholars from various fields have started to publish ‘popular science’ books and relatively ‘easy to read’ academic books. Many of these provide superb introductions to the various strains of systems thinking discussed in this research paper. The following foundational and applied books (in no specific order) may be of interest to those who seek a further introduction into systems thinking and its use for regulatory governance and scholarship.

Thinking in systems: A primer (Meadows, 2008)

Donella Meadows (1941-2001) was a pioneering environmental scientist, perhaps most known for her involvement in The Limits to Growth—the book that build on systems thinking and computer modelling and started the debate about the limits of the earth’s capacity to support human (economic) expansion (Meadows, Meadows, Randers, & Behrens, 1972). In Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Meadows very clearly sets out the strain of systems thinking that has inspired much of her work. Meadows unpacks systems in stocks, flows and feedback, and challenges us to think about the leverage points of systems: “places in the system where a small change could lead to a large shift in behaviour” (ibid., 145).

The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (Senge, 2006)

Peter Senge (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT) has popularized systems thinking in the management sciences with his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. In the book, Senge discusses a range of management (and related) problems and discusses them through a systems thinking lens by considering feedback loops. The book is a valuable read because of its hands-on application of systems thinking in a range of easy to understand examples. Senge spends considerable time and effort to explain how delays in or acceleration of feedback loops can make for valuable mechanisms to address complex problems, making this book an essential read.

Systems Thinking, Systems Practice (Checkland, 1999)

Professor Peter Checkland (Lancaster University) is one of the central figures in systems thinking and systems science. The 1999 version of book Systems Thinking, Systems Practice combines his ground-breaking work on the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) with a retrospection. Checkland considers systems thinking a heuristic that helps to reduce the complexity of human interactions and transactions—he questions if there is truly such a thing as ‘systems’ in the world. SSM was developed because ‘hard’ systems engineering failed to cope with the complexities of human affairs. SSM provides an approach to question and study human interactions and transactions (an ‘inquiring system’).  

Introduction to Systems Theory (Luhmann, 2013)

Professor Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998, University of Bielefield) was a sociologist and philosopher of social science. In Introduction to Systems Theory, Luhmann explains the key ideas and concepts of his systems theory. It is certainly not the easiest read in this list of books, but the book is relevant for those interested in exploring the various strains of systems thinking discussed in this research paper. The core of Luhmann’s theory is that systems help reduce complexity and select a limited amount of information with which to make sense of that complexity. Different systems exist side-by-side in society, all with their own logic, jargon and coding of events and experiences.

Observing Law Through Systems Theory (Nobles & Schiff, 2013)

Because Luhmann’s work is not the easiest to read, we are fortunate that many scholars have explored his work and made it easier to understand his work ‘as such’, and, equally important, made it easier to understand how it can be applied to legal and regulatory problems. The book by Professors Richard Nobles and David Schiff (both Queen Mary University of London), Observing Law Through Systems Theory, is an excellent text to consult would you get lost in Luhmann’s work—or to consult before you begin exploring Luhmann’s work.

Applied Systems Theory (Dekkers, 2015)

Applied Systems Theory by Dr. Rob Dekkers (University of Glasgow) explicitly engages with control processes and control theory, and thus control systems. This makes the book an exceptionally valuable read for those involved in regulatory governance and regulatory practice. Dekkers distinguishes between four control mechanisms (directing, feedforward control, feedback control, and completing deficiencies) that resonate with various approaches regulation as an approach to steering the behaviour of individuals and collectives. Dekkers’ take on systems thinking provides a meaningful bridge between the systems thinking strains developed by scholars such as Luhmann and Teubner on the one hand and Meadows and Senge on the other (see Chapter 2 of this research paper for a discussion of the different strains).

Soft System Thinking: Methodology and the Management of Change (Wilson & van Haperen, 2015)

In Soft Systems Thinking: Methodology and the Management of Change, Professor Brian Wilson (Lancaster University) and Kees van Haperen explain how they have applied the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) in a variety of areas, ranging from healthcare to law enforcement. It is a valuable read for those interested in applying SSM in their own context.

Systems Thinking for Social Change (Stroh, 2015)

Systems Thinking for Social Change is another practical application of systems thinking. In this book, David Peter Stroh explores and explains how different strains of systems thinking can be applied in practice. The book provides examples of the application of thinking in line with Meadows’ and Senge’s take on the topic, as well as application of the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM). The book is, perhaps, the most pragmatic of the applied books discussed here as it takes considerable freedom in how it applies the various models and heuristics provided in the ‘foundational’ systems thinking literature.

Complexity and Public Policy: A New Approach to Twenty-first Century Politics, Policy and Society (Geyer & Rihani, 2010)

Professor Robert Geyer (Lancaster University) and Dr Samir Rihani (University of Liverpool) argue that systems thinking and complexity theory challenge the orderly paradigm of public administration. In Complexity and Public Policy: A New Approach to Twenty-first Century Politics, Policy and Society, they explore and apply the traditional paradigm of order to public administration as well as the post-modernist paradigm of complexity and interpretivism. What makes the book of interest is that it concludes by providing a middle ground between these (somewhat) extreme paradigms. Geyer and Rihani explain how systems thinking and complexity theory can help in developing pragmatic but at the same time adaptive frameworks to provide long term solutions to challenging public problems.

System Thinkers (Ramage & Shipp, 2009), and Systems Practice: How to Act (Ison, 2017)

For those with an appetite for more on systems thinking and systems theory, these two books provide excellent starting points. In Systems Thinkers, Dr. Magnus Ramage and Karen Shipp (both Open University) discuss the history of systems thinking by introducing 30 leading systems thinkers. They divide the history of systems thinking in five broad lineages: early cybernetics, general systems theory, system dynamics, soft and critical systems, later cybernetics, complexity theory, and learning systems.

In Systems Practice: How to Act, Professor Ray Ison (Open University) illustrates how systems thinking can be applied to practical problems. The book explores various systems thinking lineages (including practical holism, general systems theory, operations research, complexity sciences, first-order cybernetics, second-order cybernetics, and interdisciplinary systems sciences) and explains what it takes to apply systems thinking in practice.