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Systems thinking helps to deal with complexity in various projects: it allows you to focus your attention on everything important, while temporarily putting aside the unimportant, yet maintaining the integrity of the situation, taking into account the interactions of these separately thought out important moments. Systems thinking occurs through modeling thinking (with formal language texts or data in tables) and writing (with texts in natural languages, but with tracking of object types and relationship types in these texts), so attention is not only directed to important objects, but also maintained on them throughout the project: what is written down is not so easy to forget in the hustle and bustle. Moreover, systems thinking allows for creativity: its informal part allows for making guesses about possible solutions for changing the world for the better, and in the formal part, criticizing these solutions to take seriously the surviving critique solutions, that is, to lay the foundation for collective actions. Systems thinking manages the attention of many people in complex collective projects, directing this collective attention to what is important and saving time by excluding the unimportant from thinking.

For students of various specializations, systems thinking allows them to reliably keep in mind and in records their projects in all their blooming complexity, to link theory and life. For experienced engineers, managers, technological and corporate entrepreneurs, researchers, people in creative professions, public figures, systems thinking allows them to organize their knowledge of life neatly. It is a cheat-sheet thinking that will make you think about forgotten things, and quickly bury a bad project, not allowing you to invest too many resources in it.

We don't provide a course in system analysis (often confused with systems thinking), as much attention is paid to system synthesis in it. Systems thinking is practical, cultural, stylish, active, as the creation and development of systems occur by various methods, practices, cultures, and work styles, types of activities/labor/engineering, but we talk about all these methods of work using the concepts of systems thinking. It is fundamental, universal thinking.

The course also shows how systems thinking allows you to think more or less equally about objects of very different complexity, such as objects made of inert substances, living beings, cyber-physical systems, personalities, organizations, communities, societies, and even humanity as a whole. This is due to the fact that in systems thinking, on the one hand, great attention is paid to the scale of objects, and on the other hand, the systems thinking reasoning itself does not depend on the scales of objects, they are scale-independent, only the scales are their subject. Systems thinking is universal and scale-independent, so in one reasoning, you can maintain attention on objects of very different scales: it is for such connection of different objects in complex projects that systems thinking is intended.

Systems thinking does not depend on the agents with strong intellect who are engaged in it - be it humans, AI agents, or even collective agents (organizations made up of many people, AI agents). It is not anthropocentric, and our course takes this into account.

Completing the course on systems thinking implies some experience of participating in complex collective projects in real life (not simple "educational projects" for one person, but "real", collective projects where someone needs the results so much that they are willing to pay for them!), experience of confronting complexity in life face to face - for those studying systems thinking, "complexity" mainly refers to examples from life, not to "textbook cases", as "educational cases" are weakly tied to life situations. In the online course on systems thinking, you will do a lot of modeling (unfortunately, there are no modeling assignments in the workbook), which means not only "learning systems thinking", but also practicing it, "thinking systematically through modeling". Later at work and even "just in life" you will do exactly the same as in the course: filling out tables, and this will be your systems thinking. Hopefully, you won't even notice that you are "thinking systematically", in form it will simply be "filling out fairly simple tables, although each time you will have to think a little about this filling".

The course lays down certain "rails" for thinking, which allow you after some training to quickly and automatically assess the situation in real collective projects. Systems thinking allows you not to "invent the wheel" every time to combat complexity, instead of the difficult and slow "cognitive wilderness", we have a light and fast "thinking on rails", rapid utilization of the best thinking techniques developed by civilization. Something that seems like creativity to others will be a fluent application of thinking patterns for a systems thinker, saving time for inevitable real creativity. In life, there will always be situations that were not in textbooks on the subject area you are dealing with. The course on systems thinking will help in these situations. Just as mathematicians do not invent the idea of an integral every time, systems thinkers do not invent the idea of the difference between the functional and constructive description of the system every time, the idea of distinguishing the target system from the system of creation, and another couple of dozen other useful ideas. And they do this in the most diverse projects, for the most diverse systems, connecting in thinking situations described in the most different practical textbooks.

The main goal of the course is to compactly gather in one text ("knowledge repository", by analogy with the "code of laws" as a collection of current normative texts taking into account all updates, additions, exclusions, also implying a certain completeness of coverage of the subject area and official status - a methodology realm), and explain (overcome the "inferential distance" for understanding, the work of a methodologist) the "thinking minimum" on systems thinking, usually scattered across various knowledge sources. The specificity of our course is that its content is based not so much on traditional academic literature of the past century on general systems theory or traditional textbooks for managers, but on modern engineering and scientific literature from 2017-2023, and to a slightly lesser extent on international standards and public documents of systems engineering and enterprise engineering, developed or updated in the last five to six years (ISO 15288:2023, ISO 42010:2022, ISO 15926-2:2003, IEC 81346, OMG Essence:2018). The course incorporates the latest research results on the physical foundations of biology, including explanatory theories of evolution taking place at various system levels. This is presented in the course not in detail (more details can be found in the "Intelligence Stack" course), but all necessary references to literature are given to allow curious students to figure it out on their own later. The course material presents a scale-free (from molecules to humanity as a whole) version of systems thinking and a deanthropomorphized (no assumption that a rational agent is necessarily an individual human) version of methodological thinking.

The course is prepared based on the experience of teaching systems thinking in numerous universities (annually since 2012) and in engineer, manager, technological entrepreneur, teacher and various other professions qualification enhancement systems. The online course contains a large number of questions with author's answers, as well as assignments for system modeling (modeling situations in students' working projects), so the course serves as a kind of "help" for these tasks. Our experience shows that reading a textbook alone does not teach systems thinking, but systems thinking alone (in the form of modeling thinking using structured texts and writing thinking using unstructured texts in natural languages) teaches if it is based on reading the course materials and performing assignments.

The exposition of the systemic approach is universal for engineers of "hardware" and software systems, managers and business owners, cultural figures, politicians, and people of various other applied work roles. But knowledge of methodology, systems engineering, personal engineering, system management must be obtained from separate courses, the system thinking course is a prerequisite for these courses. You will also need to take separate applied courses in various work methods. "How to deal with such a problem in my project" is usually solved with systems thinking, organizing the application of applied mastery in various types of work, but not replacing the applied mastery itself. Systems thinking will help you quickly solve your problems in playing the piano, but you will still have to learn to play the piano - the same applies, for example, to the engineering of robotic systems. You will solve problems faster, but you will still have to learn to build these systems, as miracles do not happen.

To strengthen your intellect, you need to take many courses, as one course on systems thinking does not cover all the fundamental thinking methods that are part of the intelligence stack (systems engineering, methodology, rhetoric, ethics, aesthetics, cognition/research, rationality, logic, algorithmics, ontology, theory of concepts, physics, mathematics, semantics, concentration, conceptualization). But the course "Systems thinking" touches on large chunks of these methods, so the course can be classified as courses to enhance intelligence.

The text of the course in this edition was practically rewritten for the ninth time: the first two versions were in 2014 and 2015 for the "Systems Engineering Thinking" course, then the book "Systems Thinking" with a summary for engineering, managerial, and entrepreneurial work was published in February 2018 by Ridero (and the course was simultaneously released on Coursera), the fourth revision was in July 2019 (about 120 new pages were added and the terminology was simplified), and an online course was opened in the School of Systems Management. The fifth revision was in August 2020, in which the experience of conducting classes and releasing the "Education for the Educated 2020" course was taken into account, clarifying the position of systems thinking in the general intelligence stack with other fundamental methods of the intelligence stack. In the sixth version of 2021, the terminology was further simplified and changes were made to maintain the relevance of the material.

In the seventh edition of 2022, the main changes were the separation of the material on "non-life, non-cycle" into a separate methodology course, as well as the addition of materials on scale-free and deanthropomorphized thinking, supported by modern findings not only in engineering and management but also in physics and biology. The course was titled "Systems Thinking" to reflect the proactive/enactive nature of the activities of agents who change the world. This exposition was already based on the third generation of the systemic approach. The activity/work/practice/engineering in this version of the course became synonymous and related to the work of system creators over target systems.

After the release of the seventh edition in 2022, the courses "Methodology," "Systems Engineering," and "System Management" were developed, reflecting changes in systems engineering and management methods that have occurred in recent years: primarily the transition to "continuous everything," the disappearance of requirements engineering, the final separation of architecture from development (including the differentiation of the system concept and architecture). Therefore, in January 2023, the text of "Systems Thinking" was rewritten for the eighth time to bring it into line with the new methods of systems engineering and management. The section "Requirements and Architecture" disappeared, instead, there appeared a section reflecting the ontology of the third generation of the systemic approach instead of the glossary. The service ontology was refined.

Further changes were made in May 2023, in fact, the ninth rewriting began: it is directly prohibited to consider the behavior (processes) of any system as systems (but if it is really necessary, it is recommended to create a new system from all interacting systems in the course of these processes, whereupon it will acquire new properties, and it will behave in a new way due to emergence). In connection with this, the example of a social dance (the word "dance" is tabooed, now the dancer dances) was rewritten. The theatrical metaphor became a metaphor of role-playing. Numerous typos and minor errors were corrected. The courses "Ontologics and Communication" and "Concentration" were renamed to the modern "Modeling and Concentration" for the combined course. And even the old name of the course "Systems Thinking" returned (for a couple of years, the course was called "Practical Systems Thinking"). Also in December 2023, rewriting continued to improve understanding, many questions, exercises, and tasks were added. The appearance of the "Personal Engineering" course has been taken into account. The course was divided into smaller sections, there are now 12, not 8. At the moment, the first eight sections (approximately 75% of the total text volume) have been rewritten, many clarifications and explanations have been made: the concept of affordance has been clarified, a "systematic mantra" has been given, a warning has been given about the possibility of confusion of different types of relationships for sub-roles - specialization and composition, the main term has become "method", and the synonymity of method (culture, style, strategy) has been added, the term "technologies" has been tabooed and changed to "tools", synonymity of disciplines/theories/explanations/algorithms has been added, the Intelligence Stack is now called the stack of methods, the concept of techno-evolution has been clarified. The text volume has increased during the rewriting process by approximately twice, mainly due to additional clarifications and examples. New tasks have also been added.

The course introduces the concepts of system usage concept and system concept, architecture, justification of success, configuration, work management, and other traditional and relatively new concepts of systems engineering and system management directly following from the systemic approach. However, the course does not tell you how to develop quality system and architecture concepts, how to thoroughly justify the success of a system, that is, the course does not contain descriptions of modern systems engineering methods and applied engineering methods for cyber-physical systems, software engineering, system management, cultural building, technological entrepreneurship, social engineering. Even studying such methods at a general level usually requires additional long-term efforts and separate courses. The "Systems Thinking" course is currently part of a sequence of courses to enhance intelligence, where a student learns how to:

  • focus your attention and the attention of other agents on objects from an explicit specification (ontology), that is, to focus attention conceptually, not spontaneously, as well as maintain conceptually focused attention on various time scales, including collective attention in such agents as a team or an entire enterprise through leadership, or influencing a community or society (the course "Modeling and Concentration"),
  • focus on systems (our course "Systems Thinking," about which we are talking now),
  • focus on methods used by the system creators (the course "Methodology"),
  • structure activities and roles that must be maintained in attention throughout systems engineering projects (the course "Systems Engineering"),
  • teach mastery of performing activities (the course "Personal Engineering"),
  • draw attention to yourself and organization (team, collective, company) on objects described by the specialization of the system ontology for such system creators as organizations (the course "System Management").
  • strengthen your intelligence/thinking mastery using the best thinking methods available today (SoTA, state-of-the-art) (the course "Intelligence Stack").

The course requires readers to have knowledge of the English language. The course text is in Russian, but most of the references to primary sources are given in English: there are many primary sources (about 400 references to literature), and they are modern, they have not yet been translated and published in Russian.

The course adopts an approach in which the material is repeated several times in different parts of the text with different levels of detail. The principle of "said once in one place" is intentionally not followed. This increases the text volume, but significantly facilitates understanding and memorization of the material through spaced repetition. However, the text of the course is more than twice as short as a reasonably manageable novel "War and Peace" for many generations of schoolchildren, which is 1300 pages long.

After mastering the course material on systems thinking, education can be continued in two opposite directions:

  • "the devil in the details": delve into the study of individual engineering, managerial, creative, social work methods, i.e., study individual applied work methods. This is traditional education in engineering, management, and other professions in connection with real life. Systems thinking will allow you to maintain the integrity of the studied set of general and applied work methods, as well as transfer accumulated experience from project to project. This is the education of an engineer, manager, entrepreneur/company founder, cultural figure, public figure/politician, etc.: a person who has mastered systems thinking and uses it to change the world for the better.
  • "the angel in abstractions" ("knowledge of principles frees from knowledge of facts"): generalize the proposed systems thinking to increase fluency in using its techniques and to apply it to the most diverse types of systems - for the expansion of systems thinking to new work methods, new classes of systems (for example, machine learning and artificial intelligence systems, systems from youth subcultures, etc.). In this direction, you can deepen your knowledge of the fundamental methods of the intelligence stack. This is the education of a person who engages in endless cognition and endless development. A good support on this path will be studying the literature mentioned in the course, especially the literature from the last section of the course (this section is at the postgraduate, not master's level).

Active participation in the preparation of course materials was taken by teachers, graduate students, and students of the Department of Technological Entrepreneurship at MIPT, teachers, students, and graduates of the School of Systems Management, the Directorate of the Russian branch of INCOSE. Without their active participation, this course would hardly have appeared in its current form.

Many thanks for the fundamental questions reflected in the course, to the participants of educational programs on systems engineering at UrFU, MIPT, MEPhI, SFU, MIREA-RTU. The course materials have been discussed multiple times at meetings of the Russian branches of INCOSE and SEMAT, and the author expresses gratitude to the members of these international organizations for numerous comments and suggestions. Many valuable comments were provided by readers of the author's blog (http😕/, the blog is also available on Telegram, MorDkniga, VKontakte, FreeFeed). Thanks to Roman Varyanko for prompt proofreading and valuable substantive comments, and to Viktor Agroskin for help with debugging the course ontology.

There is a course support chat on Telegram, which is common for the courses on systems thinking, methodology, systems engineering, personal engineering, and system management: