Systems Thinking

Watch this Training Video on “Systems Thinking.” Download the audio podcast of this video [Download Link].

What is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is a crucial concept to understand before engaging with Indigenous communities, but even if you aren’t working with Indigenous communities, it is important for all engineers to be somewhat familiar with the topic. There are three types of systems we are likely to encounter as engineers: Simple, Complicated, and Complex. (Blignaut, 2019)

Simple systems have known knowns (AKA all the variables are known), so they are solvable. For example, the equation of a line with a known x or y value is solvable. The cause and effects in this system are clear.

Complicated systems have known unknowns, like a large system of equations that can be only solved with a matrix. In this case, the cause & effect relationships are separated by space & time. You can utilize systems thinking to solve these systems.

Lastly, there are complex systems. Complex systems have unknown unknowns, so you don’t know the framework or the variables. The cause & effect relationships aren’t repeated, and the system is only coherent in retrospect.

For example, your household is a simple system. There’s you, maybe a spouse, maybe kids or elders that depend on you, and maybe a pet. You can easily map that system in terms of who is related to who. However, what if you try to map your entire family tree? Who do you include? Your parents, your cousins? Your in-laws? What about your cousins’ spouses and their parents? Or your child’s spouse? Do you define family by blood, the law, something else, or a combination? That system is complicated.


Blignaut, S. (2019, August 19). 7 Differences between complex and complicated [blog post]. Noteworthy. Retrieved from

Mindtools. (2016). The Cynefin Framework. Mindtools. Retrieved from

Poli, R. (2013). A Note on the Difference Between Complicated and Complex Social Systems. Cadmus Journal, 142-147. Retrieved from

Additional Reading

If you are interested in exploring complex systems in the engineering context, take a look at these resources:

Ottino, J.M. (2004). Engineering complex systems. Nature, 427, p. 399. Available at

Sheard, S.A. and Mostashari, A. (2009), Principles of complex systems for systems engineering. Syst. Engin., 12: 295-311. DOI: 10.1002/sys.20124.

Below are some civil engineering specific resources on complex systems:

Bertelsen, Sven & Sven. (2003). Construction as a Complex System [conference proceedings]. Proceedings for the 11th Annual Conference of the International Group for Lean Construction. Retrieved from

Ellinas, C. (2019) Perspective: organisations as complex systems. Civil Engineering and Environmental Systems, 35(1-4), pp. 1-5. DOI: 10.1080/10286608.2019.1615472



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Decolonizing the Engineering Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Pamela Wolf, Ben Harris, Nika Martinussen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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