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What is a system?

I am working with some colleagues at the EdTech Hub on defining EdTech systems. We are reviewing general systems literature as well as literature on systems more specific to EdTech. I went back to read something I wrote on knowlede to policy systems (or evidence ecosystems) three years ago in the book I co-edited, Knowledge, Politics, and Policymaking in Indonesia.

I quoted Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, and her definition of systems:

‘Donella Meadows defines a system as ‘an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised in a way that achieves something’. In brief, a system consists of elements, interconnections and a purpose. The elements are the easiest parts to see, because they are visible and tangible. In the knowledge system, elements include, for example, universities, policy research institutes, policy analysis units, ministries, local governments, civil servants, researchers and data scientists.

Interconnections are the relationships that hold these elements together. It is more difficult to understand these interconnections and why elements are linked as they are. Interconnections often reflect information flows. The government, for example, needs information about the economy, social problems, education and health to decide on policies and fund programmes. The purpose is the hardest part of a system to spot, as it may not be articulated orally or in writing. The purpose must be deduced from behaviour, rather than rhetoric or stated goals, for example, a commitment to use more research-based evidence in policymaking followed by the establishment of new funding mechanisms for think tanks and policy research organisations.

Changes in a system require mapping and understanding all three aspects of the system. Government interventions and development programmes often focus on changes to the elements (e.g. new research organisations, trained civil servants, etc.) − which usually have the least impact on the system but are easier to measure and report on. Some interventions venture further, looking at ways to change or influence interconnections in the system (e.g. forums between researchers and policymakers, coalitions among advocacy organisations and knowledge producers, etc.). This can have a positive impact on the system but may not last. Very few interventions venture so far as to try to influence or change the system’s purpose, which is the level capable of instituting the most profound changes to the system.’

Photo credit: Tiplada Mekvisan on Unsplash

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