Designing and implementing effective strategies to rectify wicked problems requires the ability to recognize and analyze complex systems. Systems control every aspect of our lives—from our bodies to our society to our planet—yet their inherent properties make complex problems difficult to understand. While components may vary, unifying principles govern all systems.

  • 1. Systems are more than a sum of their parts. Systems display characteristics and outcomes that are difficult to predict. These are called emergent properties.
  • 2. Systems can be viewed at a variety of scales, and it is up to the

analyst to define the boundary of relevance. For example, one might consider a disease at the molecular, cellular, organ, whole organism, population, or ecosystem level.

  • 3. Systems are composed of components (i.e., nouns, or “stocks”). The components within a system interact with and influence one another (i.e., verbs, or “flows”).
  • 4. Complex systems are robust. System stability (i.e., homeostasis), is maintained by an intricate network of balancing and reinforcing loops.
  • 5. Systems are dynamic. As a system changes over time, the relative abundance of each component (i.e., the stocks) within it will change.
  • 6. Stocks are more easily measured than flows. Changes in stock abundance can reveal changes in flow. For example, by measuring the temperature of a room (a stock), one can deduce the rate of heat- loss through the walls (a flow).
  • 7. System changes result in delayed outcomes. For example, when you pull the plug in the bath, the tub is not immediately empty. Instead, it takes time to perceive the loss of water.
  • 8. Inherent delays make systems difficult to understand. It is tempting to conclude causation when two events occur simultaneously (i.e., they are correlated in time). A system analyst appreciates system delays and instead looks for causes upstream of—instead of in synchrony with—observed events.
  • 9. Once a system is defined, behaviors can more easily be interpreted, predicted, and perhaps influenced. Illustrated system diagrams,39 with boxes, arrows, and other standardized symbols, are a common tool for manual and computer-aided analysis.

These principles are the tools of systems thinking; a critical mindset in a world of complex problems. Collectively these principles will serve as a conceptual framework for understanding the ways in which biotechnology is and can be used to interface with wicked problems related to disease, food, and the environment. These are the foci of the coming chapters.


Biotechnology is the study and application of biological system components and interactions for the development of tools to address human problems. Despite its ancient roots, intersection with many social and natural sciences, and impact on modern society, the field of biotechnology is generally misunderstood and underappreciated. With the incremental development of tools such as rDNA technologies, DNA sequencing, organismal cloning, and most recently CRISPR-mediated genome editing, the field is uniquely poised to address complex problems related to health, food, and the environment.

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