The Third System Research Project is very ambitious. If we are to make progress, we have to use the best thinking tools for the job.

This post lists important concepts which we are going to apply:

Table of Contents


Norbert WienerThe term cybernetics was coined by Norbert Wiener in 1948 to describe “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” Cybernetics brought together thinkers in fields including anthropology, psychiatry, evolutionary biology, mechanical and electrical engineering and electronics. They met, and often argued violently with each other, at the Macy conferences in New York, which ran from 1941 until 1960.

Cybernetics laid the foundations for new fields such as computer science and ecology, but, since it did not fit within the boundaries of academic disciplines, it was mostly forgotten about. In the 1980s, the Santa Fe Institute was founded to study the fundamental principles of complex adaptive systems, a field now known popularly as complexity science. The workers in this field have re-invented many of the insights of cybernetics, often without realising or acknowledging this.

Stafford BeerProfessor Stafford Beer was the first person to apply cybernetics to improving human organisations, pioneering the field which became known as management cybernetics. He started out applying this to the steel industry in the UK in the 1950s, became world famous, then fell foul of the Cold War between the USA and USSR when he worked with President Allende of Chile in the early 1970s. He continued to work & teach quietly until his death in 2002. I tracked him down in the 1990s and learned a great deal from him, applying his insights successfully to all the work I have done since.

The key concepts of cybernetics are remarkably simple and powerful.

The most important are:

Stafford Beer’s wide-ranging work led him to formulate the Viable System Model (VSM), which works out the implications of Ashby’s Law to uncover the functions necessary to enable any system to be viable within its environment:


I have found that, once the VSM has been understood in depth, it becomes possible to “see” how our organisations really work, which empowers us to make them much more effective. This is as big an advance in our understanding as we made when Isaac Newton used a few simple laws to revolutionise our understanding of the physical world in the seventeenth century, leading to our ability to land men on the moon and send space probes beyond the Solar System.

The fact that most people have never heard of any of this, and few people apply it to real-world issues, tells us more about us than it does about the effectiveness of this field of knowledge.

Most of the key concepts below follow from understanding the VSM.

How everything in the world operates on many levels of recursion

Recursion Recursion occurs when a thing is defined in terms of itself or of its type. The term originates with mathematics and computer science, where a function is defined in terms of itself, but is used less formally to refer to the way that any type of system is made up of smaller systems, which are themselves made up of smaller ones.

According to cybernetic theory, all these systems, nested within each other, share certain features, such as having to follow the principles of viability within their environments, even though they differ in other ways.

For example, motor companies such as Ford & General Motors compete against each other, at the level of recursion of manufacturing and selling vehicles, but belong to the automotive industry at the next level of recursion up, where they are members of bodies which support the definition of standards and lobby on behalf of the industry, in competition against other industries.

We see the same phenomenon in living organisms, where they live together in social groups, but can only live because they have functioning organs such as the heart, brain and liver at the next level of recursion down. Further down, these are composed of cells, which are made up of molecules, which are made up of atoms.

Emergence of increasingly complex systems through time

If we look back over the currently known thirteen billion years of history, we see new levels of organisation of increasing complexity emerging. Physical systems emerge at the level of energy and sub-atomic particles, then at the atomic level, then the molecular level, and so on, until we reach the first life on earth shortly after the formation of the oceans, as long ago as about four billion years.

Our ancestors appear to have been making stone tools about two and a half million years ago, and the whole of the history of civilisation has been crammed into only about five thousand years. The history of civilisation, from one perspective, is mostly just a record of aristocrats fighting each other for territory. This would appear to be a zero-sum game, but despite this, the scale of organisation has increased over time, with occasional collapses in complexity followed by new blossomings of higher levels of knowledge and organisation.

Before the seventeenth century, almost nobody believed in progress. The general view of thinkers was that the world and humans had once been perfectly in harmony, but something went wrong and the world had been getting worse ever since, and was doomed to some kind of ultimate collapse, followed perhaps by a miraculous renewal, the nature of which was disputed.

Moore's Law

During the seventeenth century, in England, the methodology we now call science & technology was consciously kick-started, accompanied by a belief in progress, which has now become the norm throughout the world. In certain respects, change since then has taken place at an exponential rate, famously exemplified by Moore’s Law and the rise of human population since the Second World War.

We continue to evolve systems of increasing complexity and scale, to the extent that these appear to threaten the natural systems that keep us alive. This is an unprecedented challenge to the human species.

The purpose of the Third System Research Programme is to support the emergence of a new level of civilisation that can meet these challenges.

How levels of recursion change in importance through time

What we know about the nature of human social groups

How membership of different social groups affects our capacity to understand

Why studying history is important

How modernity was invented in seventeenth century England and its American colonies

How different cultures have responded to modernity

How and why past civilisations have gone through cycles of rise and fall

The importance of infrastructure and what it is

The Laws of Viability

Moral Modalities

Why certain kinds of social change are difficult, while others are easy

Sociotechnical systems

The nature of financial systems and causes of financial booms & busts

Why we don’t use the knowledge we already have, but we constantly demand to know more