Fritjof Capra on the evolution of systems thinking

Sensemaking / Fritjof Capra on the evolution of systems thinking

Anna Simpson speaks to the systems visionary prior to the launch of his new book.

By Anna Simpson / 16 Sep 2014

Anna Simpson speaks to the systems visionary prior to the launch of his new book.

Fritjof Capra’s work can’t be reduced to a profession or discipline. He has dedicated the last 40 years to demonstrating the limits of trying to understand life by breaking it down into various parts, from medicine to art to spirituality. Instead, he advocates a holistic approach, based on the interconnectedness of all things. His most recent book, co-authored with Pier Luigi Luisi, aims to show the evolution of systems thinking, and outline the economic, ecological, political and spiritual implications of seeing life through a systemic lens.I spoke with him for an hour before the London launch of his book. Eyeing the recent Green Futures edition ‘Where Science Meets Art’ on the table, Capra launches in...


Leonardo da Vinci was a systems thinker. For him, to solve a problem meant to connect it to other problems. He always looked for relationships, interconnections. I studied his work over ten years, and believe I discovered his main quest: to understand the nature of life. In order to paint he needed to do science and in order to do science he needed to draw. Today, our academic institutions are so fragmented that it’s very difficult to write and teach a book like ours, which is multidisciplinary.

How would you redesign society and education, to make room for perspectives like yours?

This would be the realisation of a dream that I’ve had for the last 20 years or so: to redesign education in such a way that it’s multidisciplinary. If you think of the major disciplines at our universities – humanities, law, medicine, architecture, life sciences, psychology, economics – what do they all have in common? They’re all to do with living systems: individual organisms, social systems and ecosystems. I envisage a common language to enable people to understand each other across these disciplines; students would learn it in their first or second year! Our book is really a textbook to teach such a course.

And what difference do you hope this new approach to education would make?

One of the great challenges of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities. The word sustainability has often been misused and has become controversial. What is sustainable in a community? It’s not economic growth or competitive advantage; what is sustained is the very breath of life on which our long-term survival depends. In other words, it must be designed in such a way that its economy, its social institutions, its technologies and so on do not interfere with nature’s ability to sustain life. In order to do this, we first have to know how nature sustains life. It turns out that this involves a whole new concept of life.

Where do you see such a concept emerging?

At the forefront of contemporary science, the universe is no longer seen as a machine composed of building blocks. The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity has been replaced by one which sees the brain, the bodily organs and even each cell as a living cognitive system. Evolution is no longer seen as the competitive struggle for existence but rather as a cooperative dance, in which the creativity inherent in life and the emergence of novelty are the driving forces.

How can people join the dots?

One very important influence on how we think is the experience of community. Urban life is designed in such a way that it doesn’t nourish communities: everyone lives separately, and there are not many places where people can actually talk and be together. Community, I’ve come to realise, is extremely important to move towards sustainability. Ecosystems are communities: they’re communities of plants, animals, microorganisms. But the current global economy depends on consumption; we convince people that their happiness depends on buying more stuff. This is a very pernicious system, and the best antidote for it is community. If I spend an evening with friends, I don’t need to buy some sort of gadget to feel happy.

Fritjof Capra PhD is most recently author of The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, with Pier Luigi Luisi (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
Anna Simpson is Editor, Green Futures.


Photo credit: Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Padova e Rovigo

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