System coupling concepts

Copyright 2019 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 papers at Last updated 23/03/2019 20:05


This paper distinguishes four system coupling concepts, named:

·         Self-regulation (via causal loops)

·         Subsidiarity (via delegation)

·         Coordination (via a hub).

·         Self-organization (via a higher level machine)           


Confusions in systems thinking. 1

Self-regulation (via causal loops) 2

Subsidiarity (via delegation) 2

Coordination (via a hub) 3

Self-organization (via a higher level machine) 3

Conclusion. 3


Confusions in systems thinking

Much discussion under the heading of “complex systems” is questionable.

Some is confused because people point to an entity in the world and call it a “system”.

Whereas in reality, one entity many realise countless different systems.

Some discussion is confused because people use the term “behavior” loosely.

Where some mean system state changes, others mean the processes by which state changes happen.


Suppose the trajectory of an ant crossing a beach is irregular, some might say chaotic.

To assume that the irregular state change trajectory results from a complex system is misleading, wrong in fact.

Because chaos theory tells us that very simple regular systems can produce irregular state change trajectories.

And the ant’s direction/guidance system is probably very simple.


Every concrete entity is infinitely complex at the subatomic level.

System complexity can only be measured in a description made at a higher level.

But the level of abstraction is subjective; it is whatever the describer chooses.

A measure of system complexity must be based on the number of elements in a system description.

But which elements? And how to account for whether they are related in simple or convoluted ways?

The fact is, there is no agreed measure of complexity.


Further confusions arise in uses of the terms discussed below.

Can we disentangle concepts that have become confused?

Self-regulation (via causal loops)

The idea of self-regulation via homeostatic feedback loops dates back to the 1800s if not before.

It is often applied naively in social systems thinking, contrary to how societies actually work.

Nevertheless, it does have an important place in cybernetics and wider systems thinking.


Cybernetics deals with all forms of behavior in so far as they are regular, or determinate, or reproducible (said Ashby).

It is about the science of control in the animal and the machine (said Wiener).

Some homeostatic system are designed – as when a thermostat controls the behavior of a heater/cooler machine

Some are natural – as when predator and prey populations are balanced as a result interactions between those components. 


You may think there are two kinds of coupling above:

·         A pair of systems that are coupled symmetrically (as predators and prey are coupled).

·         A pair of systems that are coupled asymmetrically (as thermostat and heater/cooler machine are coupled).


But in both cases, there is a wider system in which two components or subsystems are connected by a causal loop.

And the asymmetry is as much in our mind as in reality.

Does the thermostat control the heater? Or does the heater control the thermostat?

Does the brain control the body? Or does the brain serve the body?


Certainly, one system may act to regulate the state of another, but this is not “self-organising” in the sense below.

Federation and subsidiarity (via delegation)

Federation means coupling systems, states or organizations under one central authority

It also implies that some authority is delegated.

Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.

Decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.


A control system is often seen as “higher” than a target system

And one idea is to arrange control-target systems in a hierarchy.

When a lower level system detects a state variable has moved out of range (an exception), it passes control to a higher-level control system.

The higher level system returns with a direction to the lower-level system.

This kind of subsidiarity appears in classical cybernetics as technique for organizing a large and/or distributed system.

(See Beer’s Viable System Model for managing a business and his Project Cybersyn for managing the economy of a nation.)


The principle of subsidiarity may help us understand how biological and social entities work. 

But it is about how to regulate behavior efficiently and effectively, it is not “self-organising” in the sense below.

Coordination (via a hub)

Coordination is weaker than federation, since it means only centralising communication between those systems.

Consider the organizations involved in emergency response. For example:

“The Emergency Response Coordination Centre coordinates the delivery of assistance to disaster stricken countries, such as relief items, expertise, civil protection teams and specialised equipment.

It acts as a coordination hub between participating states, the affected country, and civil protection and humanitarian experts.”

Each organization has its own command hierarchy but they are called to act in the same situation.

The coordination centre does not command; it doesn’t have authority within any of the organizations.  

It ensures each organization has information about the state of the situation and each other organization.

It acts to couple the subsystems – indirectly rather than directly.

The hub helps to coordinate subsystems efficiently and effectively, but is not “self-organising” in the sense below.

Self-organization (via a higher level machine)

Consider a system of populations that are connected by causal loops.

The populations grow and shrink as a result of their interactions

The system may be called self-regulating, and that is the starting point for classical cybernetics.

But here, self-organization means changing the causal loops themselves.

It means adding or removing a population, or changing the rules by which a population changes.


System change may be divided into two broad types:

·         system state change: changing the values of given state variables (whether triggered by input or not)

·         system behaviour change: changing the variable types or the rules that update their values.


The second kind of change may be further subdivided into reconfiguration and mutation.


System reconfiguration: changing behaviour in a pre-ordained way.

Consider as a system, a machine that is coupled to a lever.

“Many a machine has a switch or lever on it that can be set at any one of three positions, and the setting determines which of three ways of behaving will occur.” (1956)

Notice that more flexible machine is more complex than a rigid one (this is a universal trade off).

But still, the ways of behaving are constrained, and we know what pulling the lever will do.

So reconfiguring the machine, switching it from one mode to another, does not change what it has the potential to do.


Consider the re-configuration of a caterpillar, via a pupae, into a butterfly.

This change is pre-ordained in the DNA of the caterpillar.


System mutation: changing behaviour in a random or creative way.

A mutation can happen at random (as in biological evolution) or by intention (as in re-engineering a machine).

Ashby argued a machine cannot change itself in this way.

This “re-organisation” requires the intervention of a higher level process or machine.

It is creative in that it changes the very nature of the machine, from one generation to the next.

And it is the kind of change of most interest in social and business systems thinking.


Read second order cybernetics for more.


This paper has distinguished four ways that subsystems may be coupled, named:

·         Self-regulation (via causal loops)

·         Subsidiarity (via delegation)

·         Coordination (via a hub).

·         Self-organization (via a higher level machine)           


In theory, these are different ways of coupling subsystems, which work in different ways.

In a human society, one actor may play a role in several systems of different kinds.

And one “organization” (like the European Union) may utilise several of these techniques.

Moreover the systems operated by or organization may compete or conflict.


John Flach tells me, some of these concepts appear in

Handy, C. (1992). Balancing Corporate Power: A New Federalist Paper. Harvard Business Review. 70(6), November–December.

Sage, A.P., & Cuppan, C.D. (2001). On the systems engineering and management of systems of systems and federations of systems. In Information knowledge systems management, 2 (pp. 245–325). IOS Press.    



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