Viability is the ability of a system to preserve itself and its kind in a volatile environment. Viability is a core feature of all living systems, and comes with an inherent drive to sustain existence.
As every system, also viable systems are embedded in an overall system – we refer to as “environment”. It is characteristic that such environments undergo constant and mostly volatile change. This change affects the embedded system in a destabilizing way, to the point that it looses its integrity and its ability to preserve itself. At the same time the environment provides resources that viable systems can utilize to maintain their capacity to act, a prerequisite to maintain themselves and to adapt to environmental changes. No matter how simple or complex an environment and its changes are, the ability of an affected viable system for preservation and adaptation is based on the closed control loop principle. Essential elements in all closed control loops are the abilities 1) to perceive information about relevant state changes, 2) to process that information to create a sufficiently accurate concept of an affected state, 3) and to respond to state changes in order to either maintain or to change that affected state, whatever is more favorable to the system’s self preservation. It is important to note that the state we refer to can be both, a state in the environment or in the viable system.
For a given viable system in its relevant environment, these abilities just need to be sufficiently accurate and operational to sustain existence and development. For simple life forms who only depend on their immediate physical environment, there is not much required to be viable. They survive based on simple material exchange and reproduction processes. For highly evolved viable systems that influence, shape or even create their own physical and societal environment, the requirements are much higher. Human beings create highly sophisticated technologies, transfer resources around the globe, process material goods on an industrial scale, and have created with the Internet a global network and feedback loop to communicate and develop concepts, convictions and world views. The requirements to human beings and humanity to maintain control, to maintain integrity, and to maintain viability are much different.
Common to all living species on earth is a universal architecture that enables them to be viable in the environment they depend on. This architecture comprises a defined set of functional components, ranging from processing materials / energy, over processing internal and external information, to creating a concept of the self and the environment / universe. For details, see “Viable Systems Model” by Stafford Beer*. We can assume that this architecture is universally indispensable, and not limited to life forms on earth.
The Viable Systems Model VSM*
We observe that all known life forms have the same architecture, no matter if single-cellular organisms, plants, animals, or human beings. Regarding their form, these systems differ as widely as their specific environments differ. Still, without exception, they all consist of the following architectural components and relationships, the so-called Systems 1 to 5*:
System 1: those operational functions that represent the transformational relationships with the environment, and that are essential or advantageous for the overall system’s viability in its specific environment. Typically, these functions take care of processing resources and information from the environment, provide resources required for all sub-systems to fulfil their specific function, as well as a variety of outputs to the environment.
System 2: this management function executes the distribution of resources and information between all sub-systems according to the organization and guidelines provided by System 3. The internal distribution of resources meets each sub-system’s requirement. Should resources become scarce, the distribution is balanced in a way that the overall system’s viability is optimized under the given conditions.
System 3: this management function represents the organizational set-up needed for the overall system to operate within its normal range of activities. It decides on resource distribution and measures coordination, all conveyed via System 2, needed to keep all sub-systems going. To decide appropriate measures, it requires accurate and timely information about relevant operational indicators from all sub-systems, accurate assessment against target values, and appropriate means to execute corrective measures.
System 4: this management function is responsible for determining the best organizational set-up for today’s and tomorrow’s challenges and, if necessary, to induce development and change to the overall system in order to maintain its integrity against adverse conditions, or improve its situation when opportunities are favorable. For System 4 to fulfil its purpose, it requires accurate and timely information on environmental and on internal indicators that tell if the overall systems viability and identity is secured at present and in the foreseeable future, and it requires appropriate decision making and decision executing authority to initiate whatever development and change is necessary – all according to the guidelines and policies defined by System 5.
System 5: this management function is responsible for maintaining a concept of what is at present, a vision of the future, and of how to achieve that future. This entails concepts of the viable system’s identity, of its relevant environment, and of the functional relationship the system has with the environment at present, as well as a vision about the future of the viable system and its environment, and finally the policy decisions needed to realize that future.
System 1 to 5 Relationships: all sub-systems representing Systems 1 to 5 are related (“wired”) in a very specific way, as indicated above.
It should be self-evident that for a system to be viable, all of the above-mentioned components must be present, and each component must meet its specific functional requirements. Is any requirement insufficiently met, and any function impaired, the system loses its viability accordingly, ultimately to the point that it ceases to be alive.
Accordingly, we conclude that for a system to maintain viability, it
a) has no freedom but to realize all required VSM functions for its relevant environment. Moreover, it
b) has freedom with how to realize any of the required functions. And finally, it
c) has freedom with everything as long as it does not impair the required VSM functions.