Systems Literacy

Introduction. Systems Literacy is a coordinated ongoing action to create a greater awareness and understanding about “Systems” in our lives, in the world, society, science and art, schools and universities and engineering and beyond and with that awareness and understanding an ability to make informed decisions and communicate using systems approaches . This Systems Literacy initiative builds on previous “literacy”  work facilitated and/or contributed to by the College of Exploration and by many other Literacy projects combined with the many “systems” education programs around the world. These range across many disciplines and many related topics, including cybernetics, complexity, complex adaptive systems, systems thinking, network literacy and network thinking, pattern literacy, developments in neurosciences and many others. Please send in suggestions

Foundation in Nature. the College of Exploration has specifically worked to varying degrees on Geography, Ocean, Earth Science, Atmospheric Science, and Energy literacy actions, guides, websites and projects since 1998.  The foundation of this work and initial condition are these natural systems of water, earth, air, and energy and biological life, including us!  These  geoscience and energy literacy publications that we have been involved in have been created since 2002. See the Oceans for Life guide created by the National Geographic, which help set the stage for Ocean Literacy at  Earth Science Literacy at Atmospheric Science Literacy at and Energy at

Other Literacy actions. The College of Exploration efforts in the above efforts and the associated guides are possible models for systems literacy. A collection of worldwide literacy efforts that we can consider is collected here

In 1997 a guide to  Biological Literacy was published.  Climate Literacy will also be considered.  Another important literacy consideration is Forest Literacy from Oregon Forest Research Institute.

United States Education for Science and Engineering. The USA Next Generation Science and Engineering Standards Cross Cutting Concepts will inform this work.  Also an important consideration is the recent work of the USA National Academies on Science Literacy.  Download their report as a PDF.

This Systems Literacy project is greatly assisted, supported and encouraged by the US based International Council on Systems Engineering and the work of the INCOSE Systems Science Working Group.

Vision. The vision is to create a systems literate world. The aim is to create a broader awareness and understanding of the science (and art) of systems. To achieve that we are building a collaborative learning system for systems literacy that coherently and systemically includes as many individuals, groups, societies, associations and other organizations from around the world who are concerned with systems research, education, theory, methods and applications to map, understand and describe big ideas, principles and concepts of systems.

Project at the College of Exploration. A Systems Literacy project  at the College of Exploration began in 2008 when we presented a poster on Geosciences Literacy at the American Geophysical Union annual conference in December 2008.  The natural development of this idea was to suggest a Systems Literacy initiative as described on this College of Exploration Systems Literacy page created in 2008.   These two projects remained as ideas for lack of funding.

Renewed effort began in 2015. Then in 2015 we attended the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS) annual conference in Berlin, Germany. There we spoke informally about our work on ocean and earth science literacy in the USA over the previous fifteen years. We suggested that perhaps ISSS might consider a similar effort for systems. This idea gained attention quickly, so much so that we were encouraged to  pursue Systems Literacy in ISSS and also with the International Council of Systems Engineers (INCOSE) , the International Federation for Systems Research (IFSR) and other Systems organizations, federations, society and groups.

Exploratory Workshops since 2015. Many workshops on Systems Literacy have been conducted at IFSR, ISSS and INCOSE meetings. One member of INCOSE, Bill Schindel, has stated that system phenomena are the starting point for traditional disciplines in the natural sciences and engineering. See his presentation “Got Phenomena” at the Sirocco Summit in 2016  and his related paper presented at the 26th Annual INCOSE International Symposium.

Previous References to Systems Literacy. Subsequent to initiating this cooperative effort with ISSS, INCOSE and IFSR and the worldwide systems community at large in 2015  we have found the term “systems literacy” has been used in different ways. In 1992 Fred Cowell published in the ISSS yearbook a paper called “Systems Literacy and the Literate Design of Education Systems”.  The term systems literacy is used on a website by the Public Broadcasting Service to present a another view of systems.  Linda Booth Sweeney wrote “Learning to Connect the Dots: Developing Children’s Systems Literacy” in October 2012.   Another view is presented by by Hugh Dubberly proposing a Systems Literacy Manifesto, All these uses of the term “systems literacy” were unknown to us in 2015 when we made the impromptu suggestion at the ISSS Conference in Berlin to create a systems literacy project.

As can be seen from the previous paragraph the term “systems literacy” is not without it challenges, even for the English language. We acknowledge that these two words already have different meanings, well four at least so far.  The term literacy is also not easily translated into many languages.


Last edited Feb 19, 2018