Classifying Systems: A Comprehensive Guide

Classifying Systems: A Comprehensive Guide
Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

Systems are at the heart of understanding the intricate web of interactions that define our world. From ecosystems to economies, our bodies to our societies, systems shape our experiences and perceptions. To understand and design effective systems, we first need a solid foundation of how to classify them. Here's a comprehensive, yet concise exploration of several mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (MECE) categories for classifying systems.

Systems Based on Their Openness

Systems can be classified based on their level of interaction with the surrounding environment:

  1. Open Systems: These systems interact with their environment by exchanging matter, energy, or information. Living organisms, for example, are open systems, consuming nutrients for energy and expelling waste.
  2. Closed Systems: Closed systems do not exchange matter or energy with their environment, but they can exchange information. A self-sustaining spacecraft is a prime example of a closed system.
  3. Isolated Systems: In theory, isolated systems don't exchange matter, energy, or information with their environment. Perfectly isolated systems do not exist, but they serve as valuable models, particularly in thermodynamics.

Systems Based on Their Purpose

Different systems can be grouped according to the inherent patterns in their behaviour:

  1. Deterministic Systems: These systems' behaviour is entirely determined by their initial conditions. For example, a clock, where the movement of hands is determined by the internal mechanism and the set time.
  2. Stochastic Systems: These systems display randomness in their behaviour. Their outcomes are not certain but have different probabilities. The stock market is a classic example of a stochastic system.

Systems Based on Dynamism

Another classification is based on whether the systems change over time:

  1. Static Systems: These systems remain unchanged over time. An example is a printed book, which maintains the same content and structure throughout its existence.
  2. Dynamic Systems: Dynamic systems change over time. Many natural and human-made systems fall into this category, such as climate systems, economies, or the human body. They often exhibit complex behaviours due to their time-dependent nature.

Systems Based on Complexity

Lastly, systems can be classified based on the complexity of their components and interactions:

  1. Simple Systems: These systems have a small number of components with straightforward interactions. They are predictable and relatively easy to understand. For instance, a mechanical lever is a simple system.
  2. Complex Systems: Complex systems have numerous components with intricate interactions. They often display emergent properties, resulting from the interactions between components, which cannot be predicted solely by understanding individual components. Examples include the human brain, ecosystems, and social networks.


The classification of systems provides a framework to understand and engage with the world around us. It helps us comprehend the intricate tapestry of interactions that make up our lived experiences. By considering the openness, purpose, dynamism, and complexity of systems, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of how systems function and how to design effective and efficient systems in various contexts.

This content was generated using OpenAI's GPT Large Language Model (with some human curation!). Check out the post "Explain it like I'm 5: What is ChatGPT?" to learn more.