Process thinking or dynamic thinking is a way of interpreting events in terms of processes of change that create them. It focuses on the nonlinear dynamics of change over time that create certain patterns out of which events emerge. Process thinking involves considering phenomena dynamically – concerning movement, activity, events, change and temporal evolution.1 Von Bertalanffy noted how systems theory related to Heraclitus’s perception of “pant rhei” meaning “everything flows.” He wrote that from the Heraclitean and systems view, “structure is a result of function and the organism resembles a flame rather than a crystal.”2 Such an approach to the understanding of phenomena draws its inspiration from process philosophy. Process philosophy is based on the premise that being is dynamic and that the dynamic nature of being should be the primary focus of any comprehensive account to how the world works.3 This paradigm draws on a tradition of thinkers from Heraclitus to twentieth-century process philosophers such as William James, Henri Bergson, and Alfred North Whitehead and beyond all of who, in various ways, viewed reality in terms of ceaseless process, flux, and transformation rather than as a stable world of unchanging entities.4
Dynamic thinking is a central part of the systems paradigm. Systems thinking is process orientated, where the world is perceived in terms of processes of change, instead of static events. It adopts a more process-based ontology, meaning that within the systems paradigm objects are not seen to create change through direct, cause and effect, discrete interactions, but instead processes are seen to have internal patterns that generate and condition events. This is an inversion of our traditional ontology that sees objects as having precedence over processes of change.
Process thinking can be contrasted with a more static way of thinking that sees events as generated by linear cause and effect relations between a system’s component parts. Even though we experience our world as continuously changing, the modern analytical paradigm has long emphasized describing reality as an assembly of static events whose dynamic features are taken to be ontologically secondary and a derivative of the interaction between elementary parts.5 The analytical process of reasoning that breaks systems down to understand their internal parts leads to a detailed description of a system’s constituent components and a static understanding of its structural properties. Within this paradigm, events are the product of linear interactions between the parts.
Closed and Open Systems
Systems thinking is focused on open systems within the context of their environment. A key consideration is how systems change with respect to the changes within their environment? This leads to the idea of adaptation and evolution, where changes in the environment feedback to affect the system which must then adapt to those changes. In this way, the system can be continuously evolving to meet the changes within its environment.
The analytical approach, in contrast, is focused on closed systems with limited regard for the system within its environment. A closed linear system can only change by generating different configurations of its internal parts. With a limited amount of interacting parts, there is a finite number of possible future states. In a closed linear system there is limited possibility for emergence and thus the future resembles the past, the future can be modeled and understood as some permutation of the past. With a small number of interacting elements in a closed system, sooner or late the system will have cycled through every possible configuration of its internal parts and then the future will involve revisiting previously experienced states.
Linear thinking sees events happening through cause and effect interactions. One thing causes another as a discrete event. Nonlinear closed-loop thinking skills lead one to see causality as an ongoing process, rather than a one-time event. Events feedback on themselves meaning that the history of past events matter as they feed into shape current and future events within overarching processes of change. These feedback loops over time form reoccurring patterns, what are called system archetypes.
As such, how things come to be constituted, reproduced, adapted and defined through ongoing processes is seen to be central; issues are always seen to be relative to time and framed in terms of patterns of behavior over time. Events then, are not seen simply as the product of discrete cause and effect interactions at any given time, but are a product also of larger patterns – the archetypes – that condition the context within which those interactions take place.6 Dynamic thinking encourages people to use the historical trajectory for stimulating and guiding inquiry into underlying relationships that produce events.7
The idea of synergies and nonlinearity makes possible a conception of emergence, the idea that interactions between the parts may create something new. Emergence describes a process of development whereby many parts interact in a nonlinear fashion to create something that is more than the sum of their parts. In fact, it typically produces novel, unpredictable and unexpected phenomena. The internet revolution would be a good example, one could not have fully understood how when we connected all these computers together we would get the emergence of social networking, the app economy, cloud computing and all the innovations built on top of this.
Emergence is a process of becoming, the emphasis within the systems paradigm is on the process through which new entities become formed, rather than analysis of the structure to what already exists. Linear systems – such as a pendulum – are not in a state of becoming, they have a finite about of interacting components that cycle through a predetermined set of states, by understanding the structure we can understand the states the system will exhibit.
However, more complex nonlinear systems – such as a bird – go through a constant process of becoming whose endpoint is not determined yet, but which sets the context for current events. The analytical paradigm is based on a substance metaphysics, which goes back to the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Parmenides. Substance metaphysicians claim that the primary units of reality (called “substances”) must be static—they must be what they are at any instant in time. In contrast process philosophy sees becoming, as well as ways of occurring, as central to any inquiry.8