Circularity and Systems

Systems Theory: An Introduction

It is often said that transitioning to a circular built environment requires a massive systemic change. Understanding systems and how they work is key to supporting circular principles. The following sections focus on making this notion explicit. In this video, Olga discusses how scientific reasoning has affected the way we perceive and make sense of the world. She illustrates how the limitations of the scientific method gradually led to the formulation of systems theory in an attempt to consider complex phenomena in an integral way.

Main Takeaways

  • In the paradigm of scientific reductionism every problem can be broken down to parts: understanding the problem comes from summing the understanding of its parts. It is an analytical (reductive) way of thinking.
  • Scientific reductionism is founded on the principles of repetition and predictability.
  • General Systems Theory (GST) proposed that complex phenomena can be seen as webs of relationships between elements. In this paradigm elements are still important, but not as important as their interconnections and their purpose.
  • Systems construct themselves and have an identity by which they are recognized. The world was seen as an autopoietic system in  the 1972 the ‘Limits to Growth’ report by the Club of Rome. World economy was linked for the first time with the environment showing that continuous growth pushes planetary limits to the verge of collapse.

Do you want to know more about the ‘Limits to Growth’ report? Check Carola’s ‘Green by Desire’ video here.

Further Watching

  • Documentary | In his 3-episode documentary, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Adam Curtis discusses how computers helped create a mechanistic idea of the natural world and how that plan backfired. Episode 2 also discusses Jay Forrester’s systems theory approach as discussed in the previous video.
  • Stanford University Lecture | In his May 2010 lecture Chaos and Reductionism Robert Sapolsky from Stanford University explains how reductionism came into being and it has been contradicted by later theories such as the Chaos theory.
  • Berlage Keynote Series lecture | In this video from the Berlage keynotes series, entitled  Filthy Logics’: The Architecture of MediocrityFrancesca Hughes, exposes the 19th century invention of Social Calculus (Statistics) as a means of controlling the narrative. Imbued by digital solutionism, the calculating machines invented at the time where actually used to calculate truths, ultimately giving way to an architecture of mediocrity. This keynote speech was recorded on May 12, 2022.

Further Reading

  • Meadows, D.H., Meadows D.L., Randers, J. & Behrens W.W. III (1972). The Limits to growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.
  • Maturana, H.R. & Varela, F.J. (1980). Autopoiesis and cognition: The Realization of the Living. Dordrecht, NL; Boston, USA, London, UK: D. Reidel Publishing Company.
  • Meadows, D. (2009). Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Vermont: Chelsey Green Publishing.
  • Mitchell, M. (2009). Complexity: A Guided Tour. New York: Oxford University Press
  • Skyttner, L. (2001). General Systems Theory: Ideas and Applications. Singapore; New Jersey; London; Hong Kong: Worlds Scientific.


Olga Ioannou
Olga Ioannou
Assistant Professor

Dr. Ing. Olga Ioannou is Assistant Professor at the Department of Architectural Engineering and Technology of TU Delft. She works for the chair of Building Product Innovation. She is in the steering committee of the Circular Built Environment Hub at TU Delft and a member of the Architectural Facades & Products (AF+P) group. Her expertise lies in architectural education, network learning and knowledge creation within the extended communities of knowledge. This is why she is now actively involved in developing programs for integrating circularity in the A+BE faculty curricula across all departments and levels of education.   

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Circularity for Educators

The platform is intended to provide with content on either circularity or pedagogy for and about circularity. It is one of the outcomes of the Circular Impulse Initiative (CII), a project intending to enhance the integration of circularity in the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment education. The platform mainly aims to help tutors get better acquainted with circularity in the built environment by providing a series of resources on this subject that they can either view to get better informed or directly share with their students in class or online. A large number of the Faculty's professors and researchers have contributed substantially both in creating a coherent narrative for circularity in the built environment as well as further elaborating on different aspects of it. Besides this one, a new platform for interaction and direct exchange was also established in parallel that we call ‘Educators for Circularity‘. This one offers the opportunity for all of us to meet and share our experiences and learn from one another.

Visit Educators for Circularity