One afternoon in 1966, while he was gazing at the San Francisco skyline from a rooftop, Stewart Brand realized that an image of the entire planet could change the world.
“There it would be for all to see, the earth complete, tiny, adrift,” he later recalled, “and no one would ever perceive things the same way.” Confronted with a color photograph of the planet as seen from outer space, people would stop acting as if the world were flat and limitless — a misconception to which Buckminster Fuller famously attributed humankind’s shortcomings — and see it instead as it really was: spherical, finite, fragile.
Soon, pins emblazoned with the question, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” were being handed out at college campuses across the U.S. And in 1968, the Apollo 8 astronauts returned from their mission with Earthrise, the first photo of the whole planet. Together with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which had been published in 1962, the image changed everything. Two years later, the first Earth Day marked the birth of the global environmental movement, and the landmark Clean Air Act was signed into law.
Brand asked his question at a time when we needed to reframe our perspective on the sustainability of the Earth’s resources. Now, at a time of both rising complexity and crippling fragmentation, we need to rally around a new question:
Today, after three years of research, development, and testing, we are thrilled to launch the public beta of System (www.system.com). System is a free, open, and living public resource that aims to explain how anything in the world is related to everything else.
You can read an overview of System here, but this is the TL;DR:
I founded System because the biggest challenges we face in the world — from COVID to climate change — are systemic, yet our data and knowledge are organized into silos. Disciplines, departments, nation-states, genders… no longer reflect our best understanding of the way things really are. I believe this fundamental incongruity makes it impossible to think, plan, and act systemically. As a result, we are stifled in our ability to reliably predict outcomes, make decisions, mitigate risks, and improve the state of the world for everyone.
So, we built System. A new way to organize data and knowledge into systems based on the evolving relationships between everything in the world. A shared tool for systems thinking — and, we hope, a springboard for collective action.
System couldn’t have existed a decade ago. It leverages the explosion of open data and scholarship, newly accessible data science, machine learning, and graph technologies, and the steady progress of science. System works by gathering statistical evidence of relationships between topics, drawing on research, datasets, models, and observations from scientists, systems thinkers, and citizens the world over. Then it organizes and visualizes that information with all the supporting data by its side. You can start exploring today with searches for topics like Social Distancing, Unemployment, and Food Fortification.
Eventually, System will comprise billions of relationships between millions of topics. Anyone will be able to see the system of anything that matters to them — from IVF to extremism, gas prices to marijuana legalization — and gain a depth and breadth of perspective, a holistic view, that will enable us all to make better decisions at home, at work, and as a society.
Still: this launch is just a small step. We started System and will continue to guide it. But System is for all of us, working together, to build and to grow. By definition, this has to be a global undertaking to work.
From silos to systems, by and for the world. We very much hope you’ll join us.