Four building blocks of systems thinking

By Derek Cabrera and Laura Cabrera

1. Derek Cabrera (biography)
2. Laura Cabrera (biography)

Systems thinking itself is a complex adaptive system. Supported by empirical evidence, DSRP theory describes 4 simple rules that dynamically combine to explain the complexity of physical, natural, and social systems. Awareness of these patterns can help us to solve many societal and environmental problems.

We briefly present DSRP theory which describes four universal patterns and their underlying elements—identity (i) and other (o) for Distinctions (D), part (p) and whole (w) for Systems (S), action (a) and reaction (r) for Relationships (R), and point (p) and view (v) for Perspectives (P).

We describe these four building blocks and show how they can be mixed and matched. We conclude with some additional key aspects of the theory.

The Building Blocks

Distinctions (Identity-Other)
An essential element of systems thinking is making distinctions (identity-other) between and among things and ideas. How we draw or define the boundaries of an idea or a system of ideas is an essential aspect of understanding. Whenever we draw a boundary to define a thing, that same boundary defines what is not the thing (the “other”). Systems thinkers consciously use distinctions to challenge existing norms, labels, and definitions, and to identify biases in the way information is structured.


Systems (Part-Whole)
Systems thinkers organize things and ideas into part-whole systems to make meaning. They know that changing the way ideas are organized changes meaning itself. The act of thinking is defined by splitting things up or lumping them together. Systems thinkers constantly consider context by asking “What is this a part of?” in order to see how things fit into larger wholes than is the norm.


Relationships (Action-Reaction)
Systems thinkers identify relationships (action-reaction) between and among things and ideas. We cannot understand much about anything, including a system, without understanding how parts and wholes are related. Relationships come in all types: causal, correlation, direct/indirect, etc., Systems thinkers use relationships to show dynamical interactions between things and ideas, including feedback loops to show reciprocal relations.


Perspectives (Point-View)
Systems thinkers look at ideas from different perspectives (point-view) and understand that every time we make a distinction (including identifying relationships and systems), we are always doing so from a particular perspective. Systems thinkers use perspectives to rethink distinctions, relationships, and/or systems. They move beyond human or animal perspectives (i.e., “perspectives with eyes”) by taking conceptual perspectives (i.e., seeing a phenomenon from the perspective of an idea or thing).


Mixing and Matching the Building Blocks

Even though the four patterns distinctions (D), systems (S), relationships (R), and perspectives (P) are very simple, the brain is very complex, so it can do these four things simultaneously and in combinations that create amazing patterns of thought. Systems thinkers mix and match as follows:

  • Mix R and D: make a relationship a distinction, which means to define relationships as ideas or things rather than just noting connections between objects;


  • Mix R, D, and S: after identifying relationships, “zoom into them” by deconstructing them into part-whole systems;


  • Mix S and R: see the organization of parts and the relationships between them in novel ways;


  • Mix S and R: compare the relationship between two wholes by comparing the relationships between their parts (ie., a “Relationship Channel” or “R-channel”);


  • Mix P and S: Break down perspectives into sub-perspectives in order to avoid the homogenous perspective thinking error (i.e., assuming any group is characterized by a single perspective);


  • Mix P, S, R, and D: see that distinct objects and ideas can be grouped/related in various ways according to a perspective, thereby avoiding thinking errors brought about by categorizing;

  • Mix P, S, R, and D: realize every complex topic or phenomenon is a massively relational, perspectival network where
    1. every relationship can be made a distinction, and
    2. where every element must be made a distinction, could be a system in and of itself, could be a perspective (point or view), and could be related to, or the relationship between, other elements.


Concluding remarks

The DSRP patterns and their underlying elements are universal in both cognitive complexity (mind) and material complexity (nature). DSRP Theory provides a basis for systems thinking or cognitive complexity as well as material complexity (systems science).

What do you think? Do these ideas resonate with you? Do you have examples of how the DSRP theory has played out in your own research?

This blog post is taken, with some modifications, from Derek Cabrera and Laura Cabrera (2018). Four building blocks of systems thinking. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research Framework #4, GAIA, 27, 2: 200. (Online – open access) (DOI):

To find out more:

Cabrera, D. and Cabrera, L. (2015). Systems thinking made simple: New hope for solving wicked problems. Odyssean: Ithaca, New York, United States of America.

Cabrera, D. and Cabrera, L. (2022). DSRP theory: A primer. Systems, 10, 26. (Online – open access) (DOI):

Biography: Derek Cabrera PhD is a systems scientist at Cornell Institute for Public Affairs at Cornell University in Ithaca, USA, as well as co-founder and senior scientist at Cabrera Research Lab. He is credited with discovering universal organizing rules of systems and systems thinking (DSRP theory) and organizations (VMCL (Vision, Mission, Capacity, Learning) theory).

Biography: Laura Cabrera PhD is a visiting lecturer at Cornell Institute for Public Affairs at Cornell University in Ithaca, USA. She is co-founder and Chief Research Officer at Cabrera Research Lab and the Co-principal Investigator and acting Executive Director of ThinkWater, a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-funded initiative designed to implement systems thinking nationwide in water-based research, extension, and education.

14 thoughts on “Four building blocks of systems thinking”

  1. Folks here might be interested in some of our recent research publications of DSRP Theory

    Cabrera, D.; Cabrera, L. ; Cabrera, E. Perspectives Organize Information in Mind and Nature: Empirical Findings of Point-View Perspective (P) in Cognitive and Material Complexity. Systems 2022, 10, 52.

    Cabrera, D.; Cabrera, L.; Cabrera, E. Systems Organize Information in Mind and Nature: Empirical Findings of Part-Whole Systems (S) in Cognitive and Material Complexity. Systems 2022, 10, 44.

    Cabrera, D.; Cabrera, L.; Cabrera, E.; Distinctions Organize Information in Mind and Nature: Empirical Findings of Identity-Other Distinctions (D) in Cognitive and Material Complexity. Systems 2022, 10, 41.

    Cabrera, D.; Cabrera, L.; Cabrera, E. The “Fish Tank” Experiments: Metacognitive Awareness of Distinctions, Systems, Relationships, and Perspectives (DSRP) Significantly Increases Cognitive Complexity. Systems 2022, 10, 29.

    Cabrera, D.; CaCognitive%20and%20Material%20Complexity.pdfbrera, L. DSRP Theory: A Primer. Systems 2022, 10, 26.

    Cabrera, D., Cabrera, L. (2021) A Summary of Findings from Recent Research on DSRP Theory. Journal of Systems Thinking. (21) 12.

    Cabrera, D.; Cabrera, L.; Cabrera, E.; Relationships Organize Information in Mind and Nature: Empirical Findings of Action-Reaction Relationships (R) in Cognitive and Material Complexity. Preprint of Submitted Article. 2021

  2. Hi Derek and Laura. The “formalism” you have presented here resonates well with me, thank-you.

    From an alternative perspective I have applied over a long career (covering systems in technology, industry, infrastructure, regulation and management consulting), what I used to call “Complex Adaptive Systems Thinking” (CAST). I would profile each significant partially-autonomous agent – or group – in terms (albeit “homegrown”) of their Resources, Relationships, Incentives, and Interests/Values (including of course their capacity to support or thwart other agents’ endeavours, singly or through alliances).

    This leads to anticipating emergent behaviours, and being able to plan and manage arising circumstances and change/reforms programs in complex social-technical contexts.

    Now largely retired, I can appreciate I would have benefitted more from seeing the world through the lens of your concise approach.

    • Thanks Graeme. Sounds like you were ahead of your time! DSRP is a CAS (complex adaptive system) approach which in many ways is the main thing that differentiates it from so many other systems thinking approaches which are not CAS based. But if thinking is a CAS, which it most certainly is, then the idea is to ask what are the simple rules that underlie this adaptive ability. This was the research question that led to the discovery of DSRP.

  3. It would be good if you could post a paragraph on how DSRP patterns can be found in the material world as well as the cognitive one. Speaking personally, I know your answer to this, and it is useful. However, I’m making this suggestion from the perspective of someone coming to DSRP as a systems scientist who might think of their analyses as objective. Their criticism might be that, as soon as you acknowledge a perspective, it is no longer objective – it makes the analysis a cognitive projection onto the world. Thanks.

    PS. I didn’t know you had done the primer for ‘Systems’. I’ll take a look at that.

    • Thanks for your comment, Gerald. As you and I have talked about, DSRP is both physical and cognitive; it applies to real-world, physical material things in the same way that it applies to cognitive things; in this sense, DSRP is a mathematical construct that describes both the phenomena across disciplines. You can therefore think of DSRP as both a verb (how we think, aka “to DSRP something”) and a noun (the DSRP structure of the things we think about).

      A simple example is this – when we think – or build mental model about ANY thing we necessarily distinguish it from other things, we deconstruct it into its parts or make it part of a larger whole; we relate it to an other thing OR it can be the relationship between things; and that thing can be a perspective on other things.

      These characteristics of thought exist in the material world as well such that the ‘things’ we think about possess the same DSRP structure. This is true of a chair, an apple, a dog, any thing. A chair is a distinct thing, physically different from a table or the floor; a chair is made up of parts (arms, legs, the seat, the material it’s made of, etc) or is part of a larger whole – like a dining set; some of those parts of the chair are related through other parts that create relationships through glue or bolts that connect the seat to the legs or arms of the chair; the chair is the relationship between a human and the table (it is acting as a relationship between two things); and lastly, we can take many perspectives on the chair to better understand it – like sturdiness, environmental footprint, cost, etc. This is a very simple example that hopefully illustrates the parallelism that DSRP creates between the cognitive and material. That means it is a theory of things as much as it is a theory of ideas.

      For more on this idea see:
      1. Cabrera, D., Cabrera, L. (2020). Any Person, Any Study: A Different Kind of Theory of Everything (ToE). Journal of Applied Systems Thinking (20) 9.
      2. Cabrera, D., & Cabrera, L. (2008) “Distinctions, Systems, Relationships, and Perspectives (DSRP): A Theory of Thinking and of Things.” Journal of Evaluation Program Planning 31, no. 3: 311-17.

  4. I agree with Dr Lewis Atkinson. The DSRP is a nice concise view on systems thinking. I have repeatedly cited articles by Derek Cabrera and Laura Cabrera in my research articles. This post allowed me to get acquainted with their new articles. However, the authors of the DSRP theory ask us: “Do these ideas resonate with you?”. Thus, they hope to hear constructive comments or arguments. This question allowed me to philosophize a little on the topic of systems thinking.

    Thinking is a mental process of modeling the laws of the surrounding world on the basis of axiomatic provisions. The DSRP theory provides us with original axiomatic statements: distinctions (D), systems (S), relationships (R), and perspectives (P). In this sense, the DSRP theory is a classic way of systems thinking. This method allows us to understand the cause-and-effect relationships between phenomena and surrounding objects. Other ways of systems thinking, mentioned by Derek Cabrera and Laura Cabrera, use other axiomatic provisions. Therefore, these methods also have the right to be called classical methods that allow us to understand the cause-and-effect relationships between phenomena and surrounding objects. These methods are self-sufficient within the framework of their axiomatic provisions. I think that in this case, the methods of classical systems thinking should provide evidence of their practical usefulness, and not the results of fundamental and applied research in defense of their axiomatic provisions.

    However, I offer more. I propose to go beyond the subjective axiomatic provisions of the classical system methods and look at them “from the outside”.
    American writer Gregg Braden argued that thoughts are an expression of our deep subconscious beliefs. The moment we begin to observe something, we assume something, and this assumption is our belief, faith. Therefore, “we see what we believe in.” I found that Derek Cabrera and Laura Cabrera believe in the existence of a “Platonic Whole and its parts”. Therefore, they see “Platonic things and ideas” in the world around them. Such systematic thinking allows you to arbitrarily mix and match the “building blocks”, as well as to investigate and prove their stability. At the same time, the arbitrary nature of mixing is not tied to some reasonable objective goal. This type of mixing can be successfully carried out within the framework of systems multidisciplinary approaches.

    However, in addition to the belief in the “Platonic whole and its parts”, there is a belief in the “Plotinus unity and its fragments”. Such systemic thinking postulates the existence of a universal order, which determines the unity of the world, things and ideas. Therefore, by means of a model of universal order, it is possible to describe the world, every thing, idea, as well as to model and describe their possible interactions. In this case, all fragments and their interactions are subordinated to a single objective goal – to preserve the unity of the world. Possible interactions can be modeled and described within the framework of a systems transdisciplinary approach.

    The conclusion of philosophizing: System thinking is a progressive method of cognition of the surrounding world. This method contributed to the formation of the features of the higher nervous activity of modern humans. Each of us is a carrier of certain deep subconscious beliefs. Beliefs in the integrity or unity of the world allow us to block the entire philosophical zone of world perception. In this case, the purpose of classical systemic thinking and systemic transdisciplinary thinking is to reveal the full theoretical and practical potential of the systems worldview, as well as to unite in an effort to solve complex multifactorial problems of modern society.

    To find out more:
    Mokiy, V. S. (2020). Systems transdisciplinarity as a metadiscipline.

    Mokiy, V. S., & Lukyanova, T. A. (2021). Transdisciplinarity: Marginal Direction or Global Approach of Contemporary Science? Informing Science: The International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline, Vol.24, pp. 001-018.

  5. Hi Lewis, Absolutely, the 5 principles of systems evaluation originated from Derek’s doctoral thesis in 2005; and Bob Willams later “borrowed” the terms in his later writing about systems concepts in evaluation in 2007 after his extended visit to Cornell with us (although I am not certain he cited Derek’s work in that publication).

    Derek and I also wrote more extensively about these ideas in the field of evaluation, published in Evaluation and Program Planning 31 (2008) 299–310 and 311–334. Most recently, as editors of the upcoming Routledge Handbook of Systems Thinking (due out later this year), we compiled an extensive review of the Literature on DSRP: Cabrera, D., Cabrera, L., and Cabrera, E. (2021) A Literature Review of the Universal and Atomic Elements of Complex Cognition. In, Routledge Handbook of Systems Thinking, (Eds) Cabrera, D., Cabrera, L. and Midgley, G. Routledge. London, UK.

    We are also hosting the 2022 Systems Thinking Conference at Cornell ( live online on May 12 & 13 if you have interest in hearing these ideas applied across disciplines. Thought these things may be of interest.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.