Viable Systems Model

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Model for organizational optimalization and development by Stafford Beer.

Apart from the productive systems, it distinguishes 4 meta-systems:

  • conflict resolution
  • synergy
  • adaptation to the external environment
  • identity defense


Josef Davies-Coates:

" the model says that in order to be viable (i.e., able to autonomously adapt and survive in response to a changing environment) a system must have the following five sub-systems:

  1. System 1: Interacting operational units. Think organs in a body, or players in a team.
  2. System 2: Responsible for stability and conflict resolution between operational units.
  3. System 3: An ‘Internal Eye’ optimising and generating synergies between operational units.
  4. System 4: An ‘External Eye’ allows strategies and plans to adapt to a changing environment.
  5. System 5: Where ultimate authority lies and is responsible developing policy."



From: The Open Coop at

"The following quick introduction to Stafford Beer's Viable Systems Model is based upon Jon Walker's The Viable Systems Model, a guide for co-operatives and federations

The Three Elements — Environment, Operation, and Metasystem

Beer's first insight was to consider the human organism as three main interacting parts: the muscles & organs, the nervous systems, and the external environment. Or a little more crudely, body, brain and environment.

These are generalised in the Viable Systems Model as follows:

The Operation — The muscles and organs. The bits which do all the basic work. The primary activities.

The Metasystem — The brain and nervous systems. The parts which ensure that the various Operational units work together in an integrated, harmonious fashion. The job of the Metasystem is to hold the whole thing together.

The Environment — All those parts of the outside world which are of direct relevance to the system in focus.

The Five Systems - Creating a Whole from the Parts.

The argument goes like this:

First of all you need the working bits. This is System 1 (S1) which has previously been called the Operation. S1 is the bit which actually does something. It's the muscles, the engine room, the machines, the producers.

Secondly you must ensure that there are ways of dealing with conflicting interests which are inevitable in the interactions which occur as the parts of S1 interact. Conflict resolution is the job of System 2. System 2 is also given the job of ensuring stability.

Once the interactions of the System 1 units are rendered stable, it becomes essential to look at ways of optimising these interactions. This is the job of System 3. System 3 works with an overview of the entire complex of interacting System 1 units and thinks "If this one does this and that one does that, then the whole thing will work more effectively." The extra efficiency is called synergy. System 3 is there to regulate System 1 - its function is optimisation.

Once you have a stable, optimised set of Operational units, then you must ensure that it can survive in a changing environment. This is the job of System 4. System 4 looks at the outside world, considers what it sees, looks for threats and opportunities, and schemes. S4 is there to produce plans to ensure long term viability.

And finally, the whole thing must function within some sort of overall context. Everyone must be pulling in the same direction. This is System 5's job. It provides the ground rules and the means of enforcing them to ensure that the system in complete. System 5 provides the ultimate authority." (


How to coordinate bottom-up entrepreneurial projects?

Brian Davey:

"How are the entrepreneurial projects to be co-ordinated and how will the emerging movement to hold the earths commons resources in trust manage themselves. The two processes are, as already explained, not quite the same – nonetheless both have much to gain by using principles from management cybernetics and systems thinking. In this thinking maximal autonomy of action is reserved at the lowest level – in the smallest units.

Self evidently a micro elite of mega powerful government leaders and mega powerful corporate institutions cannot heal the world – what are needed are frameworks in which each house, community, garden, field, farm, forest, river and stream is healed locally - by responsible people and their local organisations. These entrepreneurial initiatives need to be encouraged and supported by frameworks also established by millions of people coming together to endorse charters of principle to manage the commons and setting up appropriate organisations, outside the mainstream political process. In neither case can this be done in a top down fashion.

Most of the co-ordination frameworks common in the modern world are governance frameworks. They are essentially rule based systems within government or in the management of other kinds of organisations. These have a top-down and command and control character. Following the ideas of Thomas Hobbes from the 17th century, government is seen as the operations of the thinking head regulating the active body of citizens by telling them what to do.

Instead of regarding co-ordination in the eco-social economy as the re-jigging of top down arrangements another approach is to think of improving horizontal co-ordination and networking between the local projects. One kind of arrangement that could be used to do this is called viable systems modelling or VSM for short.

The underlying assumption of VSM is that it is not efficient to pass all major decisions up to the highest level to hand down their decisions and regulations from on high – it is very rarely necessary and, indeed, it is often inefficient to do this. Top down co-ordinators typically have less detailed information about immediate local conditions even though they claim to have the wider picture, the overview.

The image of Hobbesian decision making is a conscious head telling “the body politic” what it should do. However in the human body the head does not tell the heart how fast it should beat and most processes in the human body occur autonomically. 'Top down' will not work across the diversities and differences between civil society organisations that are becoming active on environmental issues.

Meta-System Functions

What is needed instead is a methodology which clarifies what to do in those limited circumstances where the primary activities of organisations and movements – ecological cultivation, sustainable transport, energy efficiency work and the like – require some way of regulating their relations through a meta-system. The question is - how does one run this meta system as a co-ordinative service rather than as command and control over the other activities telling them what they must do in an authoritarian fashion?

Essentially all meta system co-ordinating functions are of 4 types – to deal with conflicts, to achieve synergy, to maintain a dynamic assessment of changing operational environments which are evolving in space and time and, finally, the maintenance of overall common identity, purpose arising in generic rules of interaction in the eco-social economy.

This can be illustrated with examples of how to co-ordinate eco-social entrepreneur projects as well as how to co-ordinate the framework conditions of economic activity through the operation of commons trusts.

Co-ordinating eco-social project and their networks

Consider a number of community garden projects in a city decide to co-ordinate their work in order to become more effective. There might be potential conflicts for this group where they all wish to call upon a limited pot of finance to develop their work – in this case there is a need for a conflict resolution process. Additionally co-ordination may allow for a variety of synergies. By working together they purchase inputs jointly to the advantage of all or organise a local market together.

These are operational issues of the here and now type. In addition they can share arrangements to ensure appropriate adaptation to an evolving environment – researching the likely future demand for services, monitoring public policy changes on land or finance, researching good practice from outside the area altogether. Finally there are those issues defining general ethics and principles for community cultivation projects reflecting shared purpose and values – which may, for example, determine whether other projects be invited to share their joint arrangements or which they may decide to defend together if public policy seems to be challenging what they are seeking to represent and uphold.

These are merely used here to represent a simple model of types of co-ordinative activity. For most purposes each group will have autonomy to act as it thinks best and these levels of co-ordination would only be engaged under agreed circumstances where the network as a whole is threatened by the actions of one group or where, by common agreement, there is mutual benefit in doing so.

Beyond the work of the cultivation projects there are other networks where thinking about other processes are required – for example a wider community food sector including cooking, and healthy eating projects. As and when required there may be conflicts, possibilities for synergy, needs for foresight work and questions of group purpose and identity too.

Co-ordinating and managing the commons trusts

Although commons trusts would have somewhat different purposes, they too would have an internal structure that was flat, with co-ordinative meta management services in order to ensure that decisions get taken at the lowest level with maximal autonomy for local action subject to the maintenance of overall coherence. For example, a Sky Trust – working as a network internationally, to manage the earth's atmospheric commons would have departments to manage its primary operational programmes in the interests of all – like a programme to bring down greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible in a way which shared the revenues from doing that equitably, like a department to encourage the preservation and enhancement of land based carbon sinks, like a department working on methane and other kinds of emissions. But in addition it would need a diplomatic service to resolve the many conflicts that arise in climate mitigation – which would however only intervene as and when required. There would be another department to encourage synergies in climate mitigation – for example, working together across boundraries to exchange ideas and good practice as and when appropriate – but not interfering otherwise. Of course there would be a need for a processes to research the changing conditions in which the Sky Trust operated – a department working on the evolving understanding of the climate science, the changing economic conditions and technologies. Finally there would be a need for generic policies that create the overall identity and values holding the whole process together. In regard to such generic policies it is important that trusts are set up on the basis of explicit charters that state the principles that underpin them and hold those in trustee roles responsible for the health of the resource on clear metrics (like target greenhouse gas concentrations which would be safe for a Sky Trust ) and in the interests of everyone equally.

In conclusion. Much of the effort of activists when confronted by problems like the climate crisis is to “tell the government” what they should be doing – as well as to tell corporations what they should not do. There is still a place for this. However a collection of ad hoc policies by government and corporations is not achieving much. We need an architecture for dealing with these problems and we will pretty much have to create it ourselves. This is not the same as saying we are indifferent to what governments and corporations are doing and will do. At some point in this different way of approaching the problems we will want the government to buy into and legitimise and support what we are doing – and for corporations to only be allowed to work within the framework conditions that we have set up that protect the planet and civil society. But we've got to get on and set this up ourselves. No one else will. If not us then who? If not now then when?" (May 17, 2010)

More Information

Summary at

by Jon Walker:

Cybernetics and Governance Bibliography

  • Raul Espejo and Alfonso Reyes. Organizational Systems: Managing Complexity with the Viable System Model. Springer, 2011

Espinosa, A., Walker, J. (2011). ‘A Complexity Approach to Sustainability: Theory and Application’. Invited book, Book Series on Complexity, Imperial College Press, London. ISBN. 10 1-84816-527-7

Espinosa, A., Walker, J. (2013). Complexity Management in Practice: A VSM Intervention in an Irish Eco- Community. European Journal of Operational Research. Volume 225, Issue 1, 16 February 2013, Pages 118-129. Available online at: /10.1016/j.ejor.2012.09.015.

Andrade, G., Espinosa, A., Guzman, D., Wills, E. (2012). Towards a framework for the observation, understanding, and management of socio-ecological systems: Insights from socio-ecological, institutional, and complexity theory. Special Issue. Emergence and Complexity (EcO). Vol 14(1), pp. 15-30. ISSN 15213250 Espinosa, A, Cardoso, PP, Arcaute, E, Christensen, K. (2011). Complexity approaches to self organisation: A case study in an Irish eco-village Invited paper. Special Issue. Kybernetes[1]. 40(3/4); p. 536-558 ISBN 0368-492X.

Espinosa, A., Porter, T. (2011). Sustainability, complexity and learning: insights from complex systems approaches, Learning Organization, The, Vol. 18 Iss: 1, pp.54 – 72. ISBN 0969-6474

Paucar-Caceres, A., Espinosa, A. (2011). Management Science Methodologies In Environmental Management And Sustainability: Discourses And Applications. Journal Of The Operational Research Society. Vol. 62; pp. 1601-1620. ISBN 0160-5682 Available online at [1]

Espinosa, A., Harnden, R., Walker, J. (2008). A Complexity Approach to Sustainability: Stafford Beer revisited. (Vol 187, pp. 636-651). European Journal of Operational Research. ISBN 0377-2217

Espinosa, A., Leonard A. (Eds), (2007). Cybernetics and Governance, Introduction. Kybernetes: The International Journal of Systems and Cybernetics. Special Issue, Vol 35 (1/2). ISSN 0368-492x .

Espinosa, A., Harnden, R., Walker, J. (2007). Beyond Hierarchy: A complexity management perspective. Invited paper. (Vol 36, No. 3/4. pp 333-347). Special issue. Kybernetes. ISBN 0368-492X.

Espinosa, A., Harnden, R. (2007) Complexity Management, Democracy and Social Consciousness: Challenges for an evolutionary learning society. (Vol 20, No. 5, pp. 401-412). Invited paper. Special issue. Systemic Practice and Action Research. ISBN 1094-429x. Online:

Espinosa, A., Harden, R. (2007). Team Syntegrity and Democratic Group Decision Making: Learning from experience. Vol 5, No. 8, pp. 1056-1064 . Journal of the Operational Research Society. ISBN 0160-5682.

Espinosa, A. (2006). A Cybernetic Re-evaluation of Socio-economic Development Programs. Vol. 35 (1/2), pp. 30-44. Kybernetes[2]. ISBN 0368-492X. Online: [2]

Espinosa. A., Walker J. (2006). Environmental Management revisited: Lessons from a cybernetic intervention in Colombia, Cybernetics and Systems: An international Journal, Vol 37, No 1, pp. 75-92. ISBN 0196-9722. Online [3]

Espinosa, A., Harnden, R., Walker, J. (2005). Cybernetics and Participation: From Theory to Practice. Systemic Practice and Action Research, Vol. 17, No. 6, pp. 573-589. ISBN 1094-429x. Online: [4]

Espinosa, A., Walker, J. (2005). An Effective Weapon in the Systems Armoury: applications of the Viable Systems Model to Sustainable Design. The Systemist. Vol 27, pp 73–99. ISSN 0961-8309.

Espinosa, A. (2004). Organisational Cybernetics as a toolbox to assist in the development of Evolutionary Learning Networks. Word Futures, Vol. 60, No 1-2, pp. 137-145. ISBN 0260-4027. Online [5]