Glossary Terms for the Cornell University International Systems Thinking Conference

A collection of terms that might pop up during the conference.

As you attend the conference, you may come across some technical vocabulary that you may not be familiar with. We understand that this can be challenging, and to make things easier for you, we've compiled a list of definitions for some of the key terms that might come up during the presentations. Please feel free to refer to this list if you encounter any unfamiliar vocabulary. We hope this helps you fully engage with the speakers and get the most out of your experience at the conference!


ABA: Agent Based Approach; an a [predominantly policy-minded] approach to systems understanding, problem solving, and analysis-synthesis of various kinds developed by Drs. Derek and Laura Cabrera. ABA brings together several steps and leads to recommendations: DSRP Analysis, POSIWID Root Difference Analysis, CAS Analysis, Recommendation Rubric, and Recommendations.

ABM: Agent Based Modeling; typically computer simulations used to study the interactions between people, things, places, and time.

Agents: The actors in a complex adaptive system, can be anything from birds to fish to molecules. 

CAS: Complex Adaptive System; a system that exhibits emergent and adaptive behavior; CASs are composed of agents following local simple rules leading to collective dynamics that yield emergent properties; Systems Thinking is a CAS and DSRP and VMCL are the simple rules; All human organizations are CASs. Most of the systems we care about are CASs. Most challenges, wicked problems, and crises are the result of our misalignment with CASs.

CAS Analysis: The Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) Analysis is one step in the Agent Based Approach (ABA) method. It is based on the idea that the greatest leverage points in a CAS are the agents and simple rules—so it focuses on identifying the simple rules for each agent group and the projected emergent properties.

DSRP: Distinctions, Systems, Relationships, Perspectives (the four universal patterns of cognition and things). The way we organize information into meaning.

Elements: In DSRP the elements are the base-pairs that make up the four simple rules or patterns (DSRP); the element base-pairs are: identity-other for Distinctions (D), part-whole for Systems (S), action-reaction for Relationships (R), and point-view for Perspectives (P).

LAMO: An acronym coined by Dr. Derek Cabrera that stands for, “Linear, Anthropocentric, Mechanistic, and Overly-Ordered.” It is the dominant thought-style that needs to be replaced with a more VUCA-friendly systems thinking (aka DSRP).

Mental Model: The complex product of Information (I) and Thinking (T); its variable is (M); synonymous with concept, knowledge, meaning, idea, schema.

POSIWID:  An acronym for a phrase coined by Stafford Beer that means, the “Purpose Of a System Is What It Does.” It captures the idea that we should pay attention to the behavior of a system rather than the perceived or stated purpose.

SLR: Systems Literature Review; a step-wise methodology and rubric that applies a systems thinking lens on the traditional literature review. 

Structural Prediction: In a mental model, a prediction of a structural possibility that leads to an informational inquiry, thereby “filling” or not filling said structure with information. DSRP provides an algorithm for making many structural predictions.

VMCL: Vision, Mission, Capacity, Learning (the four universal functions of organization).

VUCA:  An acronym for coined by the Army War College that stands for, “Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.” It captures how the real world is and how we need our thinking to be aligned.