Open System – What is it, concept, examples and characteristics

We explain what an open system is in different areas, its characteristics and examples. In addition, closed and isolated systems.

open system
An open system has no barriers to the environment or its barriers are penetrable.

What is an open system?

When we speak of an open system (or also a floating system or constant volume system) we refer to a portion of the universe delimited or mentally abstracted from the rest, that is, a system whose fundamental feature is that it allows the free exchange of information with its environment, without presenting barriers or impediments to flow.

This idea or concept is used in different areas of human knowledge, both in the natural sciences and in the social sciences. Clearly, it is part of an attempt to understand reality in a structural and functional way from the general notion of a system.

Thus, in the case of natural sciences, an open system is one that exchanges both mass and energy with the environment, taking what it needs and letting out what it does not. Similarly, in the social sciences, open systems exchange capital, information, people, etc., with other similar systems or with the rest of their specific environment.

One of the main philosophical approaches to open systems emerged in 1956, the work of the Austrian biologist and philosopher Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972), and represents his particular contribution to the General Theory of Systems, of much greater theoretical scope.

According to von Bertalanffy, all systems are, to some extent, open systems, since the flow from and to the outside cannot be totally stopped, unless the system is empty, which is completely impossible (since it would no longer be a system at all).

Characteristics of open systems

Open systems, according to the theory, are characterized by:

  • Allows the free exchange of information (matter, energy, money, etc.) between the inside of the system and the outside or external environment.
  • Since much of its information comes from the outside, for practical purposes of studying the system, it can be considered as an inexhaustible and constant source in the system, that is, these systems, in theory, possess inexhaustible resources.
  • They lack barriers or impediments to the flow of informationOr they own them, but only up to a certain and limited amount.

Examples of open systems

open system biology living beings
All living beings exchange matter and energy with the environment.

In its different possible fields of application, the following cases are examples of an open system:

  • In the world of physics, an open thermodynamic system is one that allows energy to pass freely from the inside to the outside and vice versa. Is what happens with an open container with hot water, which radiates its heat to the colder environment, until a thermodynamic equilibrium is produced between the inside and outside of the system. In addition, water can be poured, meaning that it can also exchange matter.
  • In biology, similarly, living beings They are understood as open systems to the extent that they are constantly taking and returning matter and energy from the environment. Such is the case of photosynthetic system of plants, which receives sunlight and uses it to synthesize sugars, releasing CO2 into the environment in return.
  • In computing, an open system is one that allows its users a different degree of intervention in the software’s operating mechanism, as is the case of Unix and the so-called “free software”. Traditional programs, on the other hand, would be “closed source”.
  • In business administration, an open system is one that comprises the company as an organization in constant exchange of elements with the community, instead of a productive machinery closed in on itself. This perspective understands the company as something intrinsically connected with what happens around it.

Closed systems

Closed systems are the opposite of open ones, and therefore consist of systems that do not exchange information with the outside, that is, they are closed on themselves. It is difficult to find systems that are absolutely closed in the universe, which is why physics considers “closed” to be those that only exchange energy with the outside, but not matter.

Isolated systems

An isolated system in physics (specifically, thermodynamics) is one that is so far removed from other systems that it is impossible for it to interact with them, or that it has impenetrable borders that limit the exchange between the inside and the outside, as in the case of thermal insulating material than in clothing. There are no perfect insulators, but there are those capable of significantly reducing the exchange of information.