What is an open system?

What Does Open system Mean

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

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 based on 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 capitals , 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 was empty, which is completely impossible (since it would no longer be a system in absolute).

See also: Systems thinking

Characteristics of open systems

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

  • It 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, have inexhaustible resources .
  • They lack or possess barriers or impediments to the flow of information , but only up to a certain and limited amount.

Examples of open systems

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. This 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, the living beings are understood as open systems insofar as they are constantly taking and returning matter and energy of the environment . Such is the case of the 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 different degrees of intervention in the software's operating mechanism , as is the case with 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 includes the company as an organization in constant exchange of elements with the community , instead of a productive machinery closed 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, so physics considers as "closed" those that only exchange energy with the outside, but not matter .

More in: Closed system

Isolated systems

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

More in: Isolated systems

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