msb ~011 Systems thinking: questioning boundaries

Systems thinking: questioning boundaries

The Sufi fable of the six blind men and an elephant

I’ve been enjoying this Ecologist post by Daniel Christian Wahl, Six key questions in whole systems thinking. As well as advocating the much-needed shift from “reductionist and quantitative analysis informed by the narrative of separation” to interacting with the world as if it were ‘more than the sum of its parts’, he highlights the danger of elevating system levels ‘above’ that of the detail. It’s in the detail that the diversity (also the devil) lies.

It’s important “to maintain the awareness that the systems view itself is also just another map that … should not be confused with the territory. We can reduce the world to a whole just as easily as we can reduce it to a collection of parts.” Neither is primary.

A key question is ‘what is the system in question?’ Inevitably, we define its boundaries as ‘enabling constraints’ to help “make sense of a situation”. I’ve often wondered at the boundaries advocates place on their chosen system (climate change, for example) when they ask us to ‘see the bigger picture’. The Big Picture can be a way to just frame out the detail that gets in the way of a chosen solution.

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