(Re)drawing System Boundaries

There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion—the questions we want to ask.

— Donnella Meadows, Thinking in Systems

One of the hardest things about making systems maps is knowing where to stop. You start by identifying the system’s components and how they relate to each other, and soon you find yourself drawn to include the entire world.

Should your map of a new electrical product include details about the power grid? Perhaps not; the grid is assumed infrastructure. But what if the product is an electric car? In that case, access to charging matters, so you may want to reconsider.

Where you draw the boundaries of a system map depends on what questions you’re looking to illuminate. (I keep reminding students about the power of good framing questions.) But drawing a map may also reveal the need for new questions.

Maps help us see unexpected aspects of the situation. We draw them in part to avoid unintended consequences. As such, we must be open to re-drawing their boundaries as the exercise reveals new angles. When we do so, our understanding deepens.

System maps are valuable artifacts per se, but they’re more than that. Map-making is a powerful way of knowing the world and — more importantly — intervening skillfully. It calls for continually asking where the boundaries lie — and reconsidering.

Cover photo by sid (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)