We often do not notice that we need to clarify our being here, being where, being when, being how, being what. We make decisions without recognizing the boundaries previously: where, when, how, and what – although only with this delimitation we define the field of action. The easiest would be understanding this framework as a part of our ways of doing things. Boundaries can be determined in many ways: the geographic scope (e.g., building, site, country, continent, world); the temporal duration (e.g., from-to-when); the associated fields (e.g., team, department, company); the available languages (e.g., jargon, national language); the cultural fields (e.g., mentality, society, art, religion, business, science); etc. A final etcetera that includes all the boundaries not yet listed should be forbidden. Unless: it is eventually meaningfully described. The surrounding is the rest of the world, i.e., everything that does not belong to the sphere of influence. This interior is the playing field, the arena, the scene, or, in short, the system. It is a whole with clear borders, which is different from the environment, consists of parts that are in turn systems that have effects through their relations and give the whole a life of its own.
A system cannot be analyzed but understood. It ceases to exist when the decomposing investigation dissolves its connection and, thus, the whole into no longer functioning parts. Getting to know a system builds on the holistic understanding of its boundedness, parts and relationships, and the resulting life of its own.
- Limited wholeness
The parts and relationships that create the whole jointly and the life of its own and the difference that makes the whole a difference from the surrounding constitute the system. Examples are:
– Gaia, the Earth and the totality of all life, is the biological system that is delineated from the universe, generates and sustains life, consists of the fauna, flora, and the rest, and interacts constantly.
– a society (e.g., the Europeans), a group of people who are distinguished from others by their beliefs, values, and origins.
– our personality, which in the course of the consciousness cycle receives stimuli that trigger thoughts and expand mental models, leading to utterances and finally to actions.
In the end, we find an infinite number of systems that overlap. A part of one system is also always part of any number of others, which leads to tensions between the respective commonalities. We see this in the many roles a person lives: Supervisor and Parent and Partner and Member and Climate Activist and many more. Even when systems are delineated, the overlap results in the need to define the new system based on the lowest common denominator – e,g, the Latin-American, republican, member of the educated class of the United States.
The whole is made up of parts, which in turn form a system in its own right – in this case, everything outside of the subsystem is its environment. These building blocks are related to others and create one or more superordinate systems. They also define themselves through the boundaries to their surroundings. The complexity of the nested systems and the speed of the interactions account for today’s VUCA world.
Essential for a system are the relations between its parts. The resulting procedures transfer data, matter, or energy. That way, the construction units are delivered together with a construction plan and assembled to a component with an electrical machine. The procedures run aimed in specific directions or alternate back and forth. Only the relationships enable a system to act and, for example, to create something new.
- Life of its own
We only speak of a system when it has a life of its own. This means that it can create itself anew or keep itself alive. The fauna, to which the human beings belong, can reproduce, take care of its survival, and even create new life forms in the course of evolution. Technical ‘systems’ are not systems after this stipulation since they are not “viable” without humans, who supply them with energy, switch them on and off, and maintain them.
Bottom line: Without being aware of the limits, we run the risk of unintended consequences. At the same time, it will not be possible to recognize in advance all limiting boundaries. For this reason, we must always strive to identify the system boundaries. What makes the difference that makes a difference to the surrounding? How does the system influence our actions? What parts and relationships need to be considered? In any case, the fact that we do not see a boundary does not mean that it does not exist.