Using systems ideas to compare a system in the world (a local stream) with a system as understood by Simon provides the capacity to think about how the stream is behaving, and to start to structure what, if anything, might be wrong and how it might be managed more appropriately.
There are other useful characteristics of systems that you can use to understand environmental management. Here are some of the key characteristics of a systems approach, which you will find more details about in the free course.
A system has:
- a purpose – it does, or can be perceived to do, something
- an environment that affects it
- a name – someone who is interested in it
- a boundary distinguishing it from its environment
- inputs and outputs
- transformational processes that convert inputs to outputs
You will notice that the above list includes a reference to ‘environment’. This is the second meaning of environment used in this unit. It is a specific term used in systems and does not refer to environment in a ‘green’ or ‘natural’ sense. Environment in systems language is used to refer to that which is outside the system, but which influences it. This is explained in more detail in Systems Thinking and Practice, but for the moment it is worth remembering that environment has two meanings in this unit. Where there might be doubt as to which one is being used, we will refer to ‘natural environment’ or ‘systems environment’ to help you distinguish meaning.
You will find that these systems ideas will emerge regularly in this and related free courses, but key to understanding them is that they all depend upon perspective – of the person(s) describing the system. It is for this reason that a system is more correctly called a system of interest: i.e. a system dependent on the interest or perspective of the persons describing the system.
If you ask three different people what the problem is with a system – like a city – you will probably get three different answers.
Some people may say its purpose has changed over time (‘it did not used to be like that’). Some that the environment (in a systems sense) has changed (‘they should not have changed it’). Some that the boundary is altered (‘it was alright before the suburbs grew’). Each view may be valid and partially true, but each represents a different perspective of the city as a system.
One of the challenges to a systems or systemic approach, and in particular a systemic approach to environmental management, is to absorb or take account of multiple perspectives.