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Introducing environmental decision making
Introducing environmental decision making

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2.2 Environment and system

We have already used the word ‘system’ in this unit several times. The word system is used extensively in our 21st Century vocabulary. For instance we refer to ‘the transport system’ or ‘a home entertainment system’ in a general way, not being specific about what we mean by system. Figure 2 used draft systems maps to explore some of the relationships in different definitions of ‘environment’. It shows ‘systems’, their sub-systems and their boundaries with the system’s environments. In experimenting with these diagrams we used the term ‘system’ in a different way from the general sense, to think in terms of systems. For now, you should note that it was possible to focus on some different systems, boundaries and environments in the different definitions, even though they started with the same word. Consider these further examples of systems from Sir Geoffrey Vickers, who was thinking of a school as a system:

A school is a physical system which even small children can represent by a map. Its buildings are spatially related to each other. It has an apparent perimeter, but this dissolves on examination. For it is intersected by sewers, water mains, power lines, roads, each of which makes it part of some other system. To the school these are its physical support sub-systems. But to those who manage these supporting systems, the school is a component, making demands but also subject to demands, such as for example the demand to economise water in a drought. It may not readily occur to a child or even a teacher that for other professionals as estimable as they the school may properly be regarded as a generator of sewage. ... A school is far more than a physical system, supported by other physical systems. It is also an educational system, a social system, a financial system, an administrative system, a cultural system, all with an historical dimension.

(Vickers, 1980, p. 5)

A system is not a fixed entity but the boundaries are identified by the observer and linked to purpose. Using the idea of a system raises some challenges for our use of the term ‘environment’. Identifying the school’ s environment, if thinking of a school as a system, becomes a specific exercise of judging what lies within the system and what lies in its environment and the boundary between the two will vary with the observer’ s perceptions and articulation of the system’ s purpose.

Systems concepts and techniques have been found useful by many for identifying what is relevant in a particular situation and what may be changed. They are an essential part of this course and using the concept of system/boundary and environment is at its core.

In general terms there are some simple principles implicit in the idea of a system:

  • A system is an assembly of components connected together in an organised way.
  • The components are affected by being in the system and are changed if they leave it.
  • The assembly of components does something.
  • The system has been identified by someone as being of interest.