Identifying boundaries and setting them in moving forward with modeling and planning is a critical step in systems thinking practice so much so that it may be time to consider seeing boundaries as a core skill or competency for work in complex systems.
Traveling is one of the activities that embodies systems thinking concepts in almost everything. From security screening through to the arrangement of flights, connections, and imagining how it all gets done is truly systems thinking in action. One of the lesser-thought-of aspects of the travel-as-systems-thinking phenomenon is food. Food has been profiled here before, but for this post I want to highlight a different quality here.
As one who aspires to eat relatively well, traveling can be hell when it comes to food. I am currently in a city that has, like many American cities, abdicated the culture and cuisine of its core to the suburbs, which is bad on too many levels. Say what you want about suburban life, but good, healthy, available, economic food is not something that comes to mind (at least, not together). So as an urbanite who is somewhat accustomed or desirous of eating reasonably well (i.e., food that tastes good, is good value, and isn’t horrible to my body, the environment or those who make it) I get spoiled and feel disappointed when places I travel can’t offer this. Ironically, this was the way that most food was cooked and readied for consumption up until the last part of the 20th century.
In this case, the boundary conditions of the system I am looking at is the availability of good food. Where I am and how I got here meant airports, hotels, on-the-go-meals and staying in a relatively large city that has no interior life to it that isn’t about an office building.
The boundaries of good eating imposed on me has meant that my individual choices are seriously constrained. This happens a lot, yet doesn’t get acknowledged as much when we consider health behaviour and its limits. We too often blame individuals for not exercising, or eating well, or doing both without looking at the real problems associated with such activities when the boundaries of the system they are working under are taken into account. (And by the way, it was 41 degrees Celsius in the city I am staying in so there goes any outdoor exercise).
If we narrow our boundaries too close, we miss some considerable systems limitations. I would surmise that students learning systems thinking might want to consider boundary definitions as a critical skill.
Another interesting note of argument to the growing chorus of voices on the organics and health issue coming from New Scientist magazine writer Jim Giles. In his article the quote I like most is this one: “It’s not about whether organic food is good or a sham,” says Jules Pretty, an agricultural scientist at the University of Essex in Colchester, UK. “That’s the wrong question. We should be asking how we can make all of agriculture more sustainable.”
Asking the right question is an important thing to stop and consider. So often the debates in science go off into different directions without stopping to ask whether the science is answering the right (or the most important) question. This makes me think back to the presidential address by Pat O’Neill at the Canadian Psychological Association’s annual meeting a few years ago. Pat is a community psychologist and someone who’s work I’ve long admired. For those not familiar with the field, community psychology was formed largely out of the frustration of psychologists working in clinical settings who were trying to ‘treat’ psychological problems at an individual level when the problems were less about the individual, but much more about the environment that they live in. This is what we often refer to as the social determinants of health (and wellbeing). For community psychologists, asking whether or not a person had the resources to cope with the problems was the wrong (or less productive) question to ask. Why were these problems there in the first place? What was their causes? And how could psychological knowledge contribute to alleviating those problems and changing the systems that sustain them?
Anyway, what Pat argued in his presidential address is for some re-consideration of the questions that psychologists ask. He argued (quite well) that much of the knowledge we have is constrained by the questions we’ve asked. One of the reasons we don’t have the data to address the big problems is that we haven’t asked the questions (in research terms) that address these problems.
Asking whether organics is equivalent to conventional food is a worthy question from a scientific standpoint and from a nutritional science perspective. But whether that is the question that we ought to base our food choices and food policy on is quite another.