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Tuesday, August 4 • 14:30 - 15:00
Choosing Boundaries for Interventions in Open Dynamic Systems

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It is no easy task for a planner to choose a boundary for intervening in an open and dynamic system. As the system is continuously reshaped through complex interactions with its surroundings, the planner cannot be certain that any chosen boundary will continue to be relevant or appropriate into the future. Since Churchman first emphasized the importance of boundary judgments, many systems theorists and practitioners have urged planners to recognise the subjectivity and plurality of boundary definitions. Accordingly, the planner’s boundary must accommodate diverse views and values that are also changing. The planner thus faces the question: what kind of intervention would enable improvement for all, while also remaining relevant and flexible under changing conditions?

This presentation summarizes findings from my PhD study, which explores the planner’s challenge through a case study—the improvement of river health in the Murray-Darling Basin in South East Australia. Water management within the Murray-Darling Basin is embroiled in the tension between a highly variable climate, the historical development of a productive agricultural economy, and the progressive degradation of riverine ecosystems. Within this context, the planner seeks to improve ‘river health’, which is conceived as a balance between competing uses of water. Applying Ulrich’s critical system heuristics to unfold boundary judgements in policy documents, scientific studies, and those of planners and stakeholders with diverse interests, I found that: there is no single definition of ‘river health’ that is likely to be achievable or acceptable to all; and there is no single boundary that is the most appropriate choice for improving river health. Interventions that seek to increase control by defining tight boundaries around river health, ironically increase their own vulnerability to failure.

Inspired by the work of Francine Hughes and colleagues in river restoration, and Emery Roe’s analysis of the debate on sustainable development, I propose that interventions in open dynamic systems are more likely to be effective if they are based on open boundaries. In other words, interventions must embrace open-ended goals; and be designed and managed on a case-by-case basis, according to local circumstances. But then, is there an appetite for open-ended approaches that consider improvement as a journey with NO destination, and planning as ‘inside-out’, rather than top-down or bottom-up?

avatar for Jennifer Wilby

Jennifer Wilby

Vice-President Administration, International Society for the System Sciences
Vice President Administration (2011-2016), Trustee and Vice President (2008/9) for the International Society for the Systems Sciences. | SIG Chair:    Critical Systems Thinking and Practice. | Jennifer Wilby is an emeritus senior researcher in management systems and sciences in The Business School, University of Hull. Jennifer's research interests include: developing systems resilience and flexibility in the management of complex systems... Read More →


Saideepa Kumar

PhD Student
ISSS Student

Tuesday August 4, 2015 14:30 - 15:00
Elk Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz, Gabriele-Tergit-Promenade 19, 10963 Berlin, Germany

Attendees (8)