#28: System of what?

The mereology of systems mapping.

I’m Luke Craven; this is another of my weekly explorations of how systems thinking and complexity can be used to drive real, transformative change in the public sector and beyond. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.


Every systems map is an attempt to understand some whole in relation to its constituent parts. Some maps are more formal that others, but all are built upon a set of assumptions about the structure and form of the part-part and part-whole relationships in a particular context.

In my experience, these assumptions are seldom explicit. People rush to map a particular context or problem without asking the fundamental question: system of what? What parts? What whole? What kind of relationships? Are you trying, for example, to understand the factors that contribute to a particular outcome or behaviour? Or, is your map an attempt to understand the relationships between the different actors involved in the delivery of a service?

To more experienced practitioners, this may seem obvious, but I routinely see early adopters get confused about whether—in broad strokes—they are attempting to map actors, factors, or a combination of the two. At one level, perhaps this structural informality doesn’t matter. Systems maps are storytelling devices. They don’t speak for themselves and it does everybody a disservice to pretend that they can. At another, a certain degree of structural formality helps to ensure that a map is both:

  • Internally consistent. For example, if your intent is to map a causal system using a causal loop diagram, causes should be consistently represented as nouns, not as a mix of verbs and nouns.

  • Externally comparable. For example, if your intent is to understand the different barriers to food access across a population (sound familiar…?), then those barriers need to be captured in a similar structure across a set of maps to enable meaningful comparison.

So much of my work is animated by trying to figure out how much and what kind of structural formality we need in systems practice. To my mind, structural formality is a boundary object that encourages pluralistic tolerance. It helps us recognise that we need flexibility in what mapping is and how it used, while maintaining enough consistency to enable communication and collaboration among disparate worldviews. No one attempt at structural formality will get it right and we should treat different schemas with the same kind of pluralistic ethos that they are designed to enable (what I like to call fractal pluralism). It’s pluralism, all the way down.


Systems of human flourishing

In my own work, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the systems that enable and constrain human flourishing. With my colleagues, John Owens, Vikki Entwistle and Ina Conradie, I’ve been working for over six years to understand the underlying part-part and part-whole structures that sit behind flourishing. In a recent paper we start to describe a relational ontology for the Capability Approach, a framework commonly used to understand the different actors and factors at play in the production of human flourishing and social justice. Drawing on the fields of critical realism, hermeneutics and complexity theory, we suggest that the answer to the questions of what capabilities are, how they are constituted, and how they contribute to human flourishing is as follows:

Capabilities are the genuine freedoms, opportunities, or causal powers that a person has to be or do things. They emerge from, and can be either sustained and strengthened or diminished or lost over time as a result of complex interactions between the person’s own interpretations and actions and the dynamic nexus of material and social structures within which they live their lives. A person’s power or agency to influence their own interpretations and actions, and to some extent the situations and relationships in which they are embedded, is itself a product of the complex multitude of causal mechanisms that constitute the person and their environment. Their agency can also be said to depend on, or be part constituted by, some of their particular capabilities. And particular capabilities can both contribute to and be supported by other capabilities.

To my mind, it is one of the most important things I have ever written and a product of one of my most generative collaborations.


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