A brief discussion about boundaries and perspectives

Boundary judgments and the Hierarchy theory

In the second session of Systems Thinking 2 course at Aalto University we had an interesting discussion about boundaries and perspectives. One particular remark was made about boundaries, power, and decision-making. In all decision-making settings it’s important to be able to identify who gets to set the boundaries for decision-making. Often, especially in politics, people who have the most power are the ones who get to frame or reframe issues. This is important to understand because the problem-definitions we choose inevitably limit the different alternatives we consider for solving the issue. All kinds of questions are being answered for us when we allow someone else to set our boundaries, including who, what, why, when, and how?

The importance of boundary-setting and framing becomes even more evident when dealing with complex systems, and I dare to claim that most political issues are concerned with complexity. In complex systems, the dynamic interactions between the parts of the system and between the system and its environment make it difficult to predict the outcomes of our actions. It’s anything but easy to decide which interactions to consider in our decisions and which to leave out. So, when we allow others to define the problem space, not only are we placing a lot of faith into their hands, but we also give up much of our decision-making power.

The link between boundary-setting and decision-making is explained well in Hierarchy theory. In Mario Giampietro’s (1994) words:

“It is commonplace to experience a discrepancy in values when assessing the same phenomenon or action from different perspectives. For example, what is good to our taste (assessment on a short timescale) may be harmful to our health (assessment on a longer timescale); the lifestyle of singles is changed after marriage when the same individual becomes part of a larger structure, the family. This pattern is repeated at each enlargement of perspective that brings another hierarchical level into the picture: what is profitable for the family – less taxes – may be harmful to the community to which the family belongs.”

Where are you setting your boundaries?

Where are you setting your boundaries?

This means that decisions at one point in time and scale may affect either negatively or positively the situations in another point in time and/or scale. When we set the boundaries for decision-making at one scale, e.g. the economy, other scales and time-frames might be left out. We could also be neglecting other values and worldviews if we’re not careful.

However, change of boundaries might not lead to changes in perspective. Even when we point out that short-term changes in our economy might in some cases lead to degrading environment (and degrading economy in the long-term), we might still get stuck on the short-term economic perspective. A person might still view that improving the economy creates enough benefits in the short-term to justify lack of consideration for the long-term. In the end, we also have boundaries to our rationality.

Complexity as a matter of perspective

We also had a brief discussion about the nature of complexity. One of our teachers, David Ing, brought up a thought by Timothy F Allen, who had stated that complexity isn’t necessarily an innate characteristic of a system, but rather a matter of perspective. For example, the Apple iPhone might seem complex (or complicated) on the inside, but is relatively simple to use on the outside. A system can therefore be perceived simultaneously as both complex and simple, depending on your perspective.

Let’s take a closer look at the Apple ecosystem. I don’t have an engineering background, but from what I’ve understood, all Apple products taken together basically form an integral system architecture as opposed to a modular one. In a modular system or product architecture the different components of the system have high independence from each other. Thanks to this high independence, components of the system can be relatively easily disassembled and recombined into new configurations, and new product variants can be realized without much difficulty because changes to one component doesn’t lead to changes in other components (Voss & Hsuan, 2011.)

Lego bricks allow modular design.

Lego bricks allow modular design.

The opposite of modular system or product design is an integral design, which I think Apple has chosen for its system. With an integral architecture, components of the system or product are tightly coupled, meaning that modifications to one component require redesigning or re-configuring other components. Apple’s iPhone, Macbooks, the iPod and all other products are all highly integrated to each other. To my understanding Steve Jobs felt very strongly about creating a seamless user experience for Apple products, which he ensured by retaining a strong control on any product modifications. You can’t even change the battery of your iPhone without expert help, let alone start making modifications to the design. Even the chargers to Apple products are different from other manufacturers who mostly use universal chargers.

However, although Apple’s products form an integral system architecture from the perspective of the underlying hardware and software, the Apple Appstore is far from integral. Millions of applications have been created by app-developers all around the world for the Apple iPhone and iPad devices. I think that is an extremely interesting design choice, whether consciously done or not! Ensure efficiency and reliability where it counts (hardware and basic software), but allow variety where people really want it (applications).

So, from one point of view the Apple system is complex, from another simple.


Giampietro, M. (1994). Using hierarchy theory to explore the concept of sustainable development. Futures. Vol. 26, No. 6. Pages 616-625.

Voss, C. & Hsuan, J. (2011). Service science: The opportunity to re-think what we know about service design. In Dermikan, H. (Editor), Spohrer, J. (Editor), Krishna, V. (Editor). The Science of service systems (Pages 231-243.  Springer. New York, USA

Creative Commons Lego Bricks by Benjamin Esham are licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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