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An open system is enclosed by a contour which separates it from the environment.

Systems, boundaries and environments

One of the challenging aspects of systems is knowing where the boundary lies that separates the system from its environment.

Sometimes this depends on your point of view.

For example, as we mentioned in the video in Step 1.1, The Open University has its headquarters in Milton Keynes. This campus is certainly part of the system, as are its two hundred thousand students and staff located across the UK and worldwide.

The Open University specialises in distance education, and does much of its teaching using the internet. Is the internet part of the Open University system? All of it?

Or is the internet part of the environment?

Assuming that a system of interest has a purpose, the following definitions will be used on this course:

  1. The entities inside the system are all those necessary for it to fulfil its purpose and that can be controlled by the system owners or managers

  2. The entities in the environment are all those things that affect the system but cannot be controlled by the system owners or managers

Anything not in the system and not in the environment has no effect on the system’s behaviour.

By this definition, the internet is not part of the Open University but is part of its environment.

What do you think?

Are these definitions operational? Do they provide a reliable and objective way of representing systems? Give your view in the comments below.

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This article is from the free online course:

Systems Thinking and Complexity

UNESCO UNITWIN Complex Systems Digital Campus