Dialogue: Redefining System Boundaries


Haley Fitzpatrick

PhD Candidate, The Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO) | Design Associate, MonViso Institute

Tobias Luthe

Associate Professor – ETH Zurich, AHO, University of Freiburg; | Co-Founding Director – MonViso Institute

Using systemic design to navigate tensions between specificities and generalizations in case study research

This dialogue session aims to harvest perspectives on how systemic design (SD) methodologies can provide innovative approaches to complex case study research. Fitzpatrick’s ongoing PhD project titled “Alpine Circularity: Designing Regenerative Mountain Communities” will be used as an exploratory example to critically and creatively brainstorm new ways of defining and measuring complex system boundaries when approaching multi-scalar, transdisciplinary comparative case studies.

For decades, global sustainability science research has repeatedly urged radical transformations from the current extractive, linear socio-economic systems in order to regenerate holistic planetary health (Fazey et al., 2018; Raworth, 2012; Wahl, 2016). Yet transforming such systems is value-laden, often contentious, and highly complex. To better address these tensions, research has urged for greater plurality of knowledge systems that link together place-based methods and global sustainability research to achieve greater consensus and action-oriented solutions (Caniglia et al., 2020; Horcea-Milcu et al., 2019; Scoones et al., 2020). Instead of relying on commonly used methods of individual research objects and single-case studies to study sustainability transitions, scholars are advocating for more holistic, comparative research strategies that allow for diverse (and often contradictory) interactions between systems to emerge (Köhler et al., 2019). However, what remains underrepresented in sustainability science are methodologies that can effectively grapple with the increasingly blurred system boundaries (Geels, 2020) and the complexity of bridging contextually specific phenomena across various scales and systems.

SD offers promising methods and practices to better navigate the tensions between cross-scalar specificities and holistic generalizations when comparing systemic innovation across case studies. A key component of case study research is defining scope and boundaries, typically framed by “concrete” aspects such as topic, sector, geographical limit, time, or scope of data collection, to differentiate between case phenomena and case context (Yin, 2017). Yet in today’s entangled world, change processes have become co- evolutionary entities that flow between ambiguous system boundaries. Practices within SD such as systems oriented design (SOD) employ tools such as gigamapping to identify focused leverage points for change without losing the complex richness of the overarching, holistic systems that traditional methods of scope or boundary delineation are unable to capture.

Fitzpatrick’s comparative case-study PhD project will be used to stimulate discussion on how both the complexity of in-depth specificity and broader holistic generalizations can co-exist through reimagining system boundaries via SD/SOD practices. The project explores how can systemic innovation processes within and across rural mountain areas emerge to co-create regenerative, resilient communities. For example, the alpine regions of the Po Valley, Italy; Hallingdal, Norway and the Eastern Sierra Nevada in California share similarities in their economic models, topographical constraints, and relationship to urban areas, yet differ in size, worldviews, historical development, and stages of transitioning towards regenerative futures. As new information is gained across each site, SOD acts as a framework to guide emergent system boundaries and holistically evaluate key processes to compare and how those comparisons shed new empirical light on systemic innovation as a whole.

Ultimately this session aspires to advance SD methodology by critically examining opportunities to redefine system boundaries that embrace complexity and navigate tensions between particularities and holistic visions in comparative case studies.

Format Description

The facilitators will introduce and frame the SD methodologies and case study research through the PhD project example in a brief presentation. Participants are then invited to an online fish-bowl dialogue (Zoom) where they will share their own real-world experiences and challenges with defining the scope in systems-based research. This will be moderated by the facilitators and guided by a series of questions such as:

  • Instead of straight lines and strict limits, how can we redesign system boundaries as “porous membranes” that adapt as emergent information is gained throughout the research process?
  • How can cross-scalar design strategies and zoom-in-points (ZIPs) negotiate causality between case context and case phenomena?
  • How can we identify when complex systems have been sufficiently understood in order to define leverage points for change?

“Mappers” are requested to volunteer to visually document the conversation through a gigamap, via the visualization software Miro. Once these real-world examples and perspectives are collected, participants will shift to small groups (break-out rooms) to dig deeper into the meaning of scope and system boundaries in SD practices, especially when embarking on comparative studies.


Caniglia, G., Fazey, C. L. T. von W. I., Martín-López, B., , K. Hondrila 7 A. König, H. von Wehrden2, N. A. Schäpke, M. D. L., & Lang2, and D. J. (2020). A pluralistic and integrated approach to action-oriented knowledge for sustainability. Nature Sustainability. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-00616-z

Fazey, I., Schäpke, N., Caniglia, G., Patterson, J., Hultman, J., Mierlo, B. Van, Säwe, F., Wiek, A., Wittmayer, J., Aldunce, P., Al, H., Battacharya, N., Bradbury, H., Carmen, E., Colvin, J., Cvitanovic, C., Souza, M. D., Gopel, M., Goldstein, B., … N, C. W. (2018). Energy Research & Social Science Ten essentials for action-oriented and second order energy transitions, transformations and climate change research. Energy Research & Social Science, 40(November 2017), 54–70. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2017.11.026

Geels, F. (2020, May 4). Causality and explanation in socio-technical transitions research: Mobilising epistemological insights from the wider social sciences. [Paper presentation]. STRN Methodology School.

Horcea-Milcu, A. I., Abson, D. J., Apetrei, C. I., Duse, I. A., Freeth, R., Riechers, M., Lam, D. P. M., Dorninger, C., & Lang, D. J. (2019). Values in transformational sustainability science: four perspectives for change. Sustainability Science, 14(5), 1425–1437. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-019-00656-1

Köhler, J., Geels, F. W., Kern, F., Markard, J., Onsongo, E., Wieczorek, A., Alkemade, F., Avelino, F., Bergek, A., Boons, F., Fünfschilling, L., Hess, D., Holtz, G., Hyysalo, S., Jenkins, K., Kivimaa, P., Martiskainen, M., McMeekin, A., Mühlemeier, M. S., … Wells, P. (2019). An agenda for sustainability transitions research: State of the art and future directions. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 31(January), 1–32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eist.2019.01.004

Raworth, K. (2012). A Safe and Just Space for Humanity Can we live within the doughnut? Oxfam, 1–240. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781849776257

Scoones, I., Stirling, A., Abrol, D., Atela, J., Charli-Joseph, L., Eakin, H., Ely, A., Olsson, P., Pereira, L., Priya, R., van Zwanenberg, P., & Yang, L. (2020). Transformations to sustainability: combining structural, systemic and enabling approaches. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 42, 65–75. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2019.12.004

Wahl, D. C. (2016). Designing Regenerative Cultures. Triarchy Press.

Yin, R. K. (2017). Case Study Research and Applications Design and Methods (Sixth). SAGE Publications Inc.

Posted September 2021


RSD proceedings are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This permits anyone to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or form according to the licence terms.

Suggested Citation Format (APA)

Author(s) (20XX). Article title. Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSDX) Symposium. rsdsymposium.org/LINK.

Creative Commons Licence
Share This