Systemic Design: Theory, Methods & Practice

Taking Stock and Flow of Systemic Design

The book is the latest edition in the Springer Translational Systems Sciences series, and its intention is to develop research-based applications of systems theory and methods to complex design contexts. Systemic design has emerged to address this interdisciplinary area of research and practice, growing from leadership within design studies and its intersection with system sciences. The nine chapters published in this collection were developed by authors from the proceedings of RSD4, the fourth Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD) Symposium.

The Big Fields of (capital) Design and Systems both deal with approaches to general purpose problem-solving, with domain-independent methodologies based on design rationale or scientific principles for holistic problem solving. As “thinking” modes, both design thinking and systems thinking promise cross-disciplinary resolution of complex problems. Systemic design embraces these traditions, so as not to lose the value of timeless knowledge, but also challenges the growth-as-progress problem drivers of our modernist technological era.

These challenges are not at all new. The systems science origins of systemic design can be traced to the influential operations research and planning schools, the East coast schools (Ackoff, Özbekhan from University of Pennsylvania, Senge from MIT), and the West coast (Horst Rittel, C. West Churchman, Christopher Alexander, and Harold Nelson all from U.C. Berkeley). Özbekhan in particular challenged the tenets of modernism, as his Club of Rome prospectus on the Predicament of Mankind reveals.

Systemic design has developed from the social systems methodologies that followed the Predicament (and the Club of Rome’s inability to address it), with widely-misunderstood approaches such as Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology (1975), Erich Jantsch’s evolutionary design (1973), Ackoff’s idealized design (1985), Banathy’s social system design (1997), John Warfield’s generic design science (1985) and Christakis’ Dialogic Design (2006). All of these projects share values in common with social or redirective design, such as a strong orientation to boundary and perspectives as opposed to problem solving, post-positivist (or constructivist) epistemologies, the adaptation of complementary modes of thinking, and the necessity of stakeholder participation.

These social schools of thought argued against many of the precepts of the predominant systems thinking methods of the time, systems thinking as modeling and intervention (Meadows, 1999) and system dynamics (Senge, 1986). Social systems design did not achieve the broader acceptance of hard systems sciences, in part due to the superior fit of the hard systems thinking mindset to modernist culture in the late 20th century, and the perceived ambiguity (and lack of method) of social systems processes and technologies.

I do argue that the design functions of the social systems methodologies were not ever designed for the human applications necessary to implement extensive sociotechnical system projects. Social systems never evolved to become “designerly;” with roots in systems theory its applications remained too abstract and removed from collective use. For too long we have included design thinking as a peripheral passenger in the systems journey. If we do not fully embrace designing as an advanced way of knowing and enacting with the sociomaterial world we risk failure in desired transformation.

The designerly turn in systems thinking must credit Buckminster Fuller’s early exploration (1960’s) of what we now call transdisciplinary design, in his “comprehensive anticipatory design science” for complex problems of industrial production, transportation, habitation, and environmentally-sensitive design. At least three significant designers from the 1970’s era, Christopher Alexander, Victor Papanek (with critical social design) and John Chris Jones (design methods originator), influenced a new generation of designers. Their design practices were well-integrated, and did not reveal much in the way of formal cybernetics and systems theory, even if their approaches were deeply informed by systemics. We recognize this integration of knowledge, experience and sensitivity as the “designerly way of knowing,” as Nigel Cross (2002) has referred.

Systemic design has been research-led as well as a practice, and in any interdisciplinary study it’s incumbent on the author to disclose precedent ideas, but to develop them with respect for provenance as they are adapted to the contours of design applications. A small number of recurring precedents in the evolution of systemic design are prominent within these chapters and symposia, including:

  • Design cybernetics, especially second-order reflexivity in design practice (Glanville, 2009, Krippendorff, 2007)
  • Design thinking for wicked problems (Buchanan, 1992)
  • Systems-oriented design (Sevaldson, 2013)
  • Systemic design approach to ecological design (Bistagnino, 2011)
  • Product-service systems (Manzini, Morelli, Vezzoli)
  • Transformation design (Sangiorgi, 2011)
  • Transition design (Irwin, 2015)
  • Dialogic design (Christakis, 2006)
  • Design for Conversation (Dubberly & Pangaro, 2015)
  • DesignX (Norman & Stappers, 2016)

Read the Medium (long) version of this article, Taking Stock and Flow of Systemic Design.

[1] Ryan, A. & Jones, P. (2015). Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD4) 2015 Symposium. Banff, Canada, September 1-3, 2015.