ISSS 2012: Systemic Design Languages

Peter JonesSocial Systems Design, Systemic Design

I recently returned from San Jose where I participated in a deeply engaging ISSS 2012, the annual meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences organized by outgoing president (and Toronto colleague) David Ing to great effect. Although ISSS is the legacy of the original Society for General Systems Research, it must be credited for moving beyond the conventional scholarly conference formula while keeping its learned society credibility. They continue to adapt to the purposes of effective systems research, deepening learning and practice, and having societal influence. At ISSS, publishing and talks extend the foundation of systems theory and share new applications. The purpose of presenting is more community development, not for credentialing a reference.

I presented a short paper and a “Systems Basics” lecture. The short paper was quickly written to capture and share our learning from this year’s Systemic Design course which I teach in OCADU’s Strategic Foresight and Innovation MDes program. Professor Jeremy Bowes, who teaches the Understanding Systems course in our two-part course block, collaborated on the presentation.

Toward the Integration of Visual Languages for Systemic Design

Recent developments in design theory and practice have extended the influence of design on systems thinking. Designers often believe design thinking is naturally compatible with systems thinking, and systemicists believe they are enabling design outcomes. But the two perspectives are rarely defined together to indicate how and why they are related, or not. Both systems thinkers and design thinkers believe they are integrating principles appropriately from the respective fields. But these fields have different and even contentious definitions of everything, including the very words “design” and “system.” The fields have to dance together a bit longer before we can say we are engaged.

How should we strengthen the relationships between systems thinking and design thinking to improve both design and systems practices? Design thinking has been recently promoted widely as a methodology for action in complex situations normally considered the domain of policy planning and systems engineering. Yet while their perspectives may be compatible, the attempts to integrate system theory with design thinking practice have generally been superficial.

Systems and design thinking are both systems methods / approaches of organized cognitive models developed to enable practitioners to generate and communicate understanding and to address interconnected social and technological concerns in complex problems. Yet the two orientations have very different approaches to formulating the “problems” of design and inquiry.

Visual languages may provide a basis for complementary reasoning and representation. The following presentation illustrates our current thinking and development from graduate student work in the OCADU program.