Metaplanning with Design Journeys

Peter JonesCo-Creation, Social Systems Design, Systemic Design, Systems Thinking

The Journeys are staged to help the organising team separate the goals of each stage of learning, and to structure the participation for stakeholders in a clearly defined way, with a definitive logic. The Journeys design approach is all pre-development (or implementation) and can be understood as a complete metaplanning[1] and strategic design planning process, but for complex social systems and system change intervention. A participatory design style is essential to system metaplanning because the planners will be the stakeholders and risk-bearers, those with skin-in-the-game, who will be responsible for implementation.  Therefore it’s critical they understand every step of the design planning journey.

Real stakeholders invested in the outcome might be very different than the convenience-sample groups that we drum up for organizational workshops, or in the public sector invitational sessions we often convene. The five-sided figure shows a model for stakeholder sampling, based on Alexander Christakis – who defined a critical sortition of participants, assessing their legitimation using a heuristic of Five I’s. These are simply:

  1. Informed – Are they deeply informed about the problem and context? Are they willing to be open-minded, to learn more?
  2. Impacted – Are they directly affected by the outcomes and decisions at stake? Are they vulnerable to risk consequences of the design?
  3. Interested – Are they sincerely interested in the engagement?
  4. Invested – Are they personally invested and involved in the outcome?
  5. Implementers – Will they be involved as implementers of the plans or design?

Design Engagement Principles

The following principles serve as a core set of process values that design engagements can be planned to embody. These values were inspired by or taken from the vital ideas presented at several Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD) Symposia, which, for a decade, have built up a research community and foundation of practices supporting these methods and tools.


No single profession, group, or organisation can successfully address today’s societal challenges alone.[2] The application of systemic design demands the participation of stakeholders across existing social systems boundaries. Unlike other design practices, systemic design has no end user or consumer. Systems have actors and stakeholders who we prefer to treat as participants.


All systems change leads us to design for futures, but we must always ask, ‘whose future?’ The worldviews, goals, and values of participants in multiple future contexts are entailed and represented through futures-oriented design methods. Further, we seek to enable stakeholders with different temporal reasoning preferences to contribute to strategic foresight in systems design and change, as equally as possible.

Disclosing Knowledge

A common understanding can only truly be achieved if knowledge is openly shared within collaborations, through processes of socialisation. Experiential and tacit knowledge informing design and governance decisions are valuable when shared and understood by all. Systemic design tools reveal team and stakeholder knowledge in structured formats for effective reuse.

Experiential Presence

Systemic design becomes engaged effectively when collaborating in engaging activities that produce an intense feeling of ‘here and now’ presence[3] and flow in participation. During these activities, participants release cognitive commitments within the system, and can challenge and shift system boundaries and goals.


Systemic design activities aim to help people collectively make sense of the challenge, and provide them with plans of action that they can carry out in the systems they are ordinarily entangled in. The activities transform them into agents of change in their daily field of action.


Unlike other design disciplines, systemic design is not bound to a specific outcome, be it a product or a service, or the creation of a single solution. Systemic design aims to identify, develop, and stimulate interventions to change and adapt the system on the way.


Systemic design embraces a pluriversal worldview[4] that recognises a commitment to design supporting a pluralism of cultures, societies and experiences that seek or are expressed in movements toward social transformation, moving away from a Western or modernist universalism. Pluriversality seeks a relational appreciation among multiple ontologies that coexist, often in many territories at once, while expressing autonomy and local transformations through the power of design by co-participants.

Numinosity and Inner Reflection

While not an explicit frame of design action in most cases, systemic design recognises the mystery of human experience and the evolution of higher states of consciousness, leading to new outlooks on human possibility in nature and the universe. The emergence of the numinous, spiritual, and deep inner knowing are honoured in approaches to creative design for higher orders of meaning, including social, cultural, and civilisational systems of meaning.

Multi-Level and Multi-Perspective

The Journeys design process continuously modulates between levels of abstraction by alternating between levels (from human-focused to very abstract) and shifting perspectives (disciplinary or expert views, or life experiences associated with the system). The tools facilitate ‘zooming in and out,’ moving between levels of the system and the stakeholders. Several tools help reframe boundary judgments, to accommodate different stakeholder perspectives[5] and to transcend paradigms.


The Journeys toolkit is not merely a structured sequence of methods, but rather a grammar that allows designers to bring the systemic design vocabulary (the methods and tools) together in a way that makes sense for a project, thus constructing a new narrative. The order of activities depends on the context of application and social dynamics of the moment.

[1] Charles Owen (2001). Structured planning in design: information-age tools for product development. Design Issues.

[2] Sharon Matthias & Jess McMullin (2017). Systemic Maturity Models and multi-organization collaborations. RSD6 Symposium, Oslo.

[3] Piotr Michura & Stan Ruecker (2017). Design as production of presence – systemic approach to re-designing novelty. RSD6 Symposium, Oslo.

[4] Arturo Escobar (2018). Designs for the Pluriverse. Duke University Press.

[5] Philippe Vandenbroeck & Kristel Van Ael (2016). Codifying Systemic Design: A toolkit. RSD5 Symposium, Toronto.