Systemic Design – An Emerging Interdiscipline

Peter JonesSocial Systems Design, Strategic Innovation, Systemic Design

So we might ask, is there a definable field and practice of systemic design? With Jeremy Bowes, we teach a course in system titled Systemic Design in the Strategic Foresight and Innovation program at OCADU.  We believe systems thinking to be one of the core “thinkings” for the SFI program (design, business, and futures thinking, “surrounded” by creative systems thinking). Over the 5 years of teaching the program and producing futures and strategic design studies for agencies and clients, we have found systemic design becoming one of the most differentiating and persuasive competencies, both in its underpinning theory and social technologies.

We’ve been making the invisible college of this practice a lot more visible. Working with Birger Sevaldson at AHO, Oslo for the last few years, we’ve coordinated curriculum and methods and have exchanged workshops to develop systems thinking methods in strategic design and service design. At first, this was a typical international faculty and research collaboration, funded generously by Norway and the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO).

In 2012, we exchanged workshops and ideas, and held the first symposium on the interrelationship between systems thinking and design action (RSD1). In 2013,with Harold Nelson and Alex Ryan we planned a larger symposium and invited global participation – free of charge – to the Relating Systems Thinking to Design 2 symposium. We had over 150 register for 6 (also free) workshops and 30 paper presentations, and witnessed the start of possibly a new framing of an interdisciplinary practice area.

As typical in the design fields, we called this discipline by different names. Birger leads a popular graduate program at AHO in Systems Oriented Design. This program is strongly design-led, studio-based, and highly integrative.

I conceived our program as Systemic Design, as the course is strong on systems theory and method, and the application to design is more emergent. Harold Nelson likes to remind us that all good design is essentially systemic. And the systems community (ISSS, IFSR, etc.) generally understands design as more of an outcome of systemic practices.

Yet in actual design practice, systems thinking and design thinking are not mutually influential. The evidence for this appears in the design and the systems literature, where very few papers explicitly develop this relationship. It is insufficient and unsupportable to (today) claim that these are performed well in practice, as that’s not the case. Systemic work requires skills and budgets that most design firms just don’t have for their client projects. The theoretical basis for systems-level research is not taught at design schools, and at most or best, one course. For the most part, (in practice) we give the “other” field we don’t know deeply some lip service and fake it well. (There are a small number of exceptional firms that work in this intersection, and they are not IDEO).

There’s too much value at stake to fuss around. The original leaders in the systems movement are not getting replaced at the same rate they are leaving us, the fervor and force is not following generations yet. The final statements from Ackoff to Warfield and other thinkers have been urging us, over the last decade, to connect systems principles and methods to the complex societal problems that are imminent and critical. But perhaps the next movement will be practical, co-created, and design-led.

Systemic Design effectively captures this emerging movement in design. We believe it possible for systems thinking and design praxis to develop the foundations for new, interrelated practices. This synergistic relationship will launch a new generation of systems-oriented thinkers empowered with the creativity and perspectives of design thinking. As educators and researchers, we also seek better theoretical foundations and rigor in design thinking.


Sketchnotes by Patricia Kambitsch, Playthink

What binds systems-related theories and practices together with design approaches may be the desire to reintroduce systems approaches with design toward a more effective integrated praxis, becoming more useful to designers (and stakeholders and clients) than evidenced by past applications. This implies the reshaping and design of systems approaches and the related practices so that they are better integrated into design processes.