Design Thinking for Complex Systems || Fall 2018

“There is no whole system without an interconnection of its parts and there is no whole system without an environment.” — Francisco Varela

6 units
Mondays & Wednesdays, 12:00pm to 1:20pm
Margaret Morrison Room #121

Taught by Ahmed Ansari
Office hours between 1:30pm & 2:30pm on Mondays and Wednesdays
Margaret Morrison Room #207A

Course Description

Unlike simple problems, like figuring out how to debug and optimize a piece of code or designing an aesthetically pleasing, useful and usable product, wicked problems, like rising inner city crime, rural to urban flight, or falling standards in lower education, require developing a different kind of mindset and expertise that can deal with the scale, intricacy, and interconnectedness of these problems. As the distinctions between the natural world, built environment, and culture and society become increasingly blurry, and as the role of designers expands from dealing with straightforward, simple problems to tackling larger systemic issues, we can also no longer talk about design outside of its role in determining the shape and form of these systems, models of aspects of the world that can articulate and guide intentional, planned change.

This course intends to introduce participants to concepts, approaches and methods in applied systems and complexity theory. We will explore different ways of observing, analyzing, and describing socio-technical systems, with a view to then being able to determine where best to intervene in them, and determine what the nature of those interventions, whether they are artifacts, services, experiences, environments or platforms, should be. This course will be divided into two components for every session: a lecture on key concepts and subsequent discussion, followed by hands on exercises where participants will put their newly acquired knowledge to work. By the end of this course, participants should have developed an appreciation for the value of systems thinking, a better sense of how to create rich and useful visualizations and models of systemic phenomenon, where and how to design interventions to tackle wicked problems, and be in a better position to gauge the efficacy of, and take responsibility for, the consequences of their designed actions.


This course intends to give students a new perspective on the world. From seeing phenomenon of the everyday as independent entities, we hope that students will be sensitized to seeing the world as complex, interconnected, and many-layered, and learn to appreciate the value of observing and thinking holistically, see themselves as conscious actors that affect the world around them and the systems they are in, and see themselves as possessing the agency to consciously and carefully shape change.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this course, students will:

  1. Have an understanding of the value of “thinking in systems” and an experience of the power of good models;
  2. Be able to apply the core concepts and models of designerly systems thinking to their own practice, for the benefit of their understanding, build confidence, and to build rigor into their work;
  3. Become proficient in the tasks of representing the relations between various actors, their agency and impact, and modeling system components and interactions in a cohesive, holistic manner;
  4. Have a good grasp of a variety of approaches in systems and complexity theory, with a sense of the history, epistemological questions, relevance to studying specific types of phenomenon, principles, and methods of each;
  5. Become familiar with modelling local systems (financial, political, social, ecological etc.), and being able to articulate the nature of problems they find in Pakistan;
  6. At the end of the day, improve the way they design their interventions into local systems.


Week 1

08.27.2018 What is a system? Why study systems?
An introduction to systems thinking

Additional Resources
Alex Ryan, A Framework for Systemic Design
Wolfgang Jonas, The Strengths & Limits of Systems Thinking

08.29.2018 Tool Systems
Martin Heidegger, tools and tool-systems, worlding, mediation

Additional Resources
Winograd & Flores, Understanding Computers & Cognition, Pgs. 27–35
Tao Ruspoli, “Being in the World”

Week 2

09.03.2018 First Order Cybernetics
First order cybernetic systems and associated terminologies like goals, feedback, actuation, regulation, requisite variety etc.

Additional Resources
Norbert Weiner, Control & Communication in the Animal and Machine
Interview w/ Hugh Dubberly, What is Systems Design?
Paul Pangaro, “What is Cybernetics?”

09.05.2018 Exercise: Modelling a Basic Technical System

Week 3

09.10.2018 Second Order Cybernetics
Second order cybernetic systems and associated terminologies like autonomy, self-organizationcommunication, reflexivity, coupling, conversation, etc.

09.12.2018 Exercise: Designing for Conversation

Additional Resources
Ross Ashby, Introduction to Cybernetics
Dubberly & Pangaro, What is Conversation?
Gloria Lei, “A Conversation on Conversations”

Week 4

09.17.2018 Mental Models, Metaphors & Frames
Talking about mental models, George Lakoff’s concepts of metaphors and frames

09.19.2018 Exercise: Creative Metaphors

Additional Resources
George Lakoff, Metaphors we Live By
George Lakoff, Don’t Think of An Elephant!
George Lakoff, “The Left, the Right, and the Family View of Government”

Week 5

09.24.2018 Wicked Problems
Horst Rittel’s conception of Wicked Problems & Richard Buchanan’s translation of them into design methodology

09.26.2018 Exercise: Mess Maps

Additional Resources
Horst Rittel, Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning
Richard Buchanan, Wicked Problems in Design Thinking

Week 6

10.01.2018 Living Systems
Concepts of living systems theory from the work of Maturana and Varela: boundaries and dynamics, autopoiesis etc.

10.03.2018 Exercise: Bio-Cost Assessment

Additional Resources
Maturana & Varela, The Tree of Knowledge
Daniel Christian Wahl, “Regenerative Design and Regenerative Development”
Jan van Boeckel, “Arnae Ness & The Deep Ecology Movement”

Week 7

10.08.2018 Leverage Points
Donella Meadows twelve leverage points, stocks and flows, buffers etc.

10.10.2018 Exercise: Identifying Leverage Points

Additional Resources
Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems
Donella Meadows Institute, “In a World of Systems”

Week 8

10.08.2018 Actor-Network Theory
Bruno Latour’s concepts of technological delegation, scripts, and actor-networks

10.10.2018 Exercise: ANT Diagrams

Additional Resources
Bruno Latour, Where Are The Missing Masses?
Peter Paul Verbeek, “What Things Do”, Pgs. 148–172

Week 9

10.15.2018 Cynefin
Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework; Wrap-up

Grading Criteria

This classes grading criteria is via negative grading. Everyone starts at 100%. There are two graded components: 8 weekly reflections, and 8 in-class exercises. For every reflection that you fail to hand in on time or for a hastily done or poorly written reflection that shows you have not put in effort, or in-class exercise that you miss, 5% will be deducted from your grade. At the end of the course, you will be given a grade based on your successful completion of all exercises and reflections.

Weekly Reflections:

In weekly written reflections, you will develop your own questions, observations and points of discussion based on your experiences with exercises, lectures and readings. These will offer you a chance to document your own thinking and demonstrate to us that you have been engaging with the material taught in the previous week. You will write these reflections on your own over the weekend and upload a page or two (700–1000 words) of 11 pt, double-spaced writing in PDF format on Sunday (before midnight) before each Monday class into the Box folder. We do not expect straight descriptions of what was done in class — the idea is for you to give us your own thoughts, observations and reflections on content as it relates to what we did that week, how it relates to specific issues of your choice, and how you feel you might use it in your design practice, rather than reiterating what the instructor taught. By the end of semester, you should have a total of 8 uploaded posts in your Box folder, one for each of the first eight weeks. Hastily written or poorly done reflections will not be acceptable and will result in a grade deduction. You will be assessed both on your timely submission and the quality of your reflection.

Design Exercises:

We have 7 group exercises, which we will do in class, and some exercises may have prerequisite homework, which will be given to you before the in-class exercise. After each exercise, each group is responsible to upload documentation of their assignment onto the Box folder. Because these exercises will not be repeated it is imperative that you show up to class and participate — if you are absent that day, you lose 5% of your grade.


Responsibility — Students are responsible for all assignments, even if they are absent from class. Late assignments, failure to complete the assignments for class discussion and/or critique, and lack of preparedness for in-class discussions, presentations and/or critiques will jeopardize your successful completion of this course. Students must have prior permission from the instructor to submit work late and/or adequate evidence of unforeseeable circumstance, such as a sudden illness. Work is considered late if it is not received before the beginning of class on the date due, or as otherwise detailed by the instructor. Even with permission, late work is subject to a grade penalty of a full letter grade deduction per day, i.e from an A to a B, after the original due date.

Academic Integrity — It is the responsibility of students to know and follow the university’s policies for academic integrity and to learn the procedures specific to their discipline for correctly and appropriately differentiating their own work from that of others. Compromising your academic integrity may lead to serious consequences, including failure of the assignment, failure of the course, or more significant disciplinary action with the university. See:

Participation and attendance — Class participation is an essential part of class and includes: keeping up with reading, assignments, projects, contributing meaningfully to class discussions, active participation in group work, and coming to class regularly and on time.

Class attendance is mandatory. Missing class for any reason counts as an absence, even if unavoidable. If an absence is unavoidable, always provide evidence of the reason, such as a doctor’s note, and notify the instructor directly prior to the class, if possible, or soon after. This will not automatically excuse the absence but will provide a basis for discussion if a student exceeds the allowable number of absences and an incomplete is requested. 3 absences on any grounds brings you down a full letter grade, i.e. an A into a B. More than 3 absences on any grounds constitutes grounds for failure.

The following may also be counted as an absence: coming to class without the required materials, sleeping in class, doing other work in class, and using a phone, email or social media during class if not related to class work.

Delays — In rare instances, the instructor may be delayed arriving to class. If s/he has not arrived by the time class is scheduled to start, you must wait a minimum of thirty minutes before leaving. Please use the time effectively on any current group or individual work. In the event that the instructor will miss class entirely, a notice will be posted in the classroom and/or by email indicating activities for making use of class time and for the next week’s assignment.