Systemic design at MaRS Solutions Lab

Mieke van der Bijl
Jun 26, 2018 · 5 min read

While visiting the MaRS Solutions Lab (MSL) in Toronto as an International Fellow in May 2018 I had the opportunity to observe social innovation in action. MSL’s approach to social innovation is based on the principles of systemic design. Systemic design combines systems thinking with the creative and humanising practices of design. Rather than a fixed approach or methodology, systemic design promotes an open and transdisciplinary approach, where the way of working and thinking is adjusted to the complexity of the problem situation. In this blog I explain the basics of systems thinking/ systemic design, and how it is used at MSL.

Mapping systems and interrelations

A systems is a ‘whole’ that is larger, or at least different, than the sum of its parts, for example a human that is more than the sum of their body parts, a car that is more than the sum of its technical parts, and a football team that is more than the sum of its individual players. Systems thinking is not just about looking at the parts of the system, but also about zooming out and looking at how these parts are interrelated. It is about seeing the bigger picture and connecting the dots. Social innovation is often aimed at ‘systems change’ in a societal context. MSL therefore uses many different types of systems maps to investigate and visualise interrelationships. Examples include ‘activity maps’ (mapping out existing strategies, programs and initiatives and how they are related to each other), ‘actor maps’ (actors and how they are interrelated), influence maps and causal/loop diagrams (how variables influence each other). ‘ecosystem maps’ (sectors and how they are interrelated), and ‘giga maps’ (the whole system in a single visualisation).

Leverage points

To move from visualising current systems to creating systems change MSL uses various systems change principles, one of them being ‘leverage points’ (based on Donella Meadows work). Leverage points are places within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything. MSL uses leverage points within projects, but also to look at the broader social innovation ecosystem. One lever that MaRS focuses on is ‘procurement’. Currently there is a disconnect between businesses that develop breakthrough technological innovations, and public sector organisations who are procuring technology through often inflexible processes and rigid problem definitions to address the specific problems they are facing. To address this issue in the health sector, MaRS’ Procurement by Co-design program presents a fundamental shift in relationships in the health innovation system. The program gives healthcare-service providers the opportunity to participate in the development of innovative solutions before procuring them. In turn, technology and service innovators with scalable business models can gain unprecedented access to end users and validate use cases to remain competitive. Procurement is an important ‘lever’ in many sectors. A similar program is being implemented by MaRS in a municipal context for procuring technology for smart cities in the Municipal Innovation Exchange, and the Department of Defence is facing similar issues around procurement, as explained by MSL’s intern Jodi-Jane Langley in her blog.

Changing systems through multiple initiatives and prototypes

The Procurement by Co-Design program is a great example of how rethinking systems and interrelationships between actors can start generating change on a systems level. Another principle applied by MSL is that systemic problems do not have one off solutions and that multiple initiatives are required to move a system in a certain direction. For example, the Recover team in Edmonton developed multiple prototypes to improve urban wellness which are currently being tested. Again, rather than seeing these prototypes in isolation, the team investigates the interrelations between the prototypes. MSL’s Alex Ryan, who is coaching the team, explained how some of the prototypes have fast and short-term impact, while others might have slower but longer-term impact, ranging from what he calls the level of ‘narrative’ (shifting the way people see a problem), to ‘network’ (shifting the typology of connections between people), to ‘system’ (changes in money and power). Where the latter, ‘slow’ types of systems change are usually less ‘sexy’ than the former types of prototypes. For example, a narrative-level prototype is the ‘Welcome mat’, (a face lift of a daytime drop-in centre) and a system-level prototype is the ‘wellness council’ (a community-led committee for property development). On their own it is unlikely that these prototypes would achieve the broader goal of ‘urban wellness’, but seeing them collectively, and seeing them as part of a continuous innovation process one can start to see how they would help the system shift in the direction of urban wellness.

Designerly approaches in social innovation

The idea of prototyping is borrowed from design practice, and often applied in social innovation approaches. This way of working is one of the more challenging aspects of innovation to introduce in a public and social sector context, where organisations traditionally trust research and quantitative data to provide evidence for what the best solution is. However, as explained by David Snowden in the ‘Cynefin framework’, research and expertise can predict what the best solution is in a ‘complicated system’, but not in a complex system. Instead complex systems require ‘safe to fail experiments’ to provide insight into how a system will respond to certain initiatives. Prototypes are a means to conduct these safe to fail experiments. Or, as explained by Alex Ryan ‘if we start bringing ideas to life, we can create data’. Experimentation is the only way to get feedback on how ideas manifest in life, to more safely account for unknown consequences (in Cahill & Spitz, 2017).

A second ‘designerly’ aspect of social innovation approaches, including the MSL approach, is the way it ‘humanises’ the way people see systems by using qualitative research methods that reveal lived experience and the deeper needs, desires and aspirations of different actors in the system. In the Recover Edmonton program, MSL partnered with InWithForward who conducted a deep ethnography with people living in the innercity neighbourhoods that were targeted in the project. When presenting to the Edmonton council, InWithForward’s Sarah Schulman explained how this ‘thick data’ (rather than big data), is required at the front end of innovation, because we don’t yet know what the questions are. Once we have developed prototypes and know what the intended and unintended side effects are we can safely start scaling and use traditional positivist methods and randomised controlled tests to provide evidence that justifies investment in initiatives.


Cahill, G., & Spitz, K. (2017). Social Innovation Generation — Fostering a Canadian Ecosystem for Systems Change. Montreal, Canada: The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. See also

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