NouLAB at the seventh annual Relating Systemic thinking and Design conference

Nov 19, 2018 · 4 min read

The seventh Relating Systems thinking and Design conference (RSD7) in Turin, Italy was held over four days, October 23rd to 26th, 2018. It is a conference that brings together a wide variety of academics, designers, practitioners, students and people interested in systems change. The one thing they seem to have in common is a desire to change the ways things are. Designers are inherently tinkerers, they are people who see things as they could be, not necessarily as they are. They also see what is behind the scenes. Many of the topics at RSD7 were about the philosophies beyond the obvious. Now you may be wondering what I’m talking about. In systems theory, there is the requirement to investigate what and how things are connected. Determining what elements/stakeholders/ideas are important and how to connect them was the subject of many of the discussions and presentations at the conference. Systems thinkers and designers, put them together, it makes for some interesting conversations. The conference is held yearly by the Systemic Design Association to build the field and practice.

Rosamund Mosse doing a fantastic job at Graphically recording the conference

NouLAB was an attendee to share their social lab processes, which are essentially multi-stakeholder engagements that have the end-goal of addressing complex social problems. To fully understand social problems, the team at NouLAB understands that problems exist in systems and to make change, it is necessary to understand how the different parts are connected. This is an essential element of lab work, mapping systems and identifying where changes would have the most impact. NouLAB uses theories from systems thinking to determine leverage points and to determine where action is needed.

NouLAB’s Economic Immigration Lab has been working on novel ways to do immigration better in the province of New Brunswick for the past year and half. There are currently 5 distinct prototypes working to improve the process and experience of immigration for NB employers and immigrants. The prototypes are experimental and require consistent monitoring to evaluate their success. This Economic Immigration Lab provided the focus of the case study NouLAB presented at the RSD7 conference.

To share with the community of systems thinkers and designers at RSD7, Rosamund Mosse, Nick Scott and Lewis Muirhead presented NouLAB’s approach to addressing the socio-economic issues facing the province. They presented in the Policy design and decision-making stream of the conference and the audience was made up of representatives from other social innovation labs in the United States, Europe and Canada, as well as academics, representatives from government, designers and students. NouLAB is a program of the Pond-Deshpande Centre in the University of New Brunswick. This position, inside an academic institution and outside of government, forms a part of our strategic advantage as an organisation. However, being a public and social innovation lab, NouLAB works closely with government to impact policy development. Since NouLAB is positioned the outside of government, acting in a consultant role, a more radical stance and procedures can be taken than would be necessarily be possible within the government walls. In the words of the public policy researcher Piret Tõnurist, NouLAB thus holds ‘disruptive potential’ for making change.

NouLAB’s use of participatory practices is another kind of ‘disruptive potential’. Participatory practices change the way participants relate to one another, break down hierarchies and allow for co-creation and co-design. Participatory practices, including reflective practice, allows participants to experience new ways of being.

Finally, NouLAB uses design thinking, among other tools and processes to push participants into new ways of thinking and doing. Design thinking, as was noted by several other conference attendees, demands that the whole system be in the room. The prototypes of the Economic Immigration Lab are inherently multi-sectoral, and necessarily bring in government, business, non-profit and academic sectors to provide input on how to move forward. The ability to hold these meetings and do user-centred design has allowed new ideas and action to come forth.

The audience was engaged, and asked questions around how we do user-interviews and testing of prototypes as well as how we get the commitment for doing the longer workshops required to do proper engagement. Following the presentation and throughout the remainder of the conference, there was interest and ideas flowing around the topics that the NouLAB team presented. Relating systems thinking and design is an appropriate name. Because of the academic nature of the conference, relating it to practice and how the ideas can be applied is a necessary process. Through the work that NouLAB presented, systems theory was integrated and displayed as a useful tool towards determining strategic action towards solutions to the immigration issue New Brunswick is facing.

Originally published at on November 19, 2018.

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