Taking Stock & Flow of Systemic Design

Inspiration from RSD4, Banff 2015

Systemic Design: Theory, Methods, and Practice is now published as the latest edition in the Springer Translational Systems Sciences series.

The intention of this book is to develop and connect research-based applications of systems theory and methods to complex design contexts. Systemic design has emerged to address this interdisciplinary area of research and practice, growing from leadership within design studies and its intersection with system sciences. The book is in the Springer series so that it can better develop its arguments in the systems and cybernetics disciplines.

The nine chapters published in this collection were developed by authors from the proceedings of RSD4, the fourth Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD) Symposium. Most of the authors will be familiar to RSD participants, as they have presented at more than one symposium, and many have published widely in design, cybernetics, and ecology journals. I encourage readers to reach out to them, perhaps on Research Gate to follow up on their work.

The Big Fields of design and systems both deal with approaches to general purpose problem-solving, with domain-independent methodologies based on design rationale or scientific principles for holistic problem solving. As “thinking” modes, both design thinking and systems thinking promise cross-disciplinary resolution of complex problems. Systemic design embraces these traditions, so as not to lose the value of timeless knowledge, but also challenges the growth-as-progress problem drivers of our modernist technological era.

These challenges are not at all new. The systems science origins of systemic design can be traced to the influential operations research and planning schools, the East coast schools (Ackoff, Özbekhan from University of Pennsylvania, Senge from MIT), and the West coast (Horst Rittel, C. West Churchman, Christopher Alexander, and Harold Nelson all from U.C. Berkeley). Özbekhan in particular challenged the tenets of modernism, as his Club of Rome prospectus on the Predicament of Mankind reveals.

Systemic design has developed from the social systems methodologies that followed the Predicament (and the Club of Rome’s inability to address it), with widely-misunderstood approaches such as Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology (1975), Erich Jantsch’s evolutionary design (1973), Ackoff’s idealized design (1985), Banathy’s social system design (1997), John Warfield’s generic design science (1985) and Christakis’ Dialogic Design (2006). All of these projects share values in common with social or redirective design, such as a strong orientation to boundary and perspectives as opposed to problem solving, post-positivist (or constructivist) epistemologies, the adaptation of complementary modes of thinking, and the necessity of stakeholder participation.

These social schools of thought argued against many of the precepts of the predominant systems thinking methods of the time, systems thinking as modeling and intervention (Meadows, 1999) and system dynamics (Senge, 1986). Social systems design did not achieve the broader acceptance of hard systems sciences, in part due to the superior fit of the hard systems thinking mindset to modernist culture in the late 20th century, and the perceived ambiguity (and lack of method) of social systems processes and technologies.

I do argue that the design functions of the social systems methodologies were not ever designed for the human applications necessary to implement extensive sociotechnical system projects. Social systems never evolved to become “designerly;” with roots in systems theory its applications remained too abstract and removed from collective use. For too long we have included design thinking as a peripheral passenger in the systems journey. If we do not fully embrace designing as an advanced way of knowing and enacting with the sociomaterial world we risk failure in desired transformation.

The designerly turn in systems thinking must credit Buckminster Fuller’s early exploration (1960’s) of what we now call transdisciplinary design, in his “comprehensive anticipatory design science” for complex problems of industrial production, transportation, habitation, and environmentally-sensitive design. At least three significant designers from the 1970’s era, Christopher Alexander, Victor Papanek (with critical social design) and John Chris Jones (design methods originator), influenced a new generation of designers. Their design practices were well-integrated, and did not reveal much in the way of formal cybernetics and systems theory, even if their approaches were deeply informed by systemics. We recognize this integration of knowledge, experience and sensitivity as the “designerly way of knowing,” as Nigel Cross (2002) has referred.

Systemic design has been research-led as well as a practice, and in any interdisciplinary study it’s incumbent on the author to disclose precedent ideas, but to develop them with respect for provenance as they are adapted to the contours of design applications. A small number of recurring precedents in the evolution of systemic design are prominent within these chapters and symposia, including:

  • Design cybernetics, especially second-order reflexivity in design practice (Glanville, 2009, Krippendorff, 2007)
  • Design thinking for wicked problems (Buchanan, 1992)
  • Systems-oriented design (Sevaldson, 2013)
  • Systemic design approach to ecological design (Bistagnino, 2011)
  • Product-service systems (Manzini, Morelli, Vezzoli)
  • Transformation design (Sangiorgi, 2011)
  • Transition design (Irwin, 2015)
  • Dialogic design (Christakis, 2006)
  • Design for Conversation (Dubberly & Pangaro, 2015)
  • DesignX (Norman & Stappers, 2016)

Design becomes a leading collaborator in transformative projects, and an essential mindset and discipline when facing “actual” wicked problems, the sort that Rittel meant as contexts that resist problem-solving mindsets. Such situations, problematiques, messes and meta-messes, require our capacity to rethink received notions, to reframe and redirect, to creatively inquire, to engage peripheral skills and senses, to powerfully communicate central ideas to others, to produce campaigns for change.

We risk losing the unique critical power of systems thinking to transform organizations and practices when advancing theories of change without fully integrating design. Systemic design advances an integrative interdiscipline with the potential to implement systems theory with creative methods and mindsets, by bringing deep technical knowledge, aesthetic skill and creative implementation to the most abstract programs of collective action. The cases and practices in the 9 chapters attest to these new modes of thinking and acting with stakeholders on such problem domains, in healthcare, urban development, informatics, and public service.

Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD)

For seven years the Relating Systems Thinking and Design symposium has convened a design-oriented conference to develop the intersection of systems science and theory and design practice, methods and education. This intersection between systemics and design has not been addressed by other scholarly or practitioner conferences, as these two fields have actually drifted apart while often invoking the languages of “systems” and “designing” without truly understanding the core methods of each discipline. We have aimed to develop a strong relationship between the disciplines that brings out the best in each tradition

Systemic design has developed through integration of design research programs at several universities participating in the RSD series. These schools have evolved systems-oriented design programs for roughly a decade, in some cases longer, in search of powerful approaches to transdisciplinary design for complex sociotechnical contexts. While a small number of design scholars have worked and thrived rather naturally in this intersection throughout their careers, awareness of the import of systems thinking was fragmented and inconsistent across design specializations. There was no common understanding of a practice or a canon of theory for design applications.

In fact, judging by the prevailing popular themes at design and systems conferences, the fields were continuing to drift apart. Design and architecture have been moving into advanced service and interaction design for big data, urban systems (e.g. Smart Cities), healthcare, and other complex systems applications, but without a foundation of systems methods or well-understood cybernetics concepts. Similarly, in systems thinking and sciences the increasing attention to organizational, service and social systems led to new models and theory, but little design of prototypes or exemplary applications. These gaps appeared as far more than missed opportunities for a complete design discourse, but rather as the necessary emergence of an integrated discipline better adapted to our problems than its component disciplines.

The symposium expresses an intent as “relating” two worlds, between two wide-ranging, continually contested disciplines of systems thinking and design. Many observers in the past have attempted to join features of these fields together to achieve expected synergies between the perspectives and logics of systemic and the sensemaking and form-giving of design. Earlier attempts at forging a relationship, a net new identity between these discourses have generally failed to connect to the current generations of scholars and endure beyond initial forays. Mature, developed scholarship from preceding conferences has previously only been published in the online design journal FORM Academic (FORM Akademisk), which has edited a special issue for developed symposium work since RSD2. The design journal She Ji published a collection of 5 articles developed from RSD5 (Toronto, 2016) as a theme issue in late 2017. This issue follows their support for the emerging DesignX discourse only two years prior.