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Insights, inspiration and opportunities to create a more vibrant and resilient future.

What does systemic design even mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

My tribe of systemic designers is convening in Oslo, Norway, today for the 6th annual Relating Systems Thinking and Design Symposium. Despite not physically being there, I have been enjoying the highlights shared via #rsd6. But what does systemic design even mean?

Alex Ryan at MaRS, co-founder of the Systemic Design Research Network, does a great job of breaking down “systemic design” for us:

“Systemics (a broad family of systems practices and systems thinking approaches) is an interdisciplinary field for seeing the world in terms of connections and interactions. Design (a wide range of design practices and design thinking approaches) is an interdisciplinary tradition of situated learning through action. Together, they open up a field of possibility for making sense of and making progress in white-water situations that my friend and colleague Harold Nelson first began to call systemic design.”

Ryan talks about white-water situations in contrast to smooth-water situations where a linear approach is effective. White-water situations can be described as complex, ambiguous, and volatile. Pick a headline from the news today: smooth or white-water?

Systemic design is a mindset, tool set, and process that is reserved for complex problems. When linear approaches are useless in addressing issues that involve multiple moving, interconnected, and evolving elements (like climate change or homelessness), a systems thinking approach is necessary. 

Peter Jones at OCAD, another leader in this emerging field, describes systemic design as being “distinguished from service or experience design in terms of scale, social complexity and integration–it is concerned with higher order systems that that entail multiple subsystems. By integrating systems thinking and its methods, systemic design brings human-centred design to complex, multi-stakeholder service systems. It adapts from known design competencies–form and process reasoning, social and generative research methods, and sketching and visualization practices–to describe, map, propose and reconfigure complex services and systems.”