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A Reflection on Connecting Complexity Theory and Design for Policy

Format: Papers, RSD7, Topic: Policy & Governance

Taverna Andrea and Mortati Marzia

Policy innovation to face complex problems

Society, meant as an aggregate of people interacting with each other in a more or less ordered community, is by definition complex. The relations among its elements (i.e. the people) have different properties that create a distinctly complex system. For instance, as one of the characteristics of complexity theory, they have a nonlinear behavior, meaning that they might respond in different ways to an identical input depending on the circumstances (Byrne, 2002). While it is largely recognized that evolution increased the complexity of social environments (Bar-Yam, 1997), the quick diffusion of digital communication channels and tools (i.e. ICTs) has radically increased the number of interactions among humans, diversifying nature (i.e. digital messaging) and amplifying scale (i.e. social network platforms), thus increasing de facto the complexity of the social system (McChrystal et al., 2015). Indeed, if on the one hand, the technological progress brought a range of benefits like higher connectivity, quicker mobility or easier flow of information, on the other hand it also carried new and critical social and ethical challenges, both on a micro scale (i.e. privacy issues), and on a macro one (i.e. migration). These increasingly complex sociotechnical problems are challenging both the traditional models and solutions used by governments for regulation (the traditional policymaking process), and the old process of public and private innovation (new disruptive technologies like AI or blockchain will radically modify some of the workings of civil society like the type and distribution of jobs).

Focusing on governments and their traditional model to produce and enact regulations, the main reasons behind this scenario can be further described using the following categories:

  • Procedures that are often inappropriate for the scale and speed of technological change, as more often the traditional process for policy development and implementation is linear and deterministic.
  • Organizational structures and procedures, that are often inadequate to support the new need for policy innovation determined by the current scenario (i.e. old silos structure).
  • Citizen engagement that is often not appropriately applied to the design and development of policy.

Building on this, the public sector at large needs a renovation that can include the advantages of Digital Government, modernization of procedures and organizational structures, and the development of new ways to include citizens as new sources of solutions and generation of public value.

Design for policy and complexity theory to aid policy innovation

Due to the scenario described, institutions around the world are looking for and experimenting with new approaches to transform the public sector, also looking at design as a potential source of new methods, principles, and tools (Junginger, 2017). In the last decades, design has increasingly accepted this new area of work, evolving its interests toward intangible solutions and acting in what Buchanan (2001) defines third and fourth orders of design, that is working, studying and experimenting on interactions (third order) and systems (fourth order). More recently, Norman et al. (2015) have described how design can play an active role in reducing political, social and cultural disruption while building more resilient solutions alongside optimizing resources. Furthermore, Bason (2017) has underlined the potential of applying design practice in public sector and administration using three dimensions:

  • Exploring the problem space
  • Generating alternative scenarios
  • Enacting new practices

Interestingly, he argues that ethnographically-inspired design approaches can support and inform the process of identification of policy needs, by understanding people’s needs and wishes. Beyond people centricity, the relevance of design approaches for government also lies in the ability to map and visualize information and languages (Mauri and Ciuccarelli, 2016), thus helping insights emerge and create a shared vocabulary with citizens to start social conversations (Manzini, 2015). One of the essential aspects of this generation of alternative scenarios in complex systems of stakeholders is the ability to trigger a debate based on a desirable vision of the future. Therefore, we can say that design scenarios use creativity to enable collaborative ideation and prototyping (Kimbell & Bailey, 2017), an aspect that is particularly relevant to renovate current policymaking practice. However, traditional design practices are not yet accustomed to handling complexity for policy formulation, as until now they have mainly been focused on tangible policy outputs (i.e. public services), and would therefore benefit from further understanding about how to integrate and handle a complex system to understand new social challenges and devise solutions to them. The aim is therefore to support this through proposing an integration between complexity theory and design for policy aiming at policy innovation.

From a theoretical point of view, these two areas have a common ground, for instance:

  • The object of the analysis is in both cases a complex system, its elements, their relations and characteristics (i.e. emergence).
  • The perspective on the system takes into consideration all its elements with a holistic approach, in contrast with a reductionist one.

From a practical point of view, few experiences and projects can be found in which the concepts of complexity theory are beginning to enrich the design process (i.e. healthcare system design). However, structured reflection and enquiry about how to connect these two areas can seldom be found, and here lies the contribution this paper aims at making. In particular, the intention is to begin to work on a shared vocabulary, methods, and tools that embedded in design for policy could significantly advance the knowledge of both areas as well as innovation in policymaking.

Research design: Focusing on the intersection between complexity, policy, and design

In order to comprehend the connection between complexity theory and design for policy, the research selects and analyses the scientific papers published in the last ten years in the most accredited databases (WOS and Scopus) produced with references to the topics of complexity theory, policy design and design for policy, either looking at how these are connected or to extract the most relevant principles for each, for further connection.

Regarding complexity, special attention will be paid to the scale of the system, as its complexity is highly influenced by the number of interactions and increases when the number of interacting elements increases. In the area of policy design, the discussion will reflect on those contributions that frame policy formulation as a design problem to understand where/how design is already considered part of the process and where this process can be further supported by principles coming from complexity studies. Finally, literature in the area of Design for Policy is analyzed to match the characteristics of this activity with the above areas and create a more compelling understanding on the topic.

The knowledge retrieved from this research will be analyzed placing concepts in a matrix based on Buchanan’s fourth orders of design, declined by Jones and van Patter (2009) in the four domanis of design, arguing that “many more will be engaged in the Design 3.0 and Design 4.0 activity spaces with more knowledge and better tools”. In our research, these are considered as four distinct design domains from design 1.0 to 4.0 and are useful to understand two aspects: the scale of the system and the kind of design domain.

Based on this, the most relevant domains for our research will be the third and the fourth because connected to organizational structures, social systems and policymaking, thus these will be the object of literature mapping. Moreover, the policy cycle defined by Howlett and Ramesh (2003) and further illustrated by Junginger (2015) (fig. 2) will be used to understand where the activity of design mainly plays a role in the formulation and ideation of a policy. Finally, these theoretical models are matched to map scientific papers and arguments built by other scholars following the structure provided in Table 1 below.


The mapping tool will generate insights on how in the last decade the conversation around the introduction of design methods and processes in policymaking has evolved also in connection to complexity theory, and what theoretical elements can be useful to create a share language and vocabulary for mutual enrichment and disciplinary enhancement. This analysis creates a base of knowledge from which other scholars and researchers might work to share a research field that connects complexity theory and design for policy, thus contributing to make use of complexity theory in design for creating value and not to perceive complexity as a problem.


  1. Byrne, D. (2002). Complexity theory and the social sciences: An introduction. Routledge.
    Bar-Yam, Yaneer. (1997). Complexity Rising: From Human Beings to Human Civilization, a Complexity Profile. NECSI Report 1997-12-01
  2. McChrystal, G. S., Collins, T., Silverman, D., & Fussell, C. (2015). Team of teams: New rules of engagement for a complex world. Penguin.
  3. Junginger, S. (2017). Design Research and Practice for the Public Good: A Reflection. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation 3, 290–302.
  4. Buchanan, R. (2001). Design research and the new learning. Design issues, 17(4), 3-23.
    Norman, D.A. and Stappers, P.J. (2015). DesignX: complex sociotechnical systems. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 1(2), pp.83-106.
  5. Bason, C. (2017). Leading Public Design: How Managers Engage with Design to Transform Public Governance. Copenhagen Business School [Phd].
  6. Manzini, E. (2015). Design, when everybody designs: An introduction to design for social innovation. MIT press.
  7. Kimbell, L., & Bailey, J. (2017). Prototyping and the new spirit of policy-making. CoDesign, 13(3), 214-226.
  8. Mauri, M., & Ciuccarelli, P. (2016). Designing diagrams for social issues. In DRS2016: Design+ Research+ Society-Future-Focused Thinking (pp. 941-958). Design Research Society.
  9. Jones, P.H., & van Patter, G.K. (2009). Design 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0: The rise of visual sensemaking. New York: NextDesign Leadership Institute.




Citation Data

Author(s): Taverna Andrea and Mortati Marzia
Title: A Reflection on Connecting Complexity Theory and Design for Policy
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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First published: 2 October 2018
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