A Theory of Systemic Design

Format: Papers, RSD2, Topic: Cases & Practice

Alex J. Ryan

Over the last two decades, concepts from complexity theory, systems thinking, design, strategy, and philosophy have been synthesized within the Israeli Defense Force, the Australian Army, and the U.S. Army and Joint Force to produce a theory and practice of systemic design (Ryan 2011). Although this conceptual evolution has taken place within a military context, the theory developed has general applicability to the challenges of designing at scale in complex environments. The purpose of this paper is to present the pure theory of systemic design as developed by Western militaries, abstracted away from its military context, in order to facilitate applications to societal, governmental, and business design challenges. By making the theory accessible to civilian designers, it is hoped that they may benefit from the cross-pollination of ideas that have evolved in the highly competitive crucible of contemporary conflict.

In section 2.0, I provide a framework for systemic design consisting of three levels: methods, methodology, and, mindset. The uses and abuses of methods are discussed first. Next, the logic for a systemic design project is outlined and developed as a flexible methodology for developing deeper understanding and constructing novel interventions. Then, the mindset of the systemic designer is characterized as a set of values and habits. Any systemic design project proceeds at all three levels simultaneously, with the levels mutually reinforcing and reciprocally influencing one another. In section 3.0, I discuss meta-concerns for systemic design. They include the rationale for systemic design, design of the systemic design team, and mediation of cognitive tensions.

Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2013
Title: A Theory of Systemic Design
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 15 September 2013
Last update:
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Copyright Information

Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (ISSN 2371-8404) are published annually by the Systemic Design Association, a non-profit scholarly association leading the research and practice of design for complex systems: 3803 Tønsberg, Norway (922 275 696).


Open Access article published under the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License. This permits anyone to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or form according to the licence terms.

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Publishing with RSD

Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design are published online and include the contributions for each format.

Papers and presentations are entered into a single-blind peer-review process, meaning reviewers see the authors’ names but not vice versa. Reviewers consider the quality of the proposed contribution and whether it addresses topics of interest or raises relevant issues in systemic design. The review process provides feedback and possible suggestions for modifications.

The Organising Committee reviews and assesses workshops and systems maps & exhibits with input from reviewers and the Programme Committee.

Editor: Cheryl May
Peter Jones
Ben Sweeting

The Scholars Spiral

In 2022, the Systemic Design Association adopted the scholars spiral—a cyclic non-hierarchical approach to advance scholarship—and in 2023, launched Contexts—The Systemic Design Journal. Together, the RSD symposia and Contexts support the vital emergence of supportive opportunities for scholars and practitioners to publish work in the interdisciplinary field of systemic design.

The Systemic Design Association's membership ethos is to co-create the socialization and support for all members to contribute their work, find feedback and collaboration where needed, and pursue their pathways toward research and practice outcomes that naturally build a vital design field for the future.


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