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Advancing systemic design awareness and practice

by | Nov 2021 | SDA blog

Partners in systemic design

The Systemic Design Association (SDA) has taken a partnership approach to advance systemic design awareness and practice. Here, in the third year as an organisation, there are reasonable indications that partnerships are doing a good job of supporting the recognition of systemic design in an international forum framework.

Partnership activities have been a significant focus for SDA board members. While the membership is still small, it has nearly doubled in the past year, constituting a growing base of academics and practitioners, predominantly based in North America, the EU, and the EEA. Buoyed by the expansive support base, SDA entered a five-year partnership with the Cumulus Association (International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media), the leading global association to serve art and design education and research. Additionally, SDA board members have sparked a series of conversations with the Design Council to spotlight academic research in systems change. Beyond Net Zero: A Systemic Design Approach is a guide published by the Design Council’s that recognises systemic design as the next most crucial step in addressing the most pressing problems of our times – a notable development in the evolution of systemic design discipline and practices.

Groups and specialised events

An institutional partnership approach to advance systemic design is one way forward, but partnerships are rooted in a committed support base. They cannot thrive without a network of committed proponents. Through the RSD symposia, there is evidence of a well-grounded base of support. The depth and volume of work presented, now organised into a repository of hundreds of contributions, represents a cross-disciplinary, pluralistic knowledge base founded on open access principles. The annual renewal gathered during each year’s RSD symposia bring new work to the fore, supported by the RSD partner institution’s efforts.

RSD’s growth has also sparked an interest in smaller, more specialised SDA group meetings and events, evidenced by SDA-Norway meetings and an RSDX pre-conference. Board members are taking an incremental prototyping approach to the emergence of SDA groups. Even the naming of groups is in the ‘working title’ phase, and there might be more than one type of SDA group. A chapter or sub-committee weaves the regional groups into governance, and hubs or clusters are a less formal, lab-style approach to network-building. Board members are looking at what we might need to formalise within SDA statutes – and whether the governing document is terms reference, memorandum of understanding, or another. At the same time that there is good experimental movement and openness to trying things out, the board is cautiously moving forward on governance matters.


SDA-Norway organisers include Manuela Aguirre, Tore Gulden, Adrian Paulsen, Jonathan Romm, Josina Vink, and Benedicte Wildhagen. They have coordinated four gatherings from early 2020 to October 2021. The first meeting was held online, with over 130 people taking part. The second gathering, held in June 2020, included Manuela Aguirre’s thesis presentation, Transforming public organisations into co-designing cultures, and break-out groups to discuss boundary critique, power dynamics, “what is a system?” and generative emergence.

In June 2021, the group came together in a workshop format to connect those actively practising or curious about systemic design in Norway, map the systemic design landscape in Norway, and identify international connections. The most recent event featured Cat Drew, Chief Design Officer at the British Design Council (in September 2021). Cat presented the content and thinking behind the Beyond Net Zero framework. In the coming year, SDA-Norway has a meeting on November 25 to reflect on issues from RSD10 and has scheduled two more gatherings, February 10 and June 9, 2022. Jonathan Romm’s presentation at the SDA General Assembly is below.

Design and Architecture Norway (DOGA) hosts the SDA-Norway events, and the best way to receive notifications on upcoming events is probably the DOGA newsletter or social media. SDA-Norway has also developed the following stated goal, which reflects the evolution of the group over the past year:

To connect and strengthen the people who practice systemic design – across academia, the public sector, business and society. Especially those who practice and are interested in using System Oriented Design (SOD). Furthermore, SDA Norway seeks to increase awareness of the potential and activities within the field and facilitate opportunities for collaboration between systemic design actors. – SDA-Norway


Two RSDX events took place in Toronto: a de-conference social evening and a more structured pre-conference on October 23 consisting of a full day of dialogue as a single-circle plenary. Peter Jones and Patricia Kambitch hosted the pre-conference with Manisha Laroia, Allenna Leonard, Cheryl May, Hyun-Duck McKay, Nicole Norris, Eve Pinsker, Alex Ryan, and Anthony Upward in attendance. All agreed that it was an absolute pleasure to sit together in face-to-face conversation after such protracted pandemic isolation.

Anthony and Nicole provided perspectives on flourishing and systemic design, with a good look at the renewed flourishing business model canvas. After lunch, Eve Pinsker shared Interplay exercises as a preliminary to her  RSD10 workshop. She also led an interdisciplinary discussion that explored concepts from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed in the context of systemic design methods. The concluding topic was urgency, generated by Peter Jones’s working notes for NextD, Garry Van Patter’s journal. Here’s an excerpt:

If we allow design’s urgent issues to be impressed by politics and media, we will ignore culture … We can treat these systems as cultural forms and design artefacts that change the culture in desirable ways. Once we recognize that institutions are cultural, rapid change also becomes more possible. Perhaps the fastest return on urgency to achieve progress on “everything else” might involve a total redesign of our media organizations and information ecologies, policy processes, finance, and the corporate form and its normalized profit logic. These are our highest leverage interventions. – Peter Jones, from What [URGENT ] Matters?

Specialised events

The leverage interventions referred to by Peter Jones requires a partnership approach to involve other disciplinary associations, design councils, research institutes and practice leaders. SDA’s founding Practice Partners are continuing and sustaining organisations that share SDA’s partnership approach to advance systemic design. It would be remiss not to acknowledge that the Systemic Design Research Network group founded the SDA, and the academic educational context is critical to the future of systemic design. Over time, universities and colleges have introduced full-degree programs or systemic design courses. Education partners represent the growing list of higher education programs and customisable degrees, including systemic design courses, traditional and new media design, and social science methods courses that round out a systemic design concentration.

Moreover, we are seeing an interest in specialised groups convening around systemic design. Michael Hensel (TU Wien) and Tobias Luthe (ETH Zurich) have been exploring the idea of a special event with SDA, which would bring together their constituencies with SDA membership and the larger community of practice. The model they propose may well evolve in the coming year. Slightly different, however, grounded in the same principle is a recent conversation with Anthony Upward about the Flourishing Enterprise Innovation Toolkit and plans for the Flourishing Enterprise Institute. He notes the crossover between flourishing and systemic design, especially shared methods and methodologies. He proposes an SDA-affiliated group dedicated to the application of systemic design approaches to flourishing enterprises.

The work ahead

The NextD article is part one of two posts that adds more perspectives to the Fast Company article. Since the topic of this post is what’s happening related to a partnership approach to advance systemic design, the response in the Fast Company article by DesignX author Don Norman is a call to action for the coming decade:

We need to change how the world operates, designing sustainable systems, and where design is done for and by everyone, not just the few, and with sustainability and equity being the goals. – Don Norman, from 32 experts on the most urgent matters facing designers today

Note: Don Norman’s DesignX position paper introduced the design challenges of complex sociotechnical systems. Don followed up with his RSD4 keynote Can HCD Help with Complex Sociotechnical Systems? (includes video and slides).

RSD Symposium

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Final submissions are due on
April 30

Open call for Reviewers
April 1–30

Feedback to authors
June 30

sessions OCTOBER 16–18

RSD13-OSLO & Nordmarka Forest October 22–26

Lidar-derived image of the Danube River and floodplain near Tulln, Austria. Daniel Coe. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

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