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Anatomy of Systems: A tool for ethnography of infrastructures

Format: Maps & Exhibits, RSD7, Topic: Economics & Orgs, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Nogueira  A.,. Teixeira C, Ashton W.


Designers are known for their abilities to create interventions (products, services infrastructures and systems) with product- technology features capable of promoting new experiences among actors. While these interventions are often oriented towards impacting social systems, they embed new affordances into the socio- ecological context, and generate new interactions not only among humans, but also between humans and non-humans’ actors. As the field increasingly engages in complex socio-ecological challenges, new methodologies are required to incorporate considerations of the dynamic, non- linear interactions among actors shaping these challenges. We explored novel approaches to ethnography and prototyping of infrastructures in order to (1) uncover the logics shaping these interactions, and (2) iterate interventions to increase the fitness in socio-ecological systems. We assumed design practices as iterative processes in which participants continuously gathered information about context through prototyping.


This tool supports actors in understanding the interconnectivity between them. It situates the goals of the system in the centre, representing the societal level, and the features of the system in the outlier circle, representing the product- technology level. Features are followed by affordances, representing product-service systems, and impacts within socio-technical systems. This correlation is helpful for designers to understand not only multi-level integration but also how features, the interactions among actors afforded by them, the impacts these interactions generate, and the overall alignment between the features and the intended goals can be integrated into new systems interventions. Each zone (or level of the system) should be read separately given its own dimensions. While there is no single path for utilizing this tool, here is one suggestion, following the logic of

Goals <-> Impacts <-> Affordances <-> Features

STEP 1: List the overall goals of the system, and situate them in the centre of the diagram.

STEP 2: Identify a few indicators of impacts supporting the achievement of the goal. These should be represented as variables impacting the dynamics of the system. Situate them in the next zone, and connect these indicators with the goals.

STEP 3: Identify features of the system supporting impacts, and position them in the outside circle. These should be actors, products, and services that interact in the system of interest.

STEP 4: Connect the impacts with the features through the actionable properties each one of the features embeds into the system.

You might use colour coding for separating the different levels and elements.

Ultimately, this activity should surface multi-level interactions, and how different types of resources are flowing between the levels of the system. Validate your representation with others.


We applied some tools of this new methodology in ‘The Future of Farmers Market’ project, a partnership between IIT-Institute of Design, a graduate design school in Chicago, and the Plant Chicago, a non-profit organization located on the south side of Chicago with a mission to cultivate local circular economies through education, research, and incubation. Plant Chicago recently began working to develop collective activities with co-located businesses at The Plant, an industrial facility on the south side of Chicago that serves as a community-building space for local food and beverage businesses. The project focused on multi-systems integration as a strategy for developing circular economies and considered farmers’ markets as critical paths for advancing transitions in the local context. By applying new tools, participants uncovered four main challenges among farmers’ markets: data application, access to best practices, materials & nutrient management, and rules & regulations. Once these patterns were situated within the system’s anatomy, participants were able to agree on four actionable properties that market managers should intervene to advance local circular economy practices in Chicago: collaboration, education, facilitation, coordination.




Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2018
Title: Anatomy of Systems: A tool for ethnography of infrastructures
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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First published: 23 September 2018
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