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Systemic Design Framework: Beyond Net Zero

by | May 2021 | Format: Books & Guides, SDA blog, Systemic Design, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Beyond Net Zero – The Design Council advances systemic design for complex climate planning

Beyond Net Zero: A Systemic Design Approach recognises systemic design as the next most important step in addressing the most pressing problems of our times – an important development in the evolution of our discipline and practices.

Beyond Net Zero, launched by the Design Council in April 2021, feels a bit like a milestone since it also marks the 10th anniversary of the first RSD conference. With this, the Design Council’s role “to provide awareness and credibility to the growing practice of systemic design” (p. 7), serves as an acknowledgement of the international systemic design network of academics, practitioners, and policy designers.

The Design Council proposes a systemic design framework for the designers and policymakers working on climate change and sustainable development. They define ‘net zero’ as “a state in which the greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere are balanced by an equal amount being removed from the atmosphere.” The guide acknowledges the essential role of designers in sustainable development and considers design for net zero.

Beyond Net Zero Framework

The Design Council’s systemic design framework represents the elements identified as critical when designing for sustainability as “distinct groups of actors leading the way in system change” (p. 25). The guide describes the features and scope for each actor/element: systems thinker, leader and storyteller, designer and maker, and connector and convener. Some of the designers interviewed have provided compelling case studies, for example, Fashion Revolution’s ‘connector’ campaign, #whomademyclothes, and how it has raised awareness of the workers in global supply chains.

The framework builds on the Design Council’s Double Diamond (2004), a visual model of the design process that extends from exploring (divergence) to focused action (convergence) as a framework for innovation. Importantly, Beyond Net Zero has identified the deep connection between systemic design and sustainable development. Indeed, sociotechnical systems and socioecological design are at the top of the RSD agenda, representing 20 per cent of all proceedings since 2011, making Beyond Net Zero an essential guide for designers and people innovating within their organisation. Anyone with the desire to build capabilities for all nations and industries to reach net zero will find it of interest.

The Design Council team of Cat Drew, Jessie Johnson, Simran Chadha, Celina Carlisle and Anstey Burnett produced Net Zero, with Nat Hunter conducting the interviews. Cat Drew wrote the backstory in Developing our new Systemic Design Framework (2021). For RSD, together with Jessie Winhall and Cassie Robinson, Cat presented Not the Venn (RSD9) about their work on what a creative systemic design practice could look like and how design needs to evolve to make a more significant contribution to meeting systemic societal challenges.

Alignment with SDA & RSD Symposium

A review of tools, methods, and frameworks, interviews with 15 designers, along with the Design Council’s practice, serve as the foundation for identifying seven barriers and informing eight recommendations. The barriers include terms and definitions, collaborating for complexity, and knowledge mobilisation across the supply chain.

The goals of the RSD symposium are well-aligned on these barriers, and the proceedings represent ground-breaking work that designers are doing to address climate and environmental issues. Flourishing and sustainability have been themes at several RSD symposia. From John Thackara’s Life’s Work: The kinds of growth we need (RSD3), to Tom Snow’s framework Regenerative Value Systems (RSD7) and Vandana Shiva’s keynote Designing with Nature (RSD9), RSD proceedings include numerous relevant design cases and a wide range of interventions and design approaches.

Also of interest are the many papers and presentations from Norway, where systemic design has become a vital component of Norwegian government innovation. Onny Eikhaug’s plenary, A people-centred strategy for innovation and participation (RSD6), presents the Innovation for All programme at DOGA as one of the many measures in the Government Action Plan dedicated to knowledge transfer, competence building, and conducting pilot projects with enterprises in the public and private sector. Wildhagen Benedicte’s paper, Understanding variations of entanglement and complexity, offers insights from StimuLab, a Norwegian government experimental program she co-designed to utilize the existing public ecosystem for innovation in new ways, to reduce risk, and catalyze innovation.

Beyond Net Zero also aligns with next economy principles, recognising the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s mission is to accelerate the transition to a circular economy and acknowledging the Circular Design Toolkit. The Foundation was an RSD7 partner with Politecnico Torino. Keynote and workshop facilitator, Widmer Simon, shares the practitioner insights the Foundation has gained in effecting systems change, drawing on examples from its longest-standing and most successful initiative to date, the New Plastics Economy initiative (RSD7). A paper by Amina Pereno and Silvia Barbero, Systemic design for territorial enhancement: An overview on design tools supporting socio-technical system innovation, views territorial systems as socio-technical systems and defines a framework for practice based on established approaches in the transition and design sciences.

On barriers, most of the designers interviewed reflected that design work has yet to fulfil its potential. However, the introduction puts it more bluntly, “For the most part, designers are not yet using their skills and knowledge to deliberately support the green transition in the way that they should and could” (p. 6). She Ji, Volume 5 Issue 2 (2019) Emerging Pathways in Systemic Design, offers a more robust view of the field. In their editorial, “An Agreeable Argument”, editors Peter Jones and Birger Sevaldson present a dialogue on the topic and commentary on the contributions from Evan Barba, Richard Buchanan, Kees Dorst, John Ehrenfeld, Marie Lena Heidingsfelder, Martina Schraudner, and Florian Schütz.

Systemic designers, who have been raising awareness and developing design tools for flourishing for over a decade, might be encouraged by the Design Council’s recognition. It’s the UK government’s advisor on design, so this is a good indication that systemic design, advanced for complex social and technological systems, is gaining recognition across public institutions.

Download the Beyond Net Zero Guide

Download the Guide

Shi ji journal 2019

She Ji, Volume 5 Issue 2 (2019) Emerging Pathways in Systemic Design

SDA Board Spotlight: Circularity

Circular Europe, editor Silvia Barbero

Systemic Design Method Guide for Policymaking: A Circular Europe on the Way

This publication, edited by SDA Chair, Silvia Barbero, aims at clarifying the role of the circular economy according to sustainable development and how policymakers can target it effectively in their activities.

Circular Europe, editor Silvia Barbero

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SDA board member, Peter Jones, is the co-founder of Drawdown Toronto, translating Drawdown solutions into meaningful strategic action and measurable results to reverse the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by 2050.

Circular Europe, editor Silvia Barbero

Circularity as Unifying Concept in Systemic Design for Sustainability?

This RSD9 workshop developed, with participants, a shared vision of what circularity in design Facilitators: Tobias Luthe, Angel Lamar, Birger Sevaldson (SDA Vice-Chair), Tine Hegli, Marianne Storen Berg, and Peter Hemmersam.


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