Changing behavior of the systems we’re in: Designing for transitions in Environment, Economy, and Democracy

Francis Carter, Silvia Mata-Marin, Dimeji Onafuwa, Ahmed Ansari, and Dan Lockton

Emerging approaches to designing for societal transitions toward more sustainable futures (e.g. Irwin et al, 2016; Mulder & Loorbach, 2016) involve methodological commitment to engaging with complex sociotechnical systems—the value of a systemic design approach is being recognized in considering everyday practices, from bathing (Kuijer et al, 2013) to food (Barbero, 2015).

However, much systems work focuses on mapping actors and relations, while in transition the dynamic nature of relationships, and how to intervene, is crucial. There is value in a second-order approach, recognizing that we are within the systems we are trying to change: “everything said is said by an observer” (Maturana, 1975:324); “the designer never stands outside the situation” (Dubberly & Pangaro, 2015:78). At RSD3, Ranulph Glanville (2014:3–4) noted, paraphrasing Charles François, in relation to the “typical sort of systems diagrams with boxes here and here and here and here and arrows connecting them”, that “Systems people are interested in the boxes and cybernetics people are interested in the arrows.” We recognize that design’s role is in enabling people experiencing transitions to have agency to change the behavior of the systems they are in: to affect those arrows between the boxes, to exploit relations and seed potentialities within situations. Systems-in-change have been explored before, particularly actors’ agency toward systemic goals (Beer, 1972), but we derive an alternative approach from the concept of efficacy in Chinese philosophy (Jullien, 2004), and dunamis or potentiality from Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Designing for transition in systems can be seen to involve creating future scenarios through a close read of the present, and to enact change through the transformation of opportune situations.
In our paper, we examine three cases covering making sense of, and affecting, sociotechnical systems-in-change, dealing with permeability of boundaries, agency in effecting intrasystemic change, and differences of experience, but with a common theme of manipulating the present in order to seed the future with many emergent possibilities. In Case 1, migrants experience their behavior being changed by the system; in Case 2, people negotiate how to redraw boundaries to change the behavior of a system; while in Case 3, people are enabled to perceive and enact their agency in changing the behavior of the system.

Case 1: Democracy: Experiencing systems and artifacts as bordering

As the world’s population faces an accelerating state of flux, nation-states’ borders have failed to regulate and control access of people. This control vacuum has been filled by other sociotechnical systems that are part of everyday life, from drivers’ licenses to credit cards; systems are adopting bordering qualities (van Houtum, 2005), constantly re-defining the separation between communities. This leads to tensions between the practice of reinforcing borders—by dominant political interests that seeks to divide and exclude—and practices of border crossing—by migrants that seek to integrate.

Sociotechnical systems embody politics of difference aimed at excluding populations from public life; mobilization, fiduciary exchange, public services are often made unavailable depending on migration status. Exclusion from social spheres of public life has led to migrants adopting practices and changing behaviors with the purpose of navigating and crossing these barriers on an everyday basis. Understanding that the current and future state of the world is one that will be defined by massive flows of migrants—as a response to other global crises (environmental, political, social)—it becomes imperative for designers to think about systems and their role in normalizing politics of difference that affect matters of self-determination and agency for migrant populations.

Case 2: Economy: Design-Enabled Recommoning

We are facing global crises with resources of our collective livelihood, such as water, data and housing. Decline in the availability of these “common resources” is leading to research in new ways of platforming resource use negotiations. Commons represent resource and social systems as well as the practice of managing such resources. They occupy the margins between public and private ownership, and they change the conversation from ownership rights to participation and co-ownership. Commons have clearly defined boundaries that ensure reduced participation costs for commoners as well restrictions for free-riders, who may benefit at the expense of others. For commons to avert system collapse, they need permeable boundaries—open enough to sharing, to relationships, and interactions—but closed to overwhelming external disruptions that may lead to failure (Stavrides, 2016). Boundaries are demarcations represented in rule enforcement (Ostrom, 2015). These rules may pertain to everyday life decisions, may relate to participation eligibility, or they may be enacted to help determine the levels and forms of governance needed.

Luhmann (1986) argues that social systems are new forms of autopoietic systems because they self-reproduce. Communication determines the vitality of such socially autopoietic reproduction—without communication, there is no relationship, and without relationships, boundaries defining the communities degrade. However, social systems are not purely based on communication—humans have agency in building the limits of such relationships. Their changing behaviors continuously redraw the boundaries around social systems.

Case 3: Environment: Constructive Contradictions

Tactics are opportunistic, designed responses to strategies of the status quo which seek to meet the unmet needs of those enacting them. Self-provisioning refers to acts people are “compelled to do out of necessity, since existing market practices and government policies did not meet their basic needs.” (Kinder 2016:5-6); a tactical, often informal, response taken by an individual or community, striving to have “powerful effects on local quality of life” (Kinder 2016:28). A place-based, “best response” (Slee, 2006) to current circumstances acts as a constructive yet temporary solution, serving a meaningful purpose for self-provisioning within the current context.

Practices of “everyday urbanism” (Crawford & Speaks, 2005) represent alternative ways of designing that contradict top-down systems. These acts of subversion produce alternative moral geographies—cultural landscapes where certain people, practices, and objects appear to belong and others do not (Cresswell, 2005); these constructive contradictions challenge existing social value structures by proposing practices offering more meaningful action in the world. They introduce play into existing systems by identifying gaps in social services and leverage underutilized resources to overcome those gaps, involving an understanding of the problem space from within the system.


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