Co-designing cultures within public organizational systems

Manuela Aguirre, Janey Ro, Paulina Buvinic and Katalina Papic

systemic design capacity building
co-design as organizational culture
design cultures within social systems
co-designing democracies

How can we create the conditions for public organizational systems to become co-designing cultures? This is the question we are set to explore by comparing two co-design capacity building programs embedded within public and social service organizations in Canada and Chile (Figure 1). In co-designing cultures, the culture of co-design seeks to become deeply rooted within the organizational DNA of public service systems as the ongoing capacity to co-design by including all those who serve, are served, and are affected by a social system (Banathy, 1996). A cultural approach towards organizational co-design is different from using co-design as instrumental means (e.g. designing better public services) or as symbolic means (e.g. gaining institutional legitimacy from its macro organizational environment).

These two co-design capacity building programs can be seen as the ‘genesis systems’ of a designing community that is formed within complex social systems (Banathy, 1996). As both of these genesis systems are seeding co-designing sub-cultures within a dominant public organizational culture, we will use Schein’s model of organizational culture to unpack the relationship between an organization’s dominant culture and its emerging sub-culture. According to organizational psychologist Edgar H. Schein (1984; 2010), organizational cultures can be de-constructed into three primary layers: visible artifacts, espoused values, and fundamental values, beliefs and assumptions. Consequently, these three cultural layers can be represented using the onion model, as previously done by designers Sabine Junginger and Daniela Sangiorgi (2009). In order to compare both programs, we will adapt this three-layered analysis described by Schein.

We can analyze the most outer layer of organizational cultures through visible artifacts. In this case, these visible artifacts will be called: structuring conditions. These are all the physical, normative, social, and symbolic structures that condition the co-design capacity building programs from the outside in. These conditions will be compared (in both programs) through the use of time and space, the formation of cross-collaborative individuals or teams, the sequencing of co-design processes, and the program’s institutional legitimacy (Figure 2).

The second layer of analysis is what Schein (2010) calls espoused values. This is how we rationalize fundamental values – as fundamental beliefs not always correlate to how those beliefs get manifested. For the purpose of this analysis, we will call this middle layer: practice experiences. The mechanism that affect how the capacity building program translates into new practices and experiences include: role expectations and socialization, outputs and outcomes, learning from feedback, and adoption and translation (Figure 3).

Finally, the most inner layer of organizational culture is fundamental values, beliefs and assumptions. In both cases, these will be compared in terms of: values and beliefs, identity, reflection, and mindsets and worldviews (Figure 4).

The purpose of analyzing co-design capacity building programs in relation to organizational cultures lies in the connection of building robust and resilient co-designing communities, which can develop their unique co-designing values and identity. This is the first step towards Bela Banathy’s vision (1996) of creating co-designing communities that have the capacity to design and redesign their own lives and societies – and not be slaved within systems created by others.

“Getting ready for design and developing a design culture is individual and collective empowerment at its most robust. Such empowerment gives meaning and substance to guiding our future” (Banathy, 1996, p. 282).

For Banathy, transforming social systems into co-designing cultures may enable individual and collective empowerment, which is a form of creating co-designing democracies.


Banathy, B. H. (1996). Designing social systems in a changing world. (R. L. Flood, Ed.). New York: Plenum Press.

Junginger, S., & Sangiorgi, D. (2009). Service design and organisational change: bridging the gap between rigour and relevance. 3rd IASDR Conference on Design Research, Seoul, Korea.

Schein, E. H. (1984). Coming to a new awareness of organizational culture. Sloan Management Review, 25(2), 3–16.

Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership (4th ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Wiley.

Posted: Oct-2017

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