Constitutional Realism and Sustainability: Lessons Learned From a Systemic Design Investigation of New Zealand’s Democratic System

Feast Luke

Constitutional design
Policy design
Transition design

It is not common to think of democratic regimes as designed objects. The connection between design activity and the stuff people consume is more obvious than the connection between design activity and the system through which a people governs itself. However, it is also clear that implementing the transition towards sustainability is both a matter of material production and political will. Recently Ezio Manzini identified the connection between design, democracy and sustainability when he argued that since democracy is a resilient system it is the only regime in which we can imagine a sustainable future society [1].

This paper reports on a systemic design project that investigates the network of influence between New Zealand’s democratic system and its transition to sustainability. New Zealand is a sovereign state that includes a territory in the Southwest Pacific Ocean, a nation of 4.9 million people, and a system of government that is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy. By most international standards, New Zealand appears to be stable, well governed, and committed to a climate resilient future. If New Zealand cannot make sustainability work, then the chance of larger industrialised countries making it is even slimmer. Examining the lessons yielded from the analysis of New Zealand’s situation outlines some of the challenges of sustainability more generally.

This paper takes a constitutional realist theoretical perspective to identify the entities that influence how public power is exercised in New Zealand [2]. Constitutional realists attempt to understand the whole system by examining not only the texts that codify constitutional laws but also the structures, principles, conventions and even culture that form the ways in which public power is exercised. Constitutional realism and systemic design share the commitment to analysing the whole system in context and the aim of synthesising information across disciplines and scales [3].

New Zealand presents the image of a ‘clean and green’ environment, but it is debatable how accurately this image depicts reality. For example, rapid intensification of agriculture has caused nitrogen pollution of many of New Zealand’s rivers and lakes. Similarly, New Zealand presents the image of a progressive Western democracy, but in reality New Zealand’s political system is rather peculiar. New Zealand does not have a written, codified constitution that sets out the basic rules and values under which New Zealand governs itself [4]. New Zealand is one of only three countries in the world that has an ‘unwritten’ constitution; the other two countries being Israel and the United Kingdom. Much of the New Zealand constitution is in the form of unwritten conventions and norms. Consequently, New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements are flexible and constantly evolving.

Scholars might see this incremental approach to constitutional design as a strength; after all, they could argue that an unwritten constitution is an ‘agile’ system that can more easily be adapted to suit the changing needs of the society. Similar arguments are found in design research regarding sociotechnical system design, for example Don Norman and JP Stappers have argued that incrementalism is the best approach for dealing with complex problems such as sustainability [5].

An unwritten constitution was fine when New Zealand was a smaller country and we agreed on many things. But the New Zealand of today is larger and more diverse than it was 50 years ago. Back then, elections provided adequate security against misrule and there was less need for further checks and balances on public power. Now New Zealand faces big disruptive policy changes, such as the transition towards sustainability, that require a framework of government that can meet the “needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”? [6]. Therefore, the key question that this project seeks to answer is, What constitutional system can balance short-term incrementalism with the long-term commitment to sustainability?

New Zealand is not immune to international political trends, such as Brexit and Trumpism, that are changing how democracies function. The New Zealand style of government is already authoritarian and the trace of colonialism remains in its constitutional structures. New Zealander’s rights and freedoms could wither away without greater controls and oversight on government power. We need a constitutional system that is resilient to the shocks and emergencies that we already know about and those that we cannot foresee. In this paper I argue that New Zealand has reached a point in time where it needs a codified constitution that is easy to access and use. We need to be able to increase understanding about how our government actually works and what are the rights and freedoms of individuals in our democracy. Furthermore, these rights should include environmental rights that secure ecologically sustainable development and protect the environment for present and future generations.

My arguments for constitutional change draw on the outputs of a GIGA-mapping project that aims to visualise New Zealand’s ‘unwritten’ constitutional system. GIGA-mapping is a systemic design technique that maps a system visually to reveal relationships and issues that may be difficult to see when the subject matter is explained in words or numbers alone [7]. The project draws on research that identified 80 constitutional elements found in various New Zealand government acts, laws, treaties, conventions and instruments [8]. The GIGA-map then situates these constitutional elements within the broader context of New Zealand’s sociotechnical system. The map visualises the entities that have significant impact on the system but are not considered as formal parts of the constitution, for example pressure groups, media and political parties. This approach enables the resilience of the system to be judged as a whole.
Visualising New Zealand’s ‘unwritten’ constitutional system within its broader sociotechnical context will help to secure understanding of the interdependencies between political power and sustainability. With this understanding New Zealander’s can implement a programme of democratic renewal and policy design for sustainability.


Manzini, E. (2017, February 2). The politics of everyday life: How to implement a design-based collaborative democracy. Lecture presented at CMU School of Design. Retrieved 10 May 2018 from

Palmer, M. (2006). Using Constitutional Realism to Identify the Complete Constitution: Lessons from an Unwritten Constitution. The American Journal of Comparative Law, 54(3), 587-636. Retrieved from

Ryan, A. (2014). A Framework for Systemic Design. FormAkademisk – Research Journal of Design and Design Education, 7(4).

Palmer, G. & Butler, A. (2018). Towards democratic renewal: Ideas for constitutional change in New Zealand. Victoria University Press, Wellington.

Norman, D. A., & Stappers, P. J. (2015). DesignX: Complex Sociotechnical Systems. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 1(2), 83-106. doi:

World Commission on Environment and Development (1987). Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P.43

Sevaldson, B. (2011). Giga-mapping: Visualisation for complexity and systems thinking in design. Nordic Design Research Conference, Helsinki.

Palmer, Matthew S. R. (2006). What is New Zealand’s constitution and who interprets it?: Constitutional realism and the importance of public office-holders. 7 Public Law Review 133

Presentation & paper

Posted: Oct-2018

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