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Launching Contexts

by | Mar 2023 | Call for Contributions, SDA blog

This excerpt is drawn from the editorial written for the inaugural volume of Contexts—The Systemic Design Journal by Editor in Chief Peter Jones and Deputy Editor Silvia Barbero. They provide an overview of Volume 1 and a brief on the emergence of systemic design as an interdiscipline to Contexts, which they view as reflective of “the common ground of complexity that many design scholars share as a common grand challenge.”

Contexts Volume 1 Editorial Excerpt


In the 10th year of the Relating Systems Thinking and Design Symposium (RSD), the Systemic Design Association (SDA) board decided to bring a new journal into being for the scholarly community forming in systemic design. As board members, RSD hosts, and editors, we are delighted to announce the availability of a community-driven journal for the field. We hope this will inspire a vigorous epistemic culture and drive additional publications that emerge from an engaged knowledge community. The articles that follow in Volume 1 are the first collection of reviewed contributions from 2022, with five papers reflecting a diversity of studies, themes, and views.

Designing communications for emergent scholarship

At the close of RSD10, October 2021, we announced plans for a society-published journal, initially named the Journal of the Systemic Design Association. A working group developed a publishing strategy and assessed the options for a publishing platform. We investigated options to determine the best overall “system” for our needs, with a decision to self-publish on the SDA website. This is a small operation—we formed a publishing team as a small editorial board with several experienced colleagues. The journal platform was built within the SDA WordPress website as part of a comprehensive publishing concept. The startup goal was to publish a small number of articles with high quality and reflecting a variety of issues and ideas. During the curation and review process, hundreds of decisions and trade-offs were necessary for the inaugural collection, resulting in a longer period to launch than hoped. Contexts —The Systemic Design Journal is the resulting platform for systemic design studies. The journal will publish articles continuously, in annual volumes (not issues), allowing collections to expand or adapt as necessary.

Systemic design as a field will benefit from a new journal where discourses raised within research and advanced practice communities can exchange and debate over long periods of time. Systemic design has developed as an expansive learning ecosystem of practices and collaborative research to address complex concerns that cross disciplines, knowledge, and, as often mapped, types and levels of “systems.” Following the themes and studies represented by the RSD symposia as referents, a decade of field development has contributed to many significant design contexts not covered well in other sources: collaborative design for landscape and territorial ecologies, complex interfaces and distributed networks, urban and societal ecologies, expressive architectures with entailment of humans and nature, business models and systems for organizational strategy, complex health practices and healthcare systems, theories of systemics, culture, and change, design labs for public value and engagement, policy design, and new methodologies for mapping, dialogue, facilitated systems practices, and toolkits. Perhaps the only common touchpoint among these areas is that of transdisciplinary design for systemic complexity.

One of the weaknesses of a symposium model of scholarship is that the evolution of work presented in conference is not traceable in impact on future discourse, not only with referring articles and case studies but implementation in practice. Contexts aims to channel the development of systemic innovation and continuing scholarship into timely, validated, well-communicated dialogues.

The journal aspires to be radically author-centred; Contexts does not aim to build a publication brand for itself but to host a platform for engaged scholars who prefer to communicate here. Therefore, it is important to communicate an overview of the authors who took the risk of being among the first to write for a new journal. The first collection includes new essays and develops work previously presented at RSD symposia. Harold Nelson’s invited essay discloses the deeper history of design’s relationship to the systems field from the perspective of its early days in Berkeley. Dulmini Perera and Tony Fry propose a futuring stance for systemic design in countering the destructiveness of innovation-as-usual. Elena Porqueddu’s architectural theory advances a systemic approach to mixed-discipline spatial design in urban planning, employing adaptive cycles and a multi-level navigation tool. Ryan Murphy extends a body of work with an analysis of the function of intervention points that we understand as leverage. From the US, Danielle Lake, David Marshall, Rozana Carducci, and Tracey Thurnes share an action case study of a place-based social lab engaging in effective change in social design. These are all further discussed later in the editorial.

Systemic design can be defined in different ways, but editor in chief Peter Jones (2020) suggests “integrating systems thinking and theory with advanced design methods in an evolving interdisciplinary field to effect anticipatory change in complex sociotechnical and social systems.” Simpler definitions have emphasized the space between the primary fields of systems theory and design studies. We have evolved as a broadly inclusive field, which has led to an extraordinary community of collaboration and design experimentation. We believe this indefinite space serves as a useful context to engage people in a growing interdiscipline still testing its edges and boundaries and encourages self-declaring membership to participate as if in a community of practice and scholarship.

We can also see the field as growing from relationships among design scholars, students, and practitioners with shared methods and vocabularies in common. Working in a common field across many emergent areas of design research also requires the construction of a shared language and a new frame of meaning. Contexts also holds a relational role—to build a common community as well as a workable framework with all the authors.

A common basis across research and applications is found in transdisciplinary collaboration. The applications for each of the articles here represent stakeholders collaborating in research or programs facilitated by systemic designers. The designer, by definition, has a role as a mediator between knowledge (Celaschi, 2008). The cocreation also affects the way in which the different disciplines cooperate in the processes and in the projects, so the multi-disciplinary approach evolves into a more co-disciplinary approach (Blanchard-Laville, 2000). Empathy becomes essential for co-thinking thanks to critical, reflective and systemic thinking (Aulisio et al., 2021). Facilitated dialogue and interaction among complexity disciplines develops community in academic environments, in the realization of professional projects, and significantly in public sector work. Therefore, committed stakeholder cocreation can be observed as a prevalent practice informing systemic design studies, even for theory, and even if methodology and epistemology vary considerably. Cocreation creates new design contexts.

This excerpt is drawn from the following article.

Volume 1 | 2022 |

© 2022 Author, published by the Systemic Design Association

Open Access article published under the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License

Citation (APA)

Jones, P. & Barbero, S. (2022). Engaged Design Scholarship in Contexts [editorial]. Contexts—The Systemic Design Journal, 1. https:/

Contexts Volume 1 Articles

Access articles via Volume 1 Table of Contents

Systemic Design as Born from the Berkeley Bubble Matrix

Harold Nelson leads the collection with an invited essay, Contexts’ first article, that helps place the footers and foundation into the field that has grown from design for complex scale and generations of systems thinking from the fertile ground of the centre of the 1960s consciousness revolution, the University of California at Berkeley.

Contra-Innovation: Expanding the innovation imperative in the context of futuring, defuturing and fictioning

Dulmini Perera and Tony Fry present a powerful approach to enable systemic critique of innovation propositions and their potential outcomes. The paper takes the form of presenting three “historico-fictions” from the US, China, and Cuba to distinguish these value frames within selected histories of dominant systems. Perera and Fry suggest a “second order design fiction” to bring forth pluralistic expansions of meaning and enable participants in design conversations to recognize many possible positions that might challenge acceleration, defuturing, or sustainment.

Systemic Spatial Design: Enhancing the potential of spatial design disciplines to navigate adaptive cycles in cities

Elena Porqueddu presents a spatial-architectural theory based on complexity theory and complex adaptation. She advances a systemic approach to mixed-discipline spatial design in urban planning, which she calls “systemic spatial design,” and introduces the “multi-scale atlas.” The paper presents a new approach to spatial design—the designer can intervene in the context, but the approach is adaptive and self-organizational, with no claim to control.

Finding (a theory of) Leverage for Systemic Change: A systemic design research agenda

Ryan Murphy extends a body of work with an analysis of the function of intervention points that we understand as leverage and argues that the (theory of) leverage is crucial to understanding systems’ complexity, “Finding leverage means finding advantage: identifying the phenomena in a system with the greatest potential to multiply or compound a changemaker’s efforts to achieve the impact they want.”

The Power and Place Collaborative: Participatory strategies for scaling

Danielle Lake, David J. Marshall, Rozana Carducci, and Tracey Thurnes present an action case study of a social lab and interrogate the issues of scaling effective change in social design. This article is valuable for practical instruction on how to achieve diverse forms of scale via more participatory systemic design practices and offers a conceptualization of scaling as a meshy, stretchy place of emergence.

Engaged Design Scholarship in Contexts

Editor in Chief Peter Jones and Deputy Editor Silvia Barbero provide an overview of Volume 1, which includes histories and futures, and ranges from new theory to real-world cases. They also provide a brief on the emergence of systemic design as an interdiscipline to Contexts, which they view as reflective of “the common ground of complexity that many design scholars share as a common grand challenge.” [excerpt above]


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