Systemic Design and its Discontents: Designing for emergence and accountability

Format: Papers, RSD7, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Greg Van Alstyne, Carl Skelton, and Sylvia Nan Cheng

Systemic design holds promise to address grand challenges such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Toward these ends, we argue that the systemic design mindset needs better awareness and norms for accountability. We recommend greater use of knowledge from psychology to bring insight about motivations and cognitive biases. We call on systemic designers to integrate principles of ethical practice, as new technological affordances, which amplify risk, increasingly impact social and economic life. To highlight wanted and unwanted emergent effects in complex techno-social systems, we introduce a schema with three layers of activity: regulating, building, and using. To illustrate the risks and benefits of designing in a data-intensive world, we unpack exemplary cases from history and contemporary society. We highlight emerging initiatives where systemic design thinkers introduce ethical accountability to a system by cross-pollinating and collaborating between the three layers of activity with respect to these complex systems.

Keywords: design, ethics, psychology, responsibility, systems

Citation Data

Author(s): Greg Van Alstyne, Carl Skelton, and Sylvia Nan Cheng
Title: Systemic Design and its Discontents: Designing for emergence and accountability
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 2 October 2018
Last update:
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Copyright Information

Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (ISSN 2371-8404) are published annually by the Systemic Design Association, a non-profit scholarly association leading the research and practice of design for complex systems: 3803 Tønsberg, Norway (922 275 696).


Open Access article published under the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License. This permits anyone to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or form according to the licence terms.

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Author(s). (20##). Article title. Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design, RSD##. Article ##.

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Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design are published online and include the contributions for each format.

Papers and presentations are entered into a single-blind peer-review process, meaning reviewers see the authors’ names but not vice versa. Reviewers consider the quality of the proposed contribution and whether it addresses topics of interest or raises relevant issues in systemic design. The review process provides feedback and possible suggestions for modifications.

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Editor: Cheryl May
Peter Jones
Ben Sweeting

The Scholars Spiral

In 2022, the Systemic Design Association adopted the scholars spiral—a cyclic non-hierarchical approach to advance scholarship—and in 2023, launched Contexts—The Systemic Design Journal. Together, the RSD symposia and Contexts support the vital emergence of supportive opportunities for scholars and practitioners to publish work in the interdisciplinary field of systemic design.

The Systemic Design Association's membership ethos is to co-create the socialization and support for all members to contribute their work, find feedback and collaboration where needed, and pursue their pathways toward research and practice outcomes that naturally build a vital design field for the future.


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