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Designing more democratically, deliberating more systemically

Format: Papers, RSD6, Topic: Cases & Practice, Topic: Methods & Methodology, Topic: Policy & Governance

David Kahane and Alex Ryan

Systemic design is a practice for innovating in extremely complex situations. One of the authors recently implemented a systemic design approach to develop a 30-year energy strategy for the Government of Alberta, which has the third-largest proven oil reserves in the world. The future of energy development and energy use in a province of 4 million people is not only complex, it is political. Democratic deliberation is a field of theory and practice aimed at improving political decision making and action by engaging diverse citizens. It emphasizes the norm that what touches all should be decided by all, uses mechanisms of selection and representation that reflect this norm, and works with a broad repertoire of methods for designing and facilitating group processes. The other author convened the Alberta Climate Dialogue (ABCD), a place for citizens to pool diverse perspectives, weigh trade-offs, and set goals in deliberations that have informed climate action and government climate change policy, including the City of Edmonton’s Energy Transition Strategy.

The application of systemic design and democratic deliberation to these two highly complex and entangled challenges of energy and climate prompted the two authors to bring the two fields into the conversation and mutual exchange. Seen from the perspective of systemic design, the field of democratic deliberation misses opportunities to engage citizens more deeply in examining and critiquing the systems within which they are embedded. It engages citizens in dialogue, but not in generative co-design and co-production of a more desirable future. Conversely, when seen from the perspective of democratic deliberation, systemic design is elitist, engaging small non-representative groups of participants in decisions that affect millions of lives. With its emphasis on prototyping early and often, systemic design can be fast and loose on propositional argumentation and validation, making it difficult to justify why particular ideas were selected over others.

This conversation resulted in framing two questions with the potential to advance both fields:

  • How can we make systemic design more democratic?
  • How can we make democratic deliberation more systemic?

In September 2016, the authors helped to convene a small group of leading international practitioners of democratic deliberation and systemic design to address these two questions over a three-day retreat at Brew Creek. The retreat examined both the practical and axiological compatibility of the two fields. It included a sharing and mashing up of the toolsets of the two fields as a response to the two convening questions. Three teams were then formed to develop a synthesized approach to the challenge of designing a multi-stakeholder design lab to engage stakeholders and citizens on energy futures in Alberta. This provided a concrete vehicle for testing how to design more democratically and deliberate more systemically. In this paper, we share some of the progress made during the retreat as well as open questions that remain important for us to engage.

The paper proposal and talk is the first approach to clarify similarities and differences by reviewing the architectural programming method. The method is seen as a medium through which the skills of architects as designers of systems are becoming visible, recognizable and comparable. The talk during the RSD 6 Symposium will give a brief look back on the history, principles and application of architectural programming and outline its relevance for defining a new approach of architectural design thinking. As management tools and methods, coming from decisions attitude, are reaching limits in dealing with rising complexity, uncertainty and alternative thinking, architectural programming can provide a bridge towards the design attitude in developing new systems of organizations and innovation processes bringing the skills of architects (as abstracting complex socio-technical systems, understanding context and interrelations, applying non-linear thinking for handling wicked-problems and the ability for synthesis) into the decision zone of management tasks.

Regarded as a research and decision-making process that defines the problem to be solved by design, architectural programming integrates elements of scientific research, project management and architectural thinking. Considering its basic principle is to separate solution from the problem and extensively examine the context, content and complexity of a (building) project, it can be viewed as a predecessor to the nowadays commonly applied design thinking method.

Selected projects from practice were presented, along with student’s works and workshops, resulting from a newly created initiative on Architectural Entrepreneurship at the TUM Department of Architecture. The question of how to raise awareness for architecture as “Systems Design & Innovation Design Discipline” was opened for discussion during RSD6, as well as what further steps may be appropriate for integration into architectural education.




Citation Data

Author(s): David Kahane and Alex Ryan
Title: Designing more democratically, deliberating more systemically
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 12 October 2017
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