Exploring the Activity Network Tool: Understanding and embracing the tensions between systems


Kristel Van Ael


Alexis Jacoby, Moein Nedaei

University of Antwerp

Peter Jones

OCAD University

The Systemic Design Toolkit was initially designed by Kristel Van Ael and is ongoingly developed together with an SDA team for public and training versions. New tools are tested at the University of Antwerp and OCAD University, and sessions have been held at RSD since 2016. The toolkit is currently a collection of over 40 canvases linked to dialogue and co-creation actions, in a seven-stage methodology, to address organisational and societal complexity.

Activity network tool

This workshop explores a new tool based on “activity network theory”. The activity network tool is based on the Engeström and Sannino activity theory “triangle” model (see figure below). The model represents the full range of describing a defined activity (Actor > Mediating Tools > Object) and its immediate organizational relations (Community, Rules, and Roles). The tool provides a canvas for portraying two intertwined systems, with shared or divergent goals, objects and outcomes.

When systems interfere with other systems

Systemic design approaches can be used to address and intervene in a specific system (e.g. the justice system). During the analysis process, it becomes clear that the system interferes with other systems (e.g. the care system). The activity network tool focuses on the interaction between two systems as a way to broaden the understanding of the system’s context and complexity. It starts from the tension between two overlapping systems and leads to reflections about ways to relieve the tensions and improve the synergies by changing goals, tasks, activities, rules in each system and by adding boundary objects.

In this workshop, we want to explore the applicability of the activity network theory in the ‘understand’ phase of the methodology. We, therefore, present a tool that triggers the right questions on distinct and overlapping systems, leading to insights on the way activities across networks interfere. In a further stage, these insights will provide input for defining interventions that might overcome the tensions between the systems

Workshop format

90 minutes | TBC | maximum of 30 participants

Workshop Agenda: Activity network tool

The workshop introduces the new tool using a real-life case that is comprehensible and accessible for every participant in the workshop (e.g. the work and life systems).

The underlying theory is briefly introduced.

Participants learn the rationale of the tool in a step-by-step approach.

Small groups (5 to 6 persons) run through the different steps of the process and obtain specific instructions for each step.

During the workshop, there is room for discussion and feedback.


Engeström Y., Sannino A. From mediated actions to heterogenous coalitions: Four generations of activity-theoretical studies of work and learning. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 2020. DOI: 9.2020.1806328

Key words: Systemic Design, Methods, Toolkit, Tools, Activity Network Theory

The workshop is part of an ongoing series of RSD Systemic Design Toolkit sessions, beginning with RSD5 in 2016.

Posted September 2021 content is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This permits anyone to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or form according to the licence terms.

Suggested Citation Format (APA)

Author(s) (20XX). Article title. Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSDX) Symposium.