Field Notes: Tensions between systemic design and systems engineering

Format: Papers, RSD10, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Evan Barba

As an emerging interdiscipline, systemic design remains in tension with existing disciplines that share its theories and methods. Articulating these tensions is an important step in differentiating systemic design from what has come before. Systems engineering is one such established discipline; one whose unit of analysis (the system) and purpose (designing) are similar to those of systemic design. Yet, these disciplines differ considerably in their work practices, goals, and domains. By analyzing both differences and similarities, this work aims to generate a better relational understanding between the two. Initially, I discuss some epistemological points of distinction that demonstrate how the two disciplines emphasize different aspects of systems and design to define very different types of problems and solutions. Then I will contrast how differing methods employed by these disciplines arise out of their different philosophical positions. Finally, I suggest some ways that methods from systems engineering might be adapted for use in systemic design with specific benefits for stakeholder engagement and modelling that can help advance the adoption of systemic design approaches in areas that are traditionally the purview of systems engineering and vice versa.

Keywords: Systems Engineering, methods, methodology, epistemology




Citation Data

Author(s): Evan Barba
Title: Field Notes: Tensions between systemic design and systems engineering
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 3 September 2021
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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 ##.

Publishing with RSD

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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Peter Jones
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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.

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