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Towards a Fourth Wave of Systems Thinking for Systemic Design

Format: Keynotes & Talks, RSD13, RSD13 Programme, RSD13 Speakers, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Gerald Midgley and Rachel Lilley

Systems thinking has moved through three major paradigmatic waves of development from the 1950s to the present day, with significant cross-fertilisation between systems thinking and systemic design, at least since the advent of the second wave in the late 70s and early 80s. Recently, considerable discussion has started about the possibility of a fourth wave of systems thinking. This is partly in response to two challenges:

  • The lack of attention paid to “thinking” (rather than “systems”)
  • Changes in the speed and nature of organisational working are making it increasingly difficult to use whole systems methodologies in ways that were possible in previous decades.

Midgley and Lilley ask what some of the features of fourth-wave systems thinking might be, exploring their relevance to systemic design. We pay particular attention to what ‘thinking’ means, drawing from contemporary neuroscience.

Shifts in understandings of perception and sensemaking tell us that our minds are essentially anticipatory: our expectations, based on our ‘priors’ (prior experiences, shaped and changed by memory and reflections), construct our perceptions of the contexts we are working in, the systems methods we are using and the people we are working with. We don’t merely interpret an external reality; rather, we individually and socially construct our realities, and our constructions need to be scrutinised and opened to new learning. In addition, thoughts and emotions combine as parts of a single cognitive system, and we need to understand and inquire into our internal felt sense, which combines with associated narratives to create our perceptions. We need ways of seeing how this process constructs our understandings of contexts, methods and people.

Indeed, we not only need self-awareness of our priors; we also need to rethink these priors and forge new ones. This is a prerequisite for seeing more complexity and nuance when engaging with contexts and choosing or developing methods for systemic design. Of course, inquiry into our priors is also itself a method that enables us to see more complexity in the moment.

A new kind of systems approach is possible, which can be used in everyday thinking and conversation instead of just being kept in reserve for special projects. The approach has three dimensions:

Self-reflection—building self-awareness and metacognitive capabilities. This means inquiring into our priors as they impact our thinking from moment to moment and as we engage in systems thinking. This inquiry includes exploring the felt sense and emotion associated with our relevant priors.

Systems thinking skills—We can train ourselves to think in systems terms about our thinking. Key skills are rethinking boundaries, mapping complex relationships, understanding emergence, and appreciating different perspectives. These skills can help us in everyday thinking or conversational contexts, even when it’s impractical to use a formal methodology. They can also enhance our self-reflection by helping us see more in our priors.

The creative design of systemic interventions—When it is possible to develop formal systemic design projects, we can use systems thinking skills to explore the context, taking account of how our priors are shaping our understanding. Then, we can creatively design methods in response to the context, drawing resources from systems methodologies and much more besides.

This new kind of systems approach meets the two challenges mentioned earlier. Focusing on systems thinking skills rather than the application of whole methodologies gives us meta-cognitive resources that can help us in any thinking or conversational context, and we can still draw creatively on older, more ‘complete’ systems methodologies when there is scope for dedicated systemic design projects. Also, our understanding of self-reflection and how to practice it is significantly enhanced by research into the nature of thinking.

The session includes a presentation of the ideas, supported by interactive and participative exercises allowing participants to explore and experiment with them.


Gerald Midgley is an Emeritus Professor in the Centre for Systems Studies at the University of Hull, UK. He also holds Visiting Professorships at the Birmingham Leadership Institute, University of Birmingham (UK), and Linnaeus University (Sweden).

Gerald has held research leadership roles in academia and government, including fourteen years as Director of the Centre for Systems Studies at Hull and seven years as a Senior Science Leader in the Institute for Environmental Science and Research (ESR), New Zealand. Gerald has written almost 400 papers for academics and practitioners on systems thinking, systemic leadership and community operational research. He has been involved in a wide variety of public policy, health service, natural resource management, community development and technology foresight projects. While most of these have been in the UK or New Zealand, he has also led or collaborated with systemic interventions on every continent worldwide.

Gerald was the 2013/14 International Society for the Systems Sciences President. He has written or edited twelve books, including Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, Methodology, and Practice (Kluwer, 2000); Systems Thinking, Volumes I-IV (Sage, 2003); Community Operational Research: OR and Systems Thinking for Community Development (Kluwer, 2004); The Handbook of Systems Thinking (Open Science, 2023); and Systems of Marginalization and Identity (Routledge, 2024, in press).

Rachel Lilley is an Associate Professor at the Birmingham Leadership Institute, a Systems Thinking and Leadership teaching and research centre at the University of Birmingham, UK.

She is a practitioner-researcher in systems approaches and systems leadership and also the Programme Director for an innovative transdisciplinary Master’s Programme combining Systems Leadership and Systems Practice. Rachel’s high-impact research examines human decision-making, systems thinking capabilities, and behavioural change. It has supported policy design and practice, community initiatives, and leadership development at all levels. She has a particular interest in building capabilities to address climate and social change.

Rachel is an expert in human sensemaking, with specialist knowledge in cognition, consciousness, and perception. Her theoretical expertise is supported and informed by a strong track record of practising, teaching, and developing embodied perception skills in teams, organisations, and individuals.

She has over 30 years of experience as a systems practitioner working with public and third-sector organisations, as well as large corporates, addressing climate change, social issues, leadership, behaviour change, community engagement, and well-being. More about Dr Lilley




Citation Data

Author(s): Gerald Midgley and Rachel Lilley
Year: 2023
Title: Towards a Fourth Wave of Systems Thinking for Systemic Design
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Volume: RSD13
Article No.: pre-release
Host: Oslo School of Architecture and Design
Location: Oslo, Norway
Symposium Dates: October 12–26, 2024
First published: 12 July 2024
Last update: no update
Publisher Identification: ISSN 2371-8404