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Friends or foes? Theory of change, systemic design (thinking), and systems change(s) learning

Format: Interactives, RSD10, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Zaid Khan and David Ing

In this dialogue, we will facilitate a discussion amongst RSD10 participants on the compatibilities and incompatibilities between (i) Theory of Change (ToC), (ii) Systemic Design (Thinking) (SDT) and (ii) Systems Change(s) Learning (SCL).
As a trigger question, we will start with: Do ToC, SDT and SCL overlap to a greater or less extent? Can or should that overlap see further integration or separation?
The three approaches have been discussed as separate topics in prior RSD meetings. At RSD9, Peter Jones reviewed current uses of Theory of Change in practice, in negotiations between (philanthropic) funders and changemakers. Oriented towards linear logic models, simplistic presentations may not well represent the complexities of aspirations for change. Systemic design has been at the core of RSD meetings, originating from the popularization of design thinking (e.g. from IDEO) (Brown, 2008), into the body of work now shepherded by the Systemic Design Association. The Systemic Design Toolkit (Van Ael et al., 2018) has emphasized practical frameworks and designerly methods (Jones, 2018). The systems turn with design enlarges the vision from the heritage in products, through services, into complex social systems (Jones, 2017). Systems changes learning has been introduced in two previous RSD meetings, coming from the systems sciences community (Khan, 2019, Khan, Ing, et al., 2020). The popularization of organisations seeking “systems change” may be systemic or systematic in nature. Foundations may be espoused in systems thinking, cybernetics or complexity science, yet that appreciation for ways in which wicked problems in the present are transitioned into better outcomes in the future is not always clear. The systems changes learning approach appreciates natures that may require reframing beyond anthropocentric presuppositions. We welcome a dialogue to explore the variety of perspectives and understandings on ways in which a synthesis of ToC, SDT and SCL is possible and/or desirable.


Moderation: Zaid Khan and David Ing Agenda: Introduce concepts Suggested questions for dialogue Group dialogue Summary Facilitation: members of Systems Changes Learning Circle This workshop will be led by members of the Systems Changes (SC) Learning Circle – based out of Toronto, Canada. Started in 2019, the Circle is on a 10-year journey to develop methods based on multiparadigm inquiry that integrates a variety of schools of thought. On our journey, the Circle has previously shared its progress at RSD8 (Khan & Ing, 2019) and RSD9 (Ing, Khan et al., 2020).


Birney, A., & Riddell, D. (2018). Systems Change: A field building convening. McConnell Foundation, Forum for the Future.

Brown, T. (2008). Design thinking. Harvard Business Review, 86–92(6), 84.

Cahill, G., & Spitz, K. (2017). Social Innovation Generation: Fostering a Canadian Ecosystem for Systems Change (N. Truman, Ed.). The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation.

Jones, P. (2017). The systemic turn: Leverage for world changing. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 3(3), 157-163.

Jones, P. (2018). Preface: Taking Stock and Flow of Systemic Design. In P. Jones & K. Kijima (Eds.), Systemic Design (Vol. 8, pp. vii–xvi). Springer Japan.

Jones, P., & Murphy, R. (2020). Systemic strategy: Systemic design methods for complex systems change. In Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD9) 2020 Symposium. Ahmedabad, India, October 9-17, 2020.

W. K. Kellogg Foundation. (1998). Logic Model Development Guide: Using Logic Models to Bring Together Planning, Evaluation and Action.

Khan, Z., & Ing, D. (2019). Paying Attention to Where Attention is Placed in the Rise of System(s) Change(s). In Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD8) 2019 Symposium. IIT Institute of Design, Chicago, October 13-15, 2019.

Khan, Z, & Ing, D. (2020). Reordering our Priorities through Systems Change Learning. In Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD9) 2020 Symposium. Ahmedabad, India, October 9-17, 2020.

Van Ael, K., Jones, P., Monastiridis, S., Ryan, A., Toye, V., Vandenbroeck, P. (2018). State of the art practice: Are we ready for systemic design toolkits? In Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD7) 2018 Symposium. Turin, Italy, October 24-26, 2018.




Citation Data

Author(s): Zaid Khan and David Ing
Title: Friends or foes? Theory of change, systemic design (thinking), and systems change(s) learning
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 4 September 2021
Last update:
Publisher Identification: ISSN 2371-8404
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