Guiding Strategies For System Change with a Futures-Led, Human-Centred Design Approach

Format: Papers, RSD11, Topic: Cases & Practice, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Eloise Smith-Foster and Tom Castle


RSD11 highlights the tension between the profound, long-term changes we need to be working towards, against the demand for immediately achievable actions. As industry practitioners, we regularly encounter clients prioritising short-term economic benefits from design processes and solutions over potential long-term social or environmental harms and an orientation towards avoiding risk, which can inhibit more profound paradigm-shifting work. This tension is growing as designers with a desire to have more environmentally, and socially positive impact is increasingly addressing complex, strategic challenges in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) 21st-century world (Giles, 2018).

Historically, human-centred designers have proven well-equipped to develop new organisational strategies and solve current challenges within a narrow problem space and short timeframe (Bade et al., 2015). However, they are often less equipped to overcome the aforementioned tensions and design more paradigm-shifting, longer-term organisational strategies that contribute to more profound change, including positive social and ecological impact.

The authors are designers and strategists working at Futurice, an established Nordic design, strategy and technology innovation agency with branches across Europe. In our work advising clients on strategy, they often struggle to consider longer time horizons and, consequently, a broader set of possibilities for the future.

Based on case studies from collaborations between Futurice and client organisations, this paper posits that designers can support organisations to more confidently address longer-term, systemic issues and increase their positive social and environmental impact by incorporating futures thinking and systemic practices. Focusing on two cases, we describe how we combined tools and methods from these methodologies with human-centred design to achieve this. We explain the approach we developed and applied across strategic projects, integrating learnings from collaborating with a range of organisations across the public, private and third sectors. We highlight how this approach has led organisations to better navigate a wider set of possibilities and include a more diverse set of stakeholder perspectives. Subsequently, developing more paradigm-shifting and regenerative future visions and strategies.

This paper offers strategic advice to support human-centred designers to co-create preferred futures. It shares learnings on how to co-design action plans to move organisations towards their preferred future with more alignment, adaptability and confidence. This approach has been developed based on testimonials and evaluations with the organisations we have worked with and the tangible impact this mixed methodology has had in informing their strategic plans.

KEYWORDS: futures-led systems change, human-centred design, service design, futures thinking, participatory futures, strategic foresight, systemic design, systemic practices, cross-sector, regenerative futures

Sketchnote by Patricia Kambitch | Playthink

Citation Data

Author(s): Eloise Smith-Foster and Tom Castle
Year: 2022
Title: Guiding Strategies For System Change with a Futures-Led, Human-Centred Design Approach
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Volume: RSD11
Article No.: 128
Host: University of Brighton
Location: Brighton, UK
Symposium Dates: October 3–16, 2022
First published: 22 September 2022
Last update: 30 April 2023
Publisher Identification: ISSN 2371-8404

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.

Suggested citation format (APA)

Author(s). (20##). Article title. Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design, RSD##. Article ##.

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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
Ben Sweeting

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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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