This paper aims to spark collaborative, action-oriented research opportunities around design thinking, systems thinking, and civic engagement within higher education by 1) highlighting innovative practices emerging from overlapping fields and 2) summarizing current case study research informed by these methods.
A number of critical questions foreground this research: How have higher education institutions
integrated design and systems thinking in order to address wicked problems in their local and global communities? What has this work accomplished and what might it accomplish? How might stakeholders embedded within these systems reshape the structures and cultures of higher education in order to generate more inclusive and just impact?
Theoretical Underpinnings: Design, Systems, & Public Engagement within Higher Education
As RSD points out, the fields of design and systems thinking too often fail to intentionally and deeply engage one another. Given their overlapping histories, values, and goals (Jones & Kijima, 2019), as well as the need to collaboratively address large-scale wicked problems (Rittel & Webber, 1969), this lack of engagement is problematic. Taken together, these fields have the potential to not only map the historic and geographic landscape of design and engagement within higher education., but also support its goals to operate a place-based, boundary-spanning organization committed to the “public good.” This is especially true given higher education’s fraught and problematic history with public engagement alongside its cultural and structural resistance (Bandy et al., 2018; Long & Gibson, 2016).
However, while design thinking has been enthusiastically endorsed by many institutions of higher education, critical research on the practices being implemented and their outcomes is still in its infancy (Ware, 2019; Kurtmollaiev et al., 2018; Liedtka & Bahr, 2019). Many practices and assessment metrics thus far have narrowly focused on short-term, celebratory case studies (Calgren, Rauth, & Elmquist, 2016; Ware, 2019) and traditional return on investment numbers (Forrester, 2018). Similarly, while there is a wealth of scholarship supporting the immediate value of civic engagement, research on its long term impact across stakeholders and systems is lacking (Divan et al., 2017; Hill et al., 2016). Practitioners and researchers – especially those at the Systemic Design Association – are calling for more inclusive, systemic and action-oriented practices and research (Escobar, 2018; Protzen, & Harris, 2010; Vink, 2019).
Responding to this call and hoping to spark transformative and sustainable systems change, the research described in this paper emerges from the integration of recommendations from ecosystems (Vink, 2019) and transition design (Irwin, 2015), emergent strategy (Brown 2017), cross-institutional design research (Liedtka & Bahr 2019), participatory action research (Lykes & Mallona, 2013) and feminist pragmatism (Whipps & Lake). Informed by these fields, this research seeks to visualize how the traditional siloes of research, teaching, and service might be reimagined and harnessed towards co-creating collaborative engagement projects.