Mapping the Terrain of Design Thinking Pedagogies and Outcome: Cross-institutional, longitudinal research

Format: Papers, RSD9, Topic: Mapping & Modelling, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Danielle Lake and Wen Guo

Elon University, USA

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 a more inclusive and just impact?

Theoretical Underpinnings

Design, systems, and 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 toward co-creating collaborative engagement projects.




Citation Data

Author(s): Danielle Lake and Wen Guo
Title: Mapping the Terrain of Design Thinking Pedagogies and Outcome: Cross-institutional, longitudinal research
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 4 October 2020
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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 ##.

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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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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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