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Design, Systemic Change and Navigating Sustainable Impacts: Thematic analysis of a symposium on design for systemic change

Format: Papers, RSD12, Topic: Learning & Education, Topic: Socioecological Design

Spyros Bofylatos, Carla Amaral, Elise Hodson, and Robert Phillips

Design is experiencing a fundamental transformation, moving from a philosophy of disruption towards a period characterised by sustainability and accountability. Systemic change requires a commitment to the longer-term, moving beyond quick fixes and rapid innovation to consider the broader contexts of design work, design interventions and their potential impacts on sustaining existing systems or developing alternatives.

We posit that for sustainable transitions and wider systemic changes to be accomplished by design, a new approach is necessary. Engaging with emerging and diverse matters of concern, such as more-than-human design, design futures and speculation, design for policy and design activism informed by the decolonial lens, we propose ways that practice-based design education can be informed. In our view, for systemic change to emerge, we need to shift from an industrial, mass production-inspired model of education to a pluriversal one that fosters the emergence of systemic changers.

This paper examines different roles and issues facing design for systemic change as discussed at a public event hosted by the Design Products MA programme at the Royal College of Art. Leading thinkers based in the UK, Finland, France, and Brazil shared perspectives on design for environmental and social sustainability based on their expertise in sustainable transitions, systemic contradictions, ecological restoration, and multi-species design.

Through thematic analysis of the presentations and discussion that followed, we identify four key questions in the context of systemic change: how can designers situate themselves and work with others? What are the most critical considerations? At what scale is design most effective? What does design work for systemic change look like? We map relevant debates, theories and exemplars presented by the speakers, supported by additional references used in teaching and research in the Design Products programme. 

From our position as design educators and researchers, we reflect on what systemic change could mean for Design Products and the design field more broadly. The paper provides an overview of current discussions and issues in design for systemic change, offering insights to help designers visualise and navigate this journey towards viable futures.

KEYWORDS: transition design, systemic design intervention, system(s), sustainable intersections

RSD TOPIC(S): Learning & Education, Socioecological Design

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Citation Data

Author(s): Spyros Bofylatos, Carla Amaral, Elise Hodson, and Robert Phillips
Year: 2023
Title: Design, Systemic Change and Navigating Sustainable Impacts: Thematic analysis of a symposium on design for systemic change
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Volume: RSD12
Article No.: pre-release
URL: https://rsdsymposium.org/navigating-sustainable-impacts
Host: Georgetown University
Location: Washington DC, USA
Symposium Dates: October 6–20, 2023
First published: 30 September 2023
Last update: no update
Publisher Identification: ISSN 2371-8404
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