Perspectives on Systemic Design: examining heterogeneous relevant literature to provide a historical and ‘systemically inspired’ review

Darzentas Jenny, Darzentas John

Review methodology
Research agenda

Review Methodology

As the ideas of systemic thinking become more familiar and found in many disciplinary discourses, so there is an increase in work reviewing systemic thought. Existing literature reviews are often conducted from a particular disciplinary standpoint, for instance, management (Mele et al, 2010); engineering (Monat, 2015) . It is as yet too early to carry out a literature review on systemic design. Therefore, although this paper is in the tradition of a literature review, it differs in two respects. The first difference is in the emphasis on giving a sense of a historical perspective (Peruccio, 2017). This allows us to move from the type of literature review whose primary purpose is to draw out key concepts. Rather, we wish to add to the ‘key concepts’ review, a narrative that builds on timelines and contemporary reactions to relevant discourse in the period under study. The second difference, is to use a review methodology based on a systems-inspired literature review (Sylvester et al, 2013). This encourages drawing in a range of literature, and lends support to narrative inferences by making explicit the interrelationships between ideas, timelines and contemporary discourse.

The rationale for making these departures from traditional review methodologies is that, since systemic design is relatively new, grounding it within a historical perspective is an important contribution to establishing a background. Also, systemic design’s ‘newness’ means that resources are not discoverable using traditional literature review search techniques which rely on pre-defining search terms. However, we believe that a review based on ‘sweeping in’ (Nelson, 2003) heterogeneous relevant research literature will offer a richer set of materials. In short, this review would seeks to map the trajectory of ideas that have been influential in systemic design and related themes ‘entangled’ with systemic design, and by doing this, generate fresh insights into the philosophy, theory and praxis of systemic design.


Since both systems thinking and design have highly inter-disciplinary traditions, it is natural that both should be bound up with many types of work, and that sometimes valuable pieces of research are located in publication outlets that would not normally be directly associated with design or systems, such as with a collection of resources about sustainability (Systemic Learning for Sustainability, 2019) or healthcare (Clarkson et al 2017). Moreover, it may be that the perspective, which may be for example, the collection in which the resource is located conceals viewpoints relevant to systemic design. For instance, we know that participatory approaches are a bedrock of systemic design, yet foundational research on the notion of co-design as collective creativity, leading possible “transformation toward more sustainable ways of living in the future” (Sanders and Stappers, 2008) does not mention systems, although it might be argued that it appears to have absorbed it. Another example is when systems thinking is applied to an area contingent to design, such as creativity: Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist, claims systemic implications on creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999).

Therefore, following relevant themes and topics and also research groups [e.g.,1] is important. This is not done with a primary aim of discovering search terms, – although this can be useful at a later stage for seeking out more resources, – rather, it is mapping themes to an overall emerging picture, so that interrelationships can be reflected upon. This, in turn, leads to more discoveries until a ‘saturation’ point is reached, sufficient for a well-grounded narrative accounting for how certain themes are related and how developments have emerged. This narrative can then give some basis to make assumptions about how they might continue to develop.

As an example..

The trajectory of systems thinking and systems oriented design offered by (Peruccio, 2017) shows how a historical perspective can be illuminating. Between the 1972 publication of the Limits to Growth (Meadows D. el al, (1972)and the Buchanan’s 1992 paper noting an area of design “concerned with complex systems or environments”(p.10) (Buchanan, 1992) there is a gap of two decades. Previous to this, we know that systems thinking was taught in the now famous design educational establishment that was the Ulm school, (1953-68). Also, we know that in this period Design was pre-occupied with self-reflection on the nature of design e.g. ‘designing designing’ (Jones, 2014); with debates about intuition versus positivism, with ‘designerly ways of knowing’ (Cross, 1982). It is strange that systems thinking does not seem to have infiltrated to produce ‘systemic design’ earlier.

We might speculate, that perhaps it was because of an association between positivism and system dynamics (Coyne and Snodgrass, 1991; Cross, 1993)? In a different discipline, Collopy notes that systems thinking did not implant itself in management (Collopy, 2009) although he attributes this to need to acquire literacy in systems. The question of systems literacy is also part of other discourses around systems thinking, with claims that systems literacy is essential to all research endeavours (Bosch et al, 2007; Dubberly, 2014).

Design History and Literature Reviews

Design historians are the acknowledged experts in answering these kinds of questions posed above (Formia, 2017). However, we maintain that literature reviews, especially those framed as we have described, could also be helpful. For instance, within design oriented academic journals, there is an emergence of concern with incorporating wider issues into design. Examples are papers on ‘whole system design’ integrating social, economic and environmental phenomena (Blizzard and Klotz, 2012; Charnley et al, 2011) and the linking of ‘design for sustainability’ (DfS) as design for ‘system innovations and transitions’ (Ceschin and Gaziulusoy, 2016). Many of these papers evolve their systems thinking discourse from exposure to interests in sustainability (stewardship of the planet), or to ‘bumping up against’ complexity in their design work. This correlates the claim that, “design studies today tend to follow an ambiguous version of complexity theory, rendered without citations or methodological influence” (p123) (Jones, 2014). If this is the case, is design simply responding to the pervasiveness of calls for the need for systems thinking, apparent in all kinds of settings (Bland and Bell, 2007; Vexler, 2017)?

Current work and future directions

The plan for our work, is to continue to map out themes and timelines, with the aim of also creating a set of resources that can be added to, interpreted (and re-interpreted) to explore the interrelationships of timelines with themes that are found both in and around systemic design. A number of such themes have already presented themselves in our work so far, such as the relationships between service design and systemic design which call for more exploration (Darzentas J. and Darzentas J.S., 2014; Darzentas J. and Darzentas J.S., 2017). Another theme is to examine the antecedents of recent work on systems thinking as a psychological construct (Davis et al, 2018; Randle and Stroink, 2018) and speculate what this might mean for designing with neurodiversity. More immediately, the suggested synthesis of Design Thinking and Systems Thinking (Ryan, 2014; Pourdehnad et al, 2011) is a fertile ground for more nuanced investigations as evidenced by (Jones, 2014; Sevaldson, 2017).

It is our hope that we can also engage with the emerging systemic design community, via the new Systemic Design Association, to create a special interest group of like-minded researchers, in order to, for instance, bring in impactful literature from sources that are unknown to the wider community, because of not being published outside of national boundaries, or inaccessible due to language barriers, or being published in non-indexed resources. In this way, we hope our review work will not only lead to publications, but the establishment of a background prompting fresh research questions.


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Innovation Review.

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Posted: Oct-2018

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