SDA General Assembly 2023
First, thank you for RSD12—special thanks to all the RSD12-HUB organisers for all you have done and your spirit of collaboration. I’m very grateful to Evan Barba, RSD12 Chair, and Cheryl May, board secretary and RSD liaison, for their incredible efforts and contributions to the systemic design community.
I’d also like to acknowledge the commitment of all the Systemic Design Association board members in 2022-2023—Marie Davidová, Sine Celik, Palak Dudani, Ryan Murphy, and Jonathan Romm—and SDA’s Vice-Chairperson Peter Jones for his dedication, and, it must be said, a remarkable series of RSD12 talks, Four Seasons of Design Evolution for Complexity. A special thanks to adjuvant board advisor Birger Sevaldson for his knowledge and inspiration on the direction of systemic design. Although Evan Barba and Cheryl May will say goodbye to the board this year—they will remain active in our community. I would like to publicly acknowledge the tremendous value they have brought and their effort in organising this significant event—more extensive than we have held in our 12 years as a network convenor.
I have also considered the kind of events we hold and the reason why we do. Every year, we try to find time to come together, and I am sorry to say that I am not in Washington. It was a tough decision, but we offered a hub model to reduce environmental emissions—and Italy to Washington DC is an intercontinental flight, so I felt that I could stay with the hub purpose, especially as our Sys_Lab team at Politecnico di Torino organised RSD12-Turin on Monday, October 16. Therefore, I had the privilege of chairing and participating in our symposium, held at Circolo del Design. Systemic design is a global community—not only through SDA membership but also through broader outreach and participation in a network related to systemic design and sustainability. Every year, we get to know each other better and have found a way to expand our network over the past 12 years. RSD12 has broadened the network with an event starting on October 6 at the National University of Colombia and the Fourth International Congress of Research in Design in Bogotá, Colombia, and running through 14 hubs all around the world and culminating today—October 20—hosted at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. In these 15 days, we have knowledge, experiences, and perspectives on systemic design, and a summary presentation has been compiled as an overview.
In addition, I would like to underline an important milestone that the Association reached this year, mainly thanks to the effort of Peter Jones—the new publication Contexts—The Systemic Design Journal. Thank you to Peter, Contexts Editor in Chief, and all the colleagues who have made it possible; the journal is an opportunity to build on RSD proceedings, to share our activities and our ideas around systemic design, and with this, establish a stronger position on the interdisciplinary work that we do. Contexts are critical in keeping our network strong, vital, and relevant. We are an inclusive community—even if global, we are still a small group where everyone can express ideas and experiences in their field.
For most of October, we have had an opportunity to think and learn about emergence. Evan Barba describes it as “this space between positions, like the ends of string tied into a knot, is the space we want to move into” in his presentation What and Why: Entanglements. The organisers developed RSD12 around four critical perspectives: the entanglements of natural, technological, political, and foundational. The structure has helped us to understand how systemic design approaches interconnected questions, patterns, and impacts that shape the emergent system. This way of viewing our emerging discipline provides a different way to think about and understand our activities. Technological entanglement is widespread in research and journals right now, especially artificial intelligence, but it is not only this but a group of emerging technologies, including quantum computing and nanotechnology, that are acting on humanity and the futures they might bring. The second focus area is natural entanglements, for example, climate change, which has been with us for generations, and the long-anticipated consequences are finally being felt. There is optimism, and the possibility of mitigating the worst impact of climate change is at the foundation of the contributions that systemic design has made in this area. Moreover, the goal was also to recognise the reality of what we have done to our planet and try to keep our responsibility in this. The third entanglement is a further perspective related to policy and power, and no discussion of emergent systems is complete without understanding these as the first three entanglements as apparatuses that shape it. The final entanglement is foundational—as a systemic design continues to emerge from the interaction of theory and methods in system thinking and design methodology, we should pay close attention to the theories and methods that shape our understanding of the world and acknowledge the relationships we can bridge between other disciplines. The contributions to this theme address aspects of its foundational and fundamental elements of systemic design, also exploring the limits and possibilities of existing theories and methods.
These 15 days and 14 hubs were a considerable effort, including eight different time zones. The main challenge was engaging the community in a long journey and a lot of content. Another challenge was considering these eight different time zones and creating a network of hubs, providing structure but supporting independence for each hub to express what their community needed to do and explore. I would like to acknowledge Georgetown University and the organisers for creating a coherent experience while creating ample space for dialogue across the different hubs. This has been an opportunity to understand the perspectives and realities of the other regions because the hubs designed their programmes autonomously, revealing their characteristics and nuances and providing a view of systemic design across a broad spectrum of academics and practitioners. This format also makes it possible to programme a wide variety of keynotes, panels, papers, and workshops from different disciplines and a rare chance to learn a lot from each other. A feature of RSD12 was that the programme avoided parallel sessions as much as possible so everyone could directly join sessions; however, the sessions are also recorded so attendees can watch a session [until December 31, 2023] that they didn’t have a chance to join. The focus areas and ideas generated by the hub topics—from climate justice to transgenerational collaboration, the Latin American perspective, and digital and cyber—represent a range of conceptual relationships and systemic design networks. Collectively, the hubs organised an astonishing 27 keynotes, creating new and promising interdisciplinary relationships. I will reflect on just four speakers as exemplars [videos posted with proceedings on RSDsymposium.org by April 2024].
Roberto Iñiguez Flores is the Dean of the School of Architecture, Art and Design at Tecnológico de Monterrey. While Roberto’s introductory remarks, Monterrey: Humanity, health, habitus, describe Mexico’s challenges, he also introduces a new model for design leadership and positivity and hope for technology. RSD12-Monterrey also marked the beginning of Peter Jones’ engagement with Tec de Monterrey’s Faculty of Excellence, and his RSD12-Monterrey keynote Summer: Ecologizing the future, describes the future potentials for Mexico—truly a hopeful opportunity to reinforce systemic design in Latin America over the coming year.
It was also wonderful to catch up with returning keynotes Chelsea Mauldin and Pile Brunnell. In 2018, both of them presented her work at Politecnico di Torino in Italy, so it was wonderful to see them again in Washington DC. Chelsea presented her further work on the mental models or frames policymakers can use drawn from more than a decade with the Public Policy Lab. She highlights the approach to assessing if and how current programmes recognise their responsibility to engage with the unique particularity of each human they serve—the moral requirements of entanglement. She also proposes frames for more impact with policy and tools we could use to refurbish or develop policies to generate and implement more human social systems. It was also wonderful to see again Pille Bunnell, who presented With a Grain of Salt at RSD7 at Politecnico di Torino in 2018. At that time, she shared her desire for “us humans to remain the kind of beings who live in reflexive awareness of our systemic dynamic flow in relational embeddedness.” For RSD12, Pille looks to language (and its constraints) as grounds for reflection and conversation; with Language as a Hidden Constraint in Design, Pille describes how the vocabulary used in the design conversation is crucial, and even more in design theories, how the biases that can be generated should be taken into account.
After three well-known speakers in our network and previous keynotes from different RSDs, I would like to mention a bright new keynote speaker for RSD whom we will monitor because I expect great inspiration from her work in the future: Carolina Giraldo Nohra. She was our RSD12-Turin keynote speaker, and she is a systemic designer with experience in climate at the policy level and a valuable perspective on how systemic design can be used to help governments rethink policy development, including how it can be designed in a more disruptive way. She’s working for a European agency, and her perspective is especially relevant to worldwide policymakers. Her talk generated a lot of discussion about the role of systemic design and how design can forge alliances and focus on the well-being of present and future generations.
Given the extraordinary expression of systemic design through hubs in Canada, Colombia, India, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, and the UK, I would like to close this summary with a few thoughts on the network. In paper sessions, authors demonstrated that they uniformly work as catalysts for change. Through the panellists and speakers, we can see that systemic design has this unique ability to change mindsets, and increasingly, the systemic design literature encompasses human and more than human, a critical aspect that should be reflected in systemic design research, teaching and practice. In conclusion, I want to stress that systemic design is a community of individuals, and the hub model demonstrates the many ways systemic design is translated across regions and communities of practice. This reinforces the values that the Systemic Design Association holds. Following the SDA General Assembly, we have the opportunity to begin planning for the coming year, and we look forward to facilitating members’ work on their specific activities while tending to the network of systemic design scholars and practitioners.
SDA General Assembly 2023 | October 20 | Edited transcript