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Systemic Cycles – A novel, bio-regional, systemic service-experience design product prototype

Format: Interactives, RSD10, Topic: Cases & Practice, Topic: Economics & Orgs

Tobias Luthe, Martin Schütz, and Justyna Swat

This interactive practice case introduces a novel, bio-regional, systemic service-experience design product prototype entitled “Systemic Cycles”. We present this playful didactic bio-regional weaving tool of systemic cycles in the form of a narrated mapped photo story, a movie, a joint weaving experience, and an open feedback design discussion. This systemic bike experience design tour was prototyped in July 2021 around the Italian High Po River Valley of the Piedmont region near Torino and is planned to be offered as a continuous product in the region and beyond, to inform about systemic design and weave new bio-regional, resilient and regenerative economies.

Linear, globalized industrial supply chains

Every industry has supply chains. Most industrial supply chains are linear models “cradle-to-grave”, from raw materials to suppliers, to manufacturers, distribution, consumers, and the disposal of products. Linear supply chains are designed for efficiency and to maximize revenue margins, often following the trends of globalization. Moving further away from the bio-regional potential of production and consumption, globalization has been increasing dependencies on global transport systems, externalized know-how, access to non-locally available resources, slowly replacing locally available products by their exotically manufactured cousins (e.g. butter from New Zealand sold in Europe). As seen during the COVID pandemic, such linear models lack resilience. This bike tour as a prototype of a novel didactic tool aims to actively explore examples and document opportunities for more systemic, bio-regionally, and culturally embedded products and supply chains in the Italian High Po River Valley, asking questions and focusing not only on the economic aspects but interacting with the environment, the people behind and their stories, playfully cycling through the curves in the line.

“Systemic Cycles” is a multiple-day bicycle tour combined with a regional systemic design exploration. It mainly serves three key functions:

  • Offering alternative didactics on learning systemic design through the playful experience of a moving social adventure – possibly even to be integrated in the upcoming ETHZ MOOC, and
  • Nudging a process of bio-regional weaving towards more circular, regional supply chain systems and ultimately a more regenerative culture, and
  • Advancing and further developing the regional real-world laboratory MonViso Institute organizing this trip on a meta level by better embedding it into local practice and contact networks.

Building upon systemic analysis of supply chains

Systemic Cycles builds upon systemic design master students’ work of the Politecnico Torino spring semester 2020. Taught by the first author of this submission, students developed Gigamaps and separate detailed supply chain and circularity assessment maps for most of the partners we visited on this trip. Our tour could benefit directly from the student course’s quantitative graphical design of linear supply chains and circular opportunities while adding personal impressions, social encounters and an experience narration to the maps which were developed solemnly via virtual remote working. We would love to see the students’ work being used for practical transformative action and leverage their work with such experiential personal tours as presented in this discussion.

Systemic Cycles wordplay

The title “Systemic Cycles” is a wordplay combining “cycles” as of “moving” physically on a bike tour and cycling alongside a number of regional actors – companies, organizations, places, people – where their often linear supply chains of materials, products and services are experienced in an active and “systemic multisensory way” through dialogue, observation, and direct physical interaction. Such often linear supply chains are then envisioned as “systemic cycles”, interconnected circularities, by designing in circular flows of various kinds to develop new synergies, new connections, enhancing bio-regional economies.

Moving through cycling is as well a metaphor for changing our thinking, for re-opening to interact with local people, to try out practices such as stone carving without fear of failure, to think beyond linear supply chains towards circularities, and to expand on systemic thinking, doing and design practices. “Cycles” refers to circularities of different kinds, and to cycling as a social way to move and explore places, as a way to meditate, to connect with our inner and outer environment.

Relation to RSD10; Playing with Tensions

This interactive practice session is a beautiful narrative of playfully dealing with tensions:

  • Fun but strenuous cycling leads to physical movement and inner psychological tensions,
    combining play, tiredness and work drives group tensions
  • Appreciating regional assets while carefully nudging new circularities involves actor tensions which can be very constructive
  • Observations around tensions in the generational shift from economic dreams of globalisation towards a new wave of young local entrepreneurial spirit looking for quality, sustainability, authenticity and uniqueness of their products

Furthermore, we present playful didactics to learn systemic design methods and practice, in the light of systems change and transitions, and as part of supporting a real-world laboratory development on a meta-perspective.

The Systemic Cycles session format

In this interactive session of 60 minutes, we report from the first prototyped bike experience design tour done in July 2021 in the Italian Piedmont and stimulate an active discussion guided by pre-formulated questions. We hope to receive feedback on how to advance and develop this product, and how it could serve the three main purposes named at the beginning. The session should work both onsite and online.
We specifically relate to the playfulness and tensions of this systemic design experience, both the playful and fun cycling culture as the main individual and social inner and outer connector, and to the tensions of combining play with work, i.e. the learning and usage of systemic design methodologies, such as Gigamapping as part of the daily “vacation routine”.

We start by showing the short movie of the finished tour, about ten minutes, which provides a great overall emotional summary (10 min).

We then display the regional map, printed and digital, and move through the days in a narrated, shared way, using photography to illustrate the experience. We narrate the tour as a conversation role-plays of the three presenters, two experienced bike guides who are SD experts, and one participant who is an SD expert but a cycling novice. The three narrators exaggerate their positions in the tour: the scientist with local knowledge who loves to take people beyond their comfort zones; the industrial designer and engineer bike freak who lives the pleasure for food and photography; and the architect and design educator participant who is fairly new to the sport of cycling.

We focus on three cases from young entrepreneurs and the tensions they are confronted with while bringing their products to the market. What are the opportunities and challenges as a part of a bio-regional economic system? What is the role of new systemic relations, and of applying systemic design, both for entrepreneurs and for “us” as weavers of cyclists? Participants are invited to comment, ask and relate with their own experiences on every day we narrate. Each day receives about five minutes of attention, which totals this part to about 35 minutes.

Towards the end, we facilitate an open feedback discussion to interact on some predefined and further upcoming questions (about 15 minutes), such as:

  • What is your take-home message from this practice case? What did you like, what would you see critical?
  • What is your take on learning systemic design through such playful tension?
  • What would you envision as such a product serving as weaving practice to advance bio-regional circularities?
  • How do you see the relation of supply chain circularity analytical maps and experienced “moving supply cycles”?
  • Would you integrate this case into the upcoming MOOC?

Systemic Cycles tour framing and offering

This design experience cycle tour framing and the offering were formulated and advertised through the webpage and social media channels of the MonViso Institute real-world lab as an overall framing place to leave from and arrive to. The Grown Outdoor Creativity Lab with its physical design place in the MVI is the providing and outfitting commercial partner for such “local adventures”, while the bike design guides are independently hired through Grown.

The original advertisement text is copied below:

Learn, exchange, connect with like-minded people on cycling, industrial history, design for regeneration and entrepreneurial engagement.

Explore local sustainable development initiatives, wild nature, regional food and culture.

Develop ideas, methods and concepts to apply Systemic Design in job and life.

Experience sustainable futures of regional economics through sports, design and regenerative practices: one week of gravel cycling with like-minded pals alongside some of the rich industrial history around the High Po River Valley in the Piedmont mountains between Turin and Monte Viso.

Together with exciting new friends, we explore the history and the future of regional economic, social and ecological systems by bicycle and by hands-on doing. For example, we will cycle for some hours, enjoy a coffee or tea in a small local cafe, then learn how traditional stone workers split the local “pietra luserna” by hand into the traditional “Lose” roof shingles – by finding weak layers in the stone guided by colour, resembling different minerals entering the rock in its geological building process. We will actually get the chance to use the tools and split this amazing stone ourselves. Interaction with locals, bike culture, food, industrial history, and the new – new entrepreneurial energy, shared success stories, systemic synergies. Culminating with our destination around the latest state of systemic design research and experimentation at a leading real-world laboratory, the MonViso Institute.

The trip’s goals – systemic design through cycling, experience, meeting the locals

The goal of this tour is to explore local developments in the field of sustainability and systemic design – from the past to the now.

We meet people acting in bike and food culture, (young) creatives of local sustainable tourism and sustainable ventures in key sectors of the regional industry.

One aspect is to learn and experience what has been in the past industrial design history, who is behind the initiatives today and to exchange with these protagonists – meet the locals.

Throughout the week we employ design thinking, learning the “praxeology” of Systems Oriented Design (SOD). We visually map the impressions and questions of this tour, relate them with participants’ ideas and professional-private situations, then jointly design a vision of future regeneration practices – ideas and thoughts for our own life and work, building a network of awareness.

How we explore and why

Riding a bike is known as the child’s first real liberation and self-experience – do you still remember riding the first meters without support?

Riding a bike allows us to go further than by foot, but still opens the space to get related to the environment and nature. And, finally, to us.

Future is now. Reflection. New insights. Inspiration. This is part of our tour. And, to build up relations. Relations for the future to progress on our own journeys.

This is why we ride by bike.

It is not about extreme sports, it is about a way of being en route in a conscious way.

  • Industrial history – systemic design themes
  • Stone – from the excavation to local artisan roofs and walls
  • Organic agriculture and slow food
  • Hemp systems – from food to fibres to building insulation to medicine
  • Trade – the oldest tunnel of the Alps for salt trading
  • Limestone and building culture
  • Tourism – Saluzzo history to mountain 4season diversity
  • Local organic “circular” brewery beer tasting
  • Interbeing with community resilience and a circular economy
  • Real-world laboratory experimentation
The tour finish at the real-world laboratory MontVisio Institute

Nestled high above the Po valley as part of the Ostana village, we enjoy great views of Monte Viso, the highest peak in the Southern Alps.

The MontViso Institute is being rebuilt from the stonewalls of an abandoned hamlet and is a real-world example of systemic design and regeneration practice itself.

It will be our place to sum up our week: joint visual “Gigamapping” design to wrap up the experiences and ideas of the week – how do all these topics relate with each other? What are systemic relations and synergies? What follows from this to future visions and practices in the Now? For the region, for our own lives?
And it will be the place to relax, to cook and enjoy local food and Pizza together on the outdoor wood stove and fire pit, and to fade out the trip.

Trip prototype recap

During the execution of this trip within a total of five to seven people – two guides and three to five participants, changing over the week – we visited 14 actors ranging from thematic gastronomy to agritourism accommodations, to stone quarry and stone operation, to limestone and hemp production, to diversified tourism offers, artisanal organic beer production, local historic cultural tourism, food production in the health and sport sector, bicycle culture, bicycle production and retailing.

During the cycling days, we visited actors mostly by appointment, still remained open for emergent contacts and spontaneous encounters. The visits ideally involved some kind of doing, some hands-on practice to activate all senses. This was not always possible, due to time or chance, but some examples like stone splitting were tried.

As part of this experience, we introduced systemic design theory and practice and tried to keep a daily time slot open to recap the experiences, learnings, steppingstone thoughts and start mapping them as a basis for a later to-be-developed gigamap, using a tablet and paper.

After very mixed weathers and multiple spontaneous encounters with nature and people – unique to cyclists – we finally arrived at the MonViso Institute, a real-world mountain lab for sustainability transitions and regenerative design, after a late-night cycle étape ending in a hailstorm. Here on the next day we wrapped up the learnings, experiences, and visualized supply chain systems of the tour. We kept a time slot to develop the systems maps, demonstrating and using different mapping techniques, such as classic sticky notes stuck to a wall, sketching on paper, to digital Miro mapping.

Origins of this moving design experience

The idea to combine learning and playing in the outdoors is not new. The first author of this submission has been experimenting with so-called “Science Experience Wilderness” tours for many years, such as snow adventures in the Arctic, crossing the French Alps on skis, and cycle tours. The sportive outdoor exploration has always been combined with scientific framing and local expertise discussions on the themes of place-based Global Environmental Change and resilience. Still, learning specific systemic design tools and nudging continuities circularity building with regional partners had not been part of former programs. (See Figure 1: The tour and actors on a map.)

Outlook and discussion

Weaving in progress – feeding back to the partners

The actors we visited are of course a key component in their willingness to take their time and let the group dive into their supply chains. In addition to the valuable onsite discussions and interest shown by the active group, we will give feedback to actors with a web blog as a short summary of the tour, which can be shared with customers, and which helps to develop the story around existing and new systemic cycles.
Actors will receive portraits and interaction photos with them and their companies through our professional photo production during the trip.

A short movie will summarize and emotionalize the idea of this moving design exploration.
Finally, we plan an event in October at the MVI real-world lab to showcase the results of the trip, which include our experiential documentation on the base of the Politecnico Torino’s circularity maps, and further ideas for bio-regional weaving. Ideally, we will then together plan for a next year’s edition for maintaining an ongoing weaving process.

One partner, an Agriturismo, showed us their well-made open-air exhibition on regional food systems. Interestingly, during the discussion and our questions on the interconnectedness of supply chains, the owner mentioned the linearity of their current exhibition and their request to expand on a more systemic exhibition. This is a clear link to further weaving engagement through systemic design.

Lessons learned – what worked and what did not work

Overall, this tour was great fun and a great rich learning experience for everyone involved. Partners were very interested and engaged. It truly was a learning journey on and through systemic design with playfulness and tensions. The safari-style of being en route every day and carrying our entire gear on the bike packing cycles is a key element of such a journey. The daily packing and re-establishing for a new overnight stay do consume time though, especially for bike packing novices. The time that is lacking for systemic design practices. There truly is tension between the daily physical activities, the challenges i.e. for cycling novices, and the energy to sit together and graphically work on designing systems e.g. on Miro. An option could be to stay two nights in one place at the beginning and explore the day from there to help people get accustomed to this cycling culture.

Implications for next iterations

During this trip, many new ideas for further actors to visit and weave in came up, who we discovered through interbeing – consciously being at the places, remaining open and flexible for emerging ideas, contacts, potential supply cycle connections and simply upcoming new thoughts during cycling, visiting, talking. We can expand the tour in the region. We can possibly stay two nights in the same place if two days of cycling in the same area allow for a simplification of the organizational group processes. We would find a way to better infuse systemic design theories during short (10-min) morning lectures at extended breakfasts, and we’d integrate the daily mapping and reflection as well in a non-digital way, e.g. with post-its during a dinner chat.

Overall, the product worked so well that we believe we can use it as a playful way to learn about systemic design, cross-spatial and -governance scale design, bio-regional weaving, and circularities as integration in the upcoming ETHZ MOOC.

Systemic Cycles – The tour and actors on a map

Figure 1: The tour and actors on a map.

Table 1: Week Trip Overview

Keywords: moving adventure; playful cycling; weaving bio-regional tension; systemic design experience




Citation Data

Author(s): Tobias Luthe, Schütz Martin and Justyna Swat
Title: Systemic Cycles – A novel, bio-regional, systemic service-experience design product prototype
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 4 September 2021
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