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Systemic Design as a Hegemonic Force

Format: Workshops, RSD10, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Alberto Soriano, Josina Vink and Shivani Prakash

Systemic design thrives as a pluralistic field that embraces many systems perspectives. In our workshop, we plan to learn from (but not appropriate) the work that has been systematically excluded from systemic design. We will integrate core concepts and critical questions raised to explore how systemic design is working as a hegemonic force and whether and how it could intentionally become a more conscious practice by centring work on systemic oppression.

Hegemonic Force

As demonstrated by the recent UK Design Council (2021) report promoting a systemic design approach, systemic design is becoming increasingly mainstream. As it expands, the practice of systemic design is being taken up in governments and philanthropic organisations to address social issues in complex social systems (van der Bilj-Brouwer & Malcolm, 2020). Integrating systems thinking and design, systemic design emphasises complexity, boundary framing, emergence, adaptation and self-organisation (Jones, 2014). The parent domains of systems thinking and design have legacies of oppression and have primarily ignored relevant ongoing work by marginalised communities, including black, queer, and Indigenous thinkers and doers. Despite a primary orientation toward complex social systems, mainstream systemic design has not centred on oppression, and issues of power tend to be washed from the language used to talk about the practice. This is particularly concerning in recognising the systemic nature of power and oppression. This failure to focus on critical systemic issues risks perpetuating harmful assumptions and reproducing oppression through practice and theory.

On the other hand, there has been and continues to be powerful work on these issues by community and activist groups and significant initiatives on the periphery of the systemic design community. For example, black feminist thinkers, such as Patricia Hill Collins (2000) on systemic oppression and the matrix of power, are highly relevant to systemic design. Still, they have not been meaningfully integrated into the discourse. The growing work around design justice highlights the need to move beyond good intentions that often unwittingly reproduce existing inequalities toward design as a process for liberation (Sasha Costanza-Chock, 2020). The equityXdesign (Hill, Molitor & Ortiz, n.d.) practice integrates critical reflection on racial equity with design to centre support for those most marginalised. It addresses structural forms of racism in societal systems. The work on decolonising design calls for a fundamental redesign of design itself to address issues of cultural domination in theory and practice (Schultz et al., 2018). The work on abolitionist design aims to break down oppressive systems and build up systems that nourish through radical politics that include a conscious questioning of whether to advocate for not using design altogether (Fathallah & Lewis, 2021).

Addressing power and oppression

The overall aim of this workshop is to interrogate the systemic design discourse through a critical, anti-racist and anti-oppression lens to unpack the forms in which the discipline is complicit in the reproduction of discriminating structures. The workshop will engage participants with diverse backgrounds to critically reflect on implicit biases and advocate for liberation to be central in systemic design practice and theory.

Systemic design is receiving growing attention within academia and practice and is entering the mainstream discourse within the design field. The very nature of systemic design supports powerful actors and is often entangled within modern and capitalistic ways of thinking and being. While systemic design claims to address power and diversity through different approaches, oppression and power are often not addressed directly in the mainstream discourse. There is a tension between implicitly addressing power and an urgent need to challenge the fundamentals of systemic design to consider the scale and impact of the reproduction of harm. This workshop gets at a core tension within the systemic design community itself and in doing so opens up questions about its very existence.


As workshop organizers and facilitators, we are active systemic design practitioners and researchers experiencing the tensions and triumphs of confronting oppression in and through our work.

Alberto Soriano is a design consultant and assistant professor in the Institute for Design at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. Alberto’s work is centred on building literacy around power in design, diversity, inclusion and equity.

Josina Vink is an associate professor at the Institute of Design at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. Josina has over a decade of experience doing service and systemic design within health and care internationally, including Canada, the United States, Sweden and Norway.

Shivani Prakash is an assistant professor in the Institute of Design at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. Shivani’s interests lie in nurturing a culturally humble lens in her practice and bringing design practice and academia closer.

Workshop format

120 minutes | on-campus | maximum of 25 participants

Workshop Agenda: Hegemonic force

The workshop begins with introducing the facilitators and participants’ backgrounds and experiences of working with systemic design and why they think it’s important to address its entanglement with oppression and power. The workshop’s core will include sharing provocations on three levels and requesting the participants reflect on the provocations.

Given the nature of the workshop, facilitators will support the conversation and reflection with active and critical attention to the power dynamics in the room and groups to ensure the space is safe, respectful and open for dialogue for all participants.


Self-reflection: A focus on concepts such as intersectionality, privilege and power, oppressor and oppressed, and liberation. Participants will be requested to reflect on their positionality and how they experience these concepts.

Practices and processes: Focuses on how we as systemic designers are reproducing harm in our practice. The reflection in this level shifts from the individual toward a meso understanding of concepts such as microaggressions; equality-equity tension; othering, erasing, empathy and exploitation; existing theory around the practice; and decentering.

Influence on structure: Lastly, the discussion will shift towards generating a structural understanding of the theme. Participants will be requested to reflect on concepts such as reproducing systemic oppression, white supremacy culture, the dominance of norms, impact versus intent, and tracing what harms one’s practice could have been reproduced unconsciously in previous projects.

Closing question: Should we abolish systemic design as a discipline, or can systemic design become a liberatory practice? The discussion will focus on the systemic design community, popular theories, dominant voices, mainstreaming contributions to oppression and how the discipline is framed and taught today.


Costanza-Chock, S. (2020). Design Justice: Community-led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. The MIT Press.

Fathallah, Sarah and Lewis, A.D. Sean (2021). “Abolish the cop inside designer’s head”. Design Museum Magazine. The Policing Issue (May), 46-75.
Hill, C. Molitor, M., & Ortiz, C. (n.d.) equityxdesign: A Practice for Transformation. EquityxDesign Collaborative. Retrieved from /equityXdesign+11.14.16.pdf

Hill Collins, P. (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. Second Ed. New York: Routledge.

Jones, P. (2014). “Systemic design principles for complex social systems”. In Metcalf, G. S. (Ed.), Social Systems and Design, 1. Tokyo, Japan: Springer.

Schultz, T., Abdulla, D., Ansari, A., Canlı, E., Keshavarz, M., Kiem, M., Prado de O. Martins, L. and Vieira de Oliveira, P.J.S. (2018). “What is at stake with decolonising design? A roundtable.” Design and Culture, 10(1), 81-101.

UK Design Council (2021). Beyond Net Zero: A Systemic Design Approach. April. U.K. Retrieved from mic%20Design%20Approach.pdf

van der Bijl-Brouwer, M., & Malcolm, B. (2020). Systemic Design Principles in Social Innovation: A Study of Expert Practices and Design Rationales. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 6(3), 386-407.




Citation Data

Author(s): Alberto Soriano, Josina Vink and Shivani Prakash
Title: Systemic Design as a Hegemonic Force
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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First published: 10 September 2021
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