Systemic Design Labs: Incubating systemic design skills through experiential didactics and nature-based creativity

Format: Papers, RSD7, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Luthe Tobias

Systemic design teaching and learning
Engineering design
Master program
Educational toolkits
Bio-inspired design

What if we were better and faster in finding and implementing solutions supporting the transition towards a more sustainable society and planet? What if engineers and designers were habitually looking into nature’s design solutions when confronted with complex problems? What if transdisciplinary teams were designing from cradle-to-cradle, generating circular opportunities but no waste? What if our educational system were equipped to train systemic design thinking and doing for sustainability to everyone?

Systemic Design Labs empower engineering and interdisciplinary Master students to become change agents for sustainability. Outdoor experiences, biomimicry, fabrication and transdisciplinary partnerships help to develop skills in sustainability, critical systems thinking, bio-inspired creativity, circular design and service understanding, embedding technical work within social-ecological systems.

Engineering design education is facing growing responsibility for contributing to the global societal goal of sustainability in a world of increasing complexity. Students have to be empowered to proactively design products from a systemic perspective, where ecological life cycle design is integrated with traditional engineering design skillsets, also in relation to social factors and user needs. The Systemic Design Labs (SDL) initiative at ETH Zurich builds on established teaching in engineering design and introduces systemic design thinking and doing in an innovative format based on experiential didactics and outdoor creativity. We developed a new, integrated modular block course for MSc and PhD engineering students, where ecological design skills and service understanding are combined to better cope with the increasing complexity of current and future sustainability design challenges. We use bio-inspired design, fabrication with sustainable materials and product systems mapping as innovative but proven didactics to spur creativity, holistic and critical thinking within a sustainability context. We prototype an educational fabrication toolset for teaching systemic design and sustainability in schools, while engaging in transdisciplinary partnerships for societal impact and gaining realworld experience.

The SDL is an initiative at ETH Zurich to develop, experiment and implement innovative educational offerings in sustainability and engineering design. Starting from engineering design, SDL integrates the natural sciences and the humanities, eventually reaching out with flexible learning modules to teaching creative, systemic design for sustainability to everyone.

We showcase a set of new SD courses at ETH Zurich where we built skis, kiteboards, skateboards, educational snowshoe kits and knives in the academic years 2016-2018. The courses were setup to one part as more of a classic lecture and seminar-based courses on sustainability science and systemic design theory; the second part consisted of fabrication parts, experimenting with practical tools to design and prototype. Students showed and expressed high interest and engagement in and beyond the course, with multiple requests for further project opportunities.

The SDL aims to integrate systemic thinking and doing for sustainability in current engineering design education and practice. SDL crosscuts traditional engineering disciplines to address critical human needs and foster inter-departmental cooperation. We achieve these aims in seven fundamental ways: First, we sensitize students for the potential to developing sustainable solutions for pressing societal problems. Second, we engage students in systems thinking by mapping an engineering design challenge within its greater societal and service context, working interdisciplinary. Third, we spur ecological design thinking and creativity by experiencing nature’s design solutions outdoors, practicing the art and science of bioinspired design. Fourth, we teach life cycle analysis and circular design by working with natural materials, expanding from the current engineering focus on high tech materials and metals. Fifth, we advocate critical thinking for sustainability by letting students design and fabricate an educational snowshoe building toolkit for schools, as an initial example, based on established systemic design principles. Sixth, we transfer the practically derived skills to a complex real-world application of a transdisciplinary (TD) partnership, and seventh, we maximise outreach by spreading the educational toolkits, by offering modular course concepts to partners, and by publishing course movie.

During one of the new SDL courses and as a main output to increase outreach, students systemically designed and prototyped an educational toolkit. The educational toolkit has three main didactic functions and one general goal: First, students apply their acquired skills and material knowledge on something concrete; second, students prototype and fabricate with a functional and user purpose; third, students not only fabricate, but design the kit with the aim that others can use it to teach systemic design to their students – this requires a self-reflective process; and fourth, the toolkit significantly increases public outreach of the SDL since it is distributed to schools and the broader public.

The guiding narrative behind the toolkit idea is that of a modular, multifunctional and systemic designed backpack, something practical that most people can connect with. The backpack is useful in daily life and for exploring the outdoors, it aims to take people out in nature as the best teacher in sustainability and systemic design. It can be equipped with a variety of practical tools and things for an exploration, such as snowshoes, a stove, hiking poles, a flask, a wind-powered phone charger, a hand or solar-powered torch, and similar tools. The SDL tools can all be carried in the backpack and are of help in outdoor activities yet designed with careful attention to environmental resources and impact. The backpack and each tool are designed according to systemic sustainability guidelines and thus of value as such. Even more so, for each tool there is an educational kit, so others can use the kit to practice systemic design while at the same equipping their backpack, preparing to explore the outdoors and getting inspired by nature’s creativity. The design of the backpack and its tools is interdisciplinary, having an industrial design component, a material and engineering part, include the consumer/user perspective, and trigger the connection with nature and natural sciences. It motivates people to go outdoors, while the design inspirations are drawn from nature.

Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2018
Title: Systemic Design Labs: Incubating systemic design skills through experiential didactics and nature-based creativity
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 2 October 2018
Last update:
Publisher Identification:

Copyright Information

Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (ISSN 2371-8404) are published annually by the Systemic Design Association, a non-profit scholarly association leading the research and practice of design for complex systems: 3803 Tønsberg, Norway (922 275 696).


Open Access article published under the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License. This permits anyone to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or form according to the licence terms.

Suggested citation format (APA)

Author(s). (20##). Article title. Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design, RSD##. Article ##.

Publishing with RSD

Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design are published online and include the contributions for each format.

Papers and presentations are entered into a single-blind peer-review process, meaning reviewers see the authors’ names but not vice versa. Reviewers consider the quality of the proposed contribution and whether it addresses topics of interest or raises relevant issues in systemic design. The review process provides feedback and possible suggestions for modifications.

The Organising Committee reviews and assesses workshops and systems maps & exhibits with input from reviewers and the Programme Committee.

Editor: Cheryl May
Peter Jones
Ben Sweeting

The Scholars Spiral

In 2022, the Systemic Design Association adopted the scholars spiral—a cyclic non-hierarchical approach to advance scholarship—and in 2023, launched Contexts—The Systemic Design Journal. Together, the RSD symposia and Contexts support the vital emergence of supportive opportunities for scholars and practitioners to publish work in the interdisciplinary field of systemic design.

The Systemic Design Association's membership ethos is to co-create the socialization and support for all members to contribute their work, find feedback and collaboration where needed, and pursue their pathways toward research and practice outcomes that naturally build a vital design field for the future.


Verified by MonsterInsights