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Peter Jones, Stefanos Monastiridis, Alex Ryan, Vanessa Toye, Kristel Van Ael, and Philippe Vandenbroeck

OCADU | Namahn | MaRS | SHIFTN |

Why a Systemic Design Toolkit?

After seven years of RSD symposia, we believed some concern could arise that the field might be too dominated by academic studio-led methods and projects. We had not seen a movement toward pragmatic practice development, applying the learning from RSD to preferred methods and guidelines. With this collaborative methods toolkit, we wish to offer the Systemic Design community a set of thinking-and-doing instruments.

Changing a system requires the involvement of the actors within the system. We need their knowledge, capabilities and motivation to initiate and foster systemic change. A toolkit establishes a common understanding and language, enabling dialogue among the actors and other stakeholders, including a diverse design team. It offers methods and hands-on tools for co-analysis of complex challenges, co-design of advanced concepts, and co-creation of systemic solutions.

The methods and tools in the toolkit build upon the research of prominent systems thinkers and design thinkers such as Russell Ackoff, Donella Meadows and Christopher Alexander. The methods in the toolkit are explained by their prominent theories.

The tools have been continuously improved during project work for clients and academic teaching by the authors. Many cases are available from the authors’ work in healthcare, government, and industry to demonstrate the fit of methods to these applications.

Guidelines and Underlying Principles

The toolkit was developed with the following principles in mind.

Participatory: “No single profession, group or organization can successfully address today’s societal challenges alone” (Sharon Matthias and Jess McMullin, 2017). The application of Systemic Design demands the participation of stakeholders across existing social systems boundaries. Unlike other disciplines of design, Systemic Design has no model of the end user or consumer. It only has participants, who may live in different social systems that must be understood.

Anticipatory: All systems change leads us to a design for futures, but we must always ask, “whose future?” The worldviews, goal and values of participants in multiple future contexts must be included and represented through foresight-led systemic design methods that enable stakeholders with a variety of temporal reasoning capacities to equally contribute to future systems design.

Externalising Knowledge: A common understanding can only truly be achieved if the underlying thinking process is shared by all. The toolkit makes the underlying theoretical concepts and design decisions explicit. The (Nonaka and Takeuchi) SECI knowledge model (Socialization, Externalization, Combination, Internalization) explains the diffusion of knowledge and uptake of new practices.

Presence Producing: Systemic Design is practiced through engaging activities that produce an intense feeling of “here and now” (Piotr Michura and Stan Ruecker, 2017). During these activities, the participants challenge and shift the system boundaries towards new forms.

Empowering: The Systemic Design activities aim to help the participants collectively make sense of the challenge and provide them with plans of action they can carry out in the systems they are ordinarily entangled in. The activities transform them into agents of change in their daily field of action.

Multi-level and Multi-perspective: The design process supported by the toolkit is distinguished by continuous modulation between levels of abstraction by alternately ‘zooming out’ of the system and ‘zooming in’ on the stakeholders.

Formative Contexts: The toolkit doesn’t aim to offer a well-defined sequence of methods but rather a grammar that allows the designers to bring the Systemic Design vocabulary (the methods and tools) together in a way that makes sense for a given project. The order of activities depends on the context of the application and social dynamics of the moment, a process of designing for formative contexts (Ciborra, 2002).

Open-ended: Consequently, unlike other disciplines of design, Systemic Design is not bound to a specific outcome, be it a product or service, or the creation of a single solution. Systemic Design aims at identifying, developing and stimulating interventions to change and self-adapt the system on the way.

Panel Proposal

A panel discussion was proposed to accomplish three aims: to announce the toolkit as a new resource included in the SDA membership launch, to share the toolkit in an open dialogue about its use and value, and to encourage dialogue about the state of the art of practice.

The panel consisted of brief presentations from the authors, who self-moderated an interactive discussion with the audience to engage people in the following questions:

  • What makes the toolkit state of the art? What are the relevant criteria in practice to qualify a systemic design toolkit?
  • What other toolkits or “methods collections” exist today in the intersection of design and systems thinking? Are these actually state of the art or improved legacies?
  • What are the key practice areas in which the toolkit will be of value? Where will we see it deployed earliest?
  • How do we intend to enhance and update the toolkit? What feedback from the practice are we looking for?
  • Do we even need a toolkit? What are the alternatives to a structured methods collection?

Future Development

As a system of practice, the Systemic Design Toolkit is in its initial stages of development and use, and is expected to continue in a dynamic state of constant evolution, incorporating ideas, theories and approaches from other contributors. To that end, the core team represented by the authors agreed to engage in a long-term collaboration aimed at sustainable bringing this body of knowledge to a higher level.


Ciborra, C. (2002). The Labyrinths of Information: Challenging the Wisdom of Systems. Oxford University Press.

Jones, P. (2014). Systemic design principles for complex social systems. In G. Metcalf (ed.), Social Systems and Design, Volume 1 of the Translational Systems Science Series, pp 91-128. Springer Japan.

Matthias, S, & McMullin, J. (2017). Systemic Maturity Models and Multi-organization collaborations: the ACMHI Mentally Healthy Campus Maturity Model. Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design, RSD6.

Michura, P, & Ruecker, S. (2017). Design as production of presence – systemic approach to re- designing novelty. Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design, RSD6.

Nonaka, L., Takeuchi, H., & Umemoto, K. (1996). A theory of organizational knowledge creation.
International Journal of Technology Management, 11(7-8), 833-845.

Van Ael, K, & Vandenbroeck, P. (2016). Towards a Systemic Design Toolkit. Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design, RSD5.

Vandenbroeck, P. (2014). Working with Wicked Problems. King Baudouin Foundation, Brussels.

Systemic Design Toolkit Team

At the RSD5 symposium in Toronto (2016), Namahn and shiftN presented the first version of their Systemic Design toolkit and assessed its fit to practice in the conference workshop. A panel session was presented at the RSD7 Symposium in Torino to present the release version of the toolkit.




Citation Data

Author(s): Peter Jones, Stefanos Monastiridis, Alex Ryan, Vanessa Toye, Kristel Van Ael, and Philippe Vandenbroeck
Title: Systemic Design Toolkit
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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First published: 15 October 2018
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