Systemic Design: Two Canadian Case Studies

Format: Papers, RSD2, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Author: Alex Ryan and Mark Leung

The currently fragmented state of ‘systems + design’ praxis is curious in light of the affinities between the two interdisciplines. To explain why designers and systems thinkers have not been talking to each other, we may look to their differences. Whereas the designer learns by doing in concrete situations, the systems thinker’s knowledge accrues by abstracting away from the particular details of any specific instance of practice. But if this is sufficient to account for the lack of dialogue between and synthesis of systems + design, then the two interdisciplines are on a collision course. Since the mid-20th Century, design has followed a trajectory of increasing abstractness, migrating from the design of objects, to the design of services, identities, interfaces, networks, projects, and discourses. At the same time, systems thinking has all but abandoned its ambitions to provide a unity for science. Instead, a diversity of systems approaches have flourished as forms of reflective practice, grounded in the methods of action research.The authors of this chapter are approaching the scene of the accident from opposite, but not opposing, directions. One of us is a systems thinker who got involved in the messy business of institutionalizing design within the U.S. military. The other is a business designer who increasingly needs systems thinking to fold design into the core of business strategy development. Although our systemic design methodologies were developed independently, we have found they provide enough similarity to be commensurable, and enough difference to stimulate critical reflection.In this paper, we present two new case studies where systemic design was applied with impact to address strategy and organizational challenges. Before introducing the case studies, we briefly define what we mean by systemic design and provide a common framework for our analysis. In the following section, our first case study concerns a public procurement project within the University of Toronto, where design and a systems mindset helped the Central Procurement Department re-envision how public policy is implemented and how value is created in the broader university purchasing ecosystem. Our second case study involves improving the effectiveness of the Clean Energy and Natural Resources Group (CENRG) within the Government of Alberta. Design was used here to reframe the way that the five departments within CENRG work together and to create a learning system for continuous improvement. We conclude the chapter by interpreting these case studies as a contribution to knowledge on how systems + design might be synthesized to create a practical approach to systemic design.

Presentation & paper

Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2013
Title: Systemic Design: Two Canadian Case Studies
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 15 September 2013
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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.


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