Alex Ryan and Mark Leung
Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan —Eliel Saarinen
A systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another —C. West Churchman
Design is the future of systems methodology —Russ Ackoff
Design is about unlocking the possibilities that lie within multiple perspectives. That design is about solving a complex problem with multiple constraints – John Maeda
The currently fragmented state of ‘systems + design’ praxis is curious in light of the affinities between the two interdisciplines, as emphasised in the quotations above. To explain why designers and systems thinkers have not been talking to each other, we may look to their differences. Design as evolution of craft has been characterised as “thinking with your hands” and, as such, is rooted in an epistemology of practice. In contrast, the systems movement began with Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s General System Theory, which placed systems thinking above the disciplinary sciences in order to provide a non-reductionist foundation for the unity of science.6 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 genealogy 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. The emergence of the term ‘design thinking’ acknowledges this more abstract application of design, often at organisational and societal scales. At the same time, systems thinking has all but abandoned its ambitions to provide unity for science. Instead, a diversity of systems approaches have flourished as forms of reflective practice grounded in the methods of action research. Action research, an iterative and collaborative process to improve a situation simultaneously with learning about it, firmly places the systems thinker in the realm of practice. This collision of systems + design threatens previously occupied intellectual territories so that it could be violent. Yet it also contains enormous creative potential that might be harnessed to better connect theory and practice to produce actionable knowledge.
The authors are approaching the scene of the collision from opposite, but not opposing, directions. One of us is a systems thinker who got involved in the messy business of institutionalising 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 similarities to be commensurable and enough differences to stimulate critical reflection.
In this paper, we present two case studies where systemic design was applied with impact to address strategy and organisational challenges. Before introducing the case studies, we briefly define what we mean by systemic design and provide a comparison of our respective methodologies. 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. Next, we perform a comparative analysis of the two methodologies as applied to the case studies introduced above. We conclude the paper by interpreting these case studies as a contribution to knowledge on how systems + design might be synthesised to create a practical approach to systemic design.