Societal systems can be thought of as a complex ‘tangle.’ The metaphor can be extended in order to map an array of human-made vulnerabilities. The result is a Pattern Atlas which can serve as both an analytical and teaching tool. It comes from the forthcoming book How Small Players Change Big Systems (2023). Some 28 types of systemic vulnerability are identified at four levels of scale.
The Atlas has several implications for designers. First, the Atlas explains the “(n)ever changing world” paradox—how systems adapt to remain more-or-less the same. Misunderstanding that paradox is the source of continual frustrations by those who aspire to change systems for the better. Second, the Atlas explains the scalar dynamics by which small mishaps or design blunders can cascade to become major catastrophes. That is crucial for understanding the Risk Society that has us (mis)directing our collective fears. Third, a lot of designer-led interventions lead to churn or minor changes among systems. The Atlas helps designers target their interventions to make more fundamental changes and (as importantly) reduce the potential for harmful side effects. All three of these implications are central to designing over time.
Keywords: systemic design, risk and vulnerability, precarity, risk society, systems change, problem framing, process ontology, visualization, information design