What is Systemic Design? Practices Beyond Modeling & Analyses

Author: Birger Sevaldson

This working paper intends to set the stage for drawing the landscape of systemic design. This large task can neither be completed in one working paper nor accomplished by one individual. In systemic design, authority is intentionally distributed, and variety and pluralism are central. Therefore, the intention is to seed a discourse to develop a dialogic environment. What follows is the first stumbling attempt at rendering the rich landscape of systemic design. It is a draft of the current landscape, which is (at this stage) coloured by the author’s own perspectives and point of departure, but it will hopefully be expanded and nuanced through dialogue with other individuals during the field-building process.

Let us start by discussing what systemic design is not. Some people who are knowledgeable about systems theories tend to look at systemic design as the application of one or another systems theory or particular methodology to design. However, this is not the case. While systemic design draws from systems theories, our main position is that both domains – design and systems – have something to contribute to each other, and relating the two will (or at least should) result in novel perspectives, processes, ideas and even theories. Systemic design intends to develop multiple new practices based on intersections between multiple perspectives.

Systemic design was defined by its founding members as a pluralistic and open field with a variety of approaches, which is a normative strategic position. Despite this, there are fundamental principles that form the bases of systemic design that should be re-expressed and further crystallised. This is neither being done to navigate towards less pluralism and variety nor to stop dynamic development. However, to avoid bleeding outside the discourse into themes that have been discussed at length and to let its nature develop organically, we need to establish an a priori platform from which we can launch a discussion instead of spending energy on repetitions, misconceptions, misunderstandings and straw arguments.

Systemic design is an emergent approach that contributes to something that is, if not entirely new, well-described and defined. It is the organic meshing of systems perspectives with design. Organic means that it is not based on theory and reasoning alone; rather, it relies heavily on the development of a variety of practices. Comparing, discussing and competing between those practices comprise the core dynamics that help develop the field. In this endeavour, several points must be considered. We understand systemic design as processes that induce change on four levels: the design (a) of change, (b) as change, (c) for change and (d) into change 1. This implies the conception of design as an inherently systemic activity (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012).

This article intends to steer the discourse towards the central issues; it is time to demarcate and clarify the core intention and to step towards and encourage the next developments in the field.

Posted Oct-2019

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