Binocular Vision of designing Process for Whole Systems Design Crossing Boundaries

Format: Papers, RSD7, Topic: Cases & Practice, Topic: Methods & Methodology

William Travis Thompson, Flavio Mesquita Da Silva, and Frederick Steier

In the spirit of honouring Bateson’s metaphor of binocular vision (1979), this proposal brings together two design scenes for comparison in the mind of the reader as a way of generating new connections relating design and systems thinking as they played out (and are playing out at the time of this writing) in practice together with stakeholders and others in international and intercultural design contexts. The two comparative design scenes we explore are the Generation of Peace Project in the state of Ceara, Brazil, where more than 10,000 co-researchers sought to foster cultures of peace statewide, and the design of a Design Thinking course in the Honors College at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida. Connecting these two distinct scenes are not only shared practices rooted in design and systems thinking but also the World Café (Brown and Isaacs, 2005; Steier, Brown, & Mesquita da Silva, 2015), a group communication process facilitated in each scene that later also emerged as a conversational bridge connecting the scenes.

Keywords: systemic design, whole systems design, design thinking, communication as design. World Café

Generation of Peace Project

As a first scene for binocular vision, the setting is Brazil’s Generation of Peace Project, a cooperation between the State Department of Education of Ceará (SEDUC), Brazil, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), aimed at building networks of a culture of peace between 700 high schools and their communities. The focus on peace in a broad sense, promoting inclusion and respect for diversity, directly and indirectly, involved almost 500,000 youth and their families, as well as over 16,000 teachers and school administrators, in creating and maintaining a culture of peace. The voices of most societal segments brought into conversation facilitated by the World Café across the whole process of inception and development of the project made it possible to reach more than 200 high schools in less than a year. In the fourth year, in 2014, the project certified 509 schools that presented evidence of building peace on a daily basis, accounting for almost 75% of the entire school system explicitly engaged in the movement. The syncretization of the concepts, tools, and methodologies of systems thinking and the vision, values, and philosophy of ecological thought, elegantly organized in Stephen Sterling’s (2003) thesis, gave rise to the conditions that allowed for the schools to contribute to the project’s evolution according to their local characteristics, sharing the same framework with the other schools while providing unique experiences. Hence, “Generation of Peace” is a result of a whole systems design approach (Mesquita da Silva, 2017).

Honors College

As a second scene for binocular vision, the setting is in the United States, in the Honors College at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, Florida, where college leadership sought to bring about change together with their students across a number of different dimensions of student life, ranging from the design of a new, dedicated Honors College building to the redesign of students’ curricular processes. To begin that work, students were invited as co-designers together with college leadership and faculty in bringing about change in the College and the larger campus environment through recursively designing their (our) Design Thinking course. These student co-designers were also invited to consider their observing frames (Steier and Jorgenson, 2003) in relation to their learning together with others, and have engaged so far in diverse design projects ranging from enhancing support of refugees moving to the Tampa Bay area to designing green spaces in USF’s Marshall Student Center, and they are regularly engaged in redesigning the course – ranging from reflection-in-action during group activities in a single class setting to inviting redesign of the course as a whole at the end of the term.


By looking at these two scenes in “double vision,” a number of key principles and patterns emerged for us that both connect these local contexts and offer opportunities for further inquiry as more general design principles. Most notably, in this proposal, we highlight the recursive connections across design and communication, including how communication emerged as a key focus of design along with the other “objects” of design (Thompson, Steier, & Ostrenko, 2014) in both scenes and also highlight an emergent need across both scenes for focus on cultivating learning from a whole systems perspective.

In attending to communication as a designable aspect of the larger design efforts for both scenes, we extended Glanville’s observation (2012) that design is a conversational process among designers by opening conversations through World Cafés and other group processes with stakeholders and designers together as a way of bridging multiple levels of communication – similar in spirit to Bateson’s development of the “orders of learning” frame (1972)—affording focus on both communication process and content such that a new, “third language” might be cogenerated by designers and stakeholders together, leading to new opportunities for learning and shared understanding about local design contexts.

Building on this attention to the communication process as a designable aspect for design teams and stakeholders together, we also brought forward the integration of action and inquiry from both second-order cybernetics and action research (Greenwood and Levin, 2007) as a frame of co-learning—suggesting that the learners in a design scene include both the designers AND the stakeholders, as well as the larger whole of designers and stakeholders together, as they jointly work toward whole systems design. Through this mutual learning and languaging together, new frames and metaphors emerged co-generatively with new perspectives on shared possibilities for action.

In bringing these systems and design thinking principles into practice through hundreds of meetings, we co-facilitated across both of these scenes, ranging from hosting World Cafés for the cultivation of peace in Brazil to facilitating students’ learning related to design research in a Design Thinking course, this proposal highlights the importance of transitioning design “meetings” from a frame that primarily foregrounds products over processes and roles over activities to a frame that affords a focus on relationships through joint attention to the communication process and on mutual learning toward whole systems design.


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  2. Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. New York: Dutton.
  3. Brown, J., & Isaacs, D. (2005). The World Café: Shaping our futures through conversations that matter. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
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  5. Greenwood, D., & Levin, M. (2007). Introduction to Action Research: Social research for social change (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  6. Mesquita da Silva, F. (2017). Generation of Peace Dialogues: How the World Café Approach to Community Understanding Led to Cultures of Peace. [Doctoral dissertation, Fielding Graduate University] ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. 10601890.
  7. Steier, F., & Jorgenson, J. (2003). Ethics and aesthetics of observing frames. Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 10, 124-136.
  8. Steier, F., Brown, J., & Mesquita da Silva, F. (2015). The World Café in action research settings. In H. Bradbury (Ed.), The SAGE handbook of action research (pp. 210-218) (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  9. Sterling, S. (2003). Whole systems thinking as a basis for paradigm change in education:
    Explorations in the context of sustainability [Doctoral dissertation]. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. (C821111)
  10. Thompson, W. T., Steier, F., & Ostrenko, W. (2014). Designing communication process for the design of an Idea Zone at a science center. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 42, 2, 208-226.

Sketchnote by Patricia Kambitch | Playthink

Citation Data

Author(s): William Travis Thompson, Flavio Mesquita Da Silva, and Frederick Steier
Title: Binocular Vision of designing Process for Whole Systems Design Crossing Boundaries
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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Symposium Dates:
First published: 2 October 2018
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