Systemic design

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Systemic design is a recent initiative in design that integrates systems thinking and human-centered design, with the intention of helping designers cope with complex design projects. The recent challenges to design coming from the increased complexity caused by globalization, migration, sustainability render traditional design methods insufficient. Designers need better ways to design responsibly and to avoid unintended side-effects. Systemic design intends to develop methodologies and approaches that help to integrate systems thinking with design towards sustainability at environmental, social and economic level. It is a pluralistic initiative where many different approaches are encouraged to thrive and where dialogue and organic development of new practices is central.

The systemic design dialogue is driven by the Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD) symposium series resulting in published proceedings and several special issues on systemic design in the scientific design research journal FORMakademisk.

Academic groups[edit]

Systemic design is being developed within the design practice and through the Systemic Design Research Network, focusing on different aspects of the issue.[1] Different academic groups have been facing Systemic Design both in their teaching and researching activities:

  • Systems oriented design is an example of a systemic design approach being used at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. Systems Oriented Design seeks to train the designers ability to cope with a larger degree of complexity and to take more responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Holistic perspectives, ethics and sustainability as well as cultural, organizational, economic, and technical considerations are central.[2]
  • At Politecnico di Torino, the Master of Science in Systemic Design is active and it is named after Aurelio Peccei, in that place didactics and research are growing up together.[3] This approach, put forward by Luigi Bistagnino, focuses on the relationship between the inputs and the outputs of a system, by viewing waste as a valuable resource.[4] Research on Systemic Design at Politecnico di Torino is now led by Silvia Barbero.
  • The Strategic Foresight and innovation master program at OCAD University [5] Toronto is a well known systemic design initiative led by Peter H. Jones. Emphasis is placed on teaching complex problem finding, framing and solving, to envision and develop sustainable futures.
  • At the National Institute of Design (NID) India there is a group of academics at the design department, established by late M.P. Ranjan and led by Praween Nahar.[6] Systems Thinking and Design is part of the academic programme at NID, it involves the application of the systems approach towards complex issues and wicked problems from socio-cultural-economic-environmental perspective with high level of ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity.
  • Alex Ryan is leading a group of systemic designers at the Government of Alberta. [7] They combine systemic design and strategic foresight to redesign the policy development process in government.


From complexity theories to systemic design[edit]

The theories about complexity help the management of an entire system and the suggested design approaches help the planning of different divergent elements. The complexity theories evolved on the basis that living systems continually draw upon external sources of energy and maintain a stable state of low entropy, on the basis of the General Systems Theory by Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968).[8] Some of the next rationales applied those theories also on artificial systems: complexity models of living systems address also productive models with their organizations and management, where the relationships between parts are more important than the parts themselves. Treating productive organizations as complex adaptive systems allows a new management model to emerge in economical, social and environmental benefits (Pisek and Wilson, 2001 [9]). In that field, Cluster Theory (Porter, 1990 [10]) evolved in more environmentally sensitive theories, like Industrial Ecology (Frosh and Gallopoulos, 1989 [11]) and Industrial Symbiosis (Chertow, 2000 [12]). In 1994, Gunter Pauli and Heitor Gurgulino de Souza founded the research institute Zero Emission Research and Initiatives (ZERI),[13] starting from the idea that progress should embed respect for the environment and natural techniques that will allow production processes to be part of the ecosystem. The design thinking, as Buchanan (1992) said,[14] means the way to creatively and strategically reconfigure a design concept on a situation with systemic integration. This needs a strong inter- and trans-disciplinarity during the design phase (Fuller, 1981 [15]), with the increasing involvement of different disciplines including urban planning, public policy, business management and environmental sciences (Chertow et al., 2004 [16]). Systems and complexity theories and design thinking redesign a pretty new discipline: the Systemic Design, which is located as a human-centred systems-oriented design practice (Bistagnino, 2011;[17] Sevaldson, 2011;[18] Nelson and Stolterman, 2012;[19] Jones, 2014;[20] Toso at al., 2012 [21]).

Systemic design today[edit]

The contemporary debate on Systemic design started with the Relating Systems Thinking and Design Symposia series (RSD) [22] on the initiative of Birger Sevaldson at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design in 2012. Amongst the invited participants were Harold Nelson, Peter H. Jones and Alex Ryan. An initial meeting was held in Oslo to consolidate the possibility of building a future network. Other participants were Michael Hensel, Colleen Ponto and others. The RSD seminars started in the context of Systems Oriented Design (SOD). In 2013-14 a discussion was initiated by Birger Sevaldson questioning the framework of the new emerging network. The network changed its name to Systemic Design allowing it to grow more pluralistically while SOD could develop more specially. The Systemic Design Research Network was founded shortly after on the initiative of Peter H. Jones and with Harold Nelson, Alex Ryan and Birger Sevaldson as co-founders.[1]


Systems thinking in design has a long history with people like Christpher Alexander, Horst Rittel, Russl Ackoff, Bela Banathy, Ranulph Glanville, M.P.Ranjan, Harold Nelson and others. Also the main systems theories and models were known and applied in design since their beginning. Despite this Systems Thinking has never become mainstream in design. The reasons for this might be that the prescribed techniques and approaches were too technical and did not fit well to an organic design process.[23]

The systemic design initiative is addressing this problem by seeking new connections and relations between systems thinking and designerly ways of working.


  1. ^ a b "Systemic Design Research Network « Systemic Design". Retrieved 18 April 2018.
  2. ^ "The Oslo School of Architecture and Design". Retrieved 18 April 2018.
  3. ^ Barbero, S. (2016). Opportunities and challenges in teaching Systemic Design. The evolution of the Open Systems master courses at Politecnico di Torino. Proceedings of the 6th International Forum of Design as a Process, Universitat Politècnica de València, Valencia, pp. 57-66.
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Teaching Systemic Design « Systemic Design". Retrieved 18 April 2018.
  7. ^ Ryan, Alex (3 April 2016). "The Alberta CoLab Story". Retrieved 18 April 2018.
  8. ^ von Bertalanffy, K.L. (1968) General System theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller, New York
  9. ^ Pisek, P.E. and Wilson, T. (2001) Complexity, Leadership, And Management In Healthcare Organizations, British Medical Journal, Vol.323, pp.746-749.
  10. ^ Porter, M.E. (1990) Competitive Advantage of Nations, Free Press, New York.
  11. ^ Frosh, R.A. and Gallopoulos, N.E. (1989) Strategies for Manufacturing, Scientific American, Vol.3 No.189, pp.94-102.
  12. ^ Chertow, M.R. (2000) Industrial Symbiosis: Literature and Taxonomy, Annual Review of Energy and Environment, Vol.25, pp.313-337
  13. ^ "Home". Retrieved 18 April 2018.
  14. ^ Buchanan, R. (1992) Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, Design Issues, Vol.8 No.2, pp.5-21.
  15. ^ Fuller R.B. (1981), Critical Path, St. Martin’s Press, New York.
  16. ^ Chertow, M. R., Ashton, W. and Kuppali, R. (2004) The Industrial Symbiosis Research Symposium at Yale: Advancing the Study of Industry and Environment, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, New Haven.
  17. ^ Bistagnino, L. (2011) Systemic Design: Designing the productive and environmental sustainability, 2nd ed., Slow Food, Bra.
  18. ^ Sevaldson, B. (2011). Gigamapping: Visualization for complexity and systems thinking in design. Proceedings of the Nordic Design Research Conference. Aalto University, Helsinki.
  19. ^ Nelson, H.G. and Stolterman, E. (2012). The design way: Intentional change in an unpredictable world, 2nd ed., MIT Press, Cambridge.
  20. ^ Jones, P.H. (2014) ‘Systemic Design Principles for Complex Social Systems’, in Metcalf, G.S. (Eds.), Social Systems and Design, Springer Verlag, Berlin, pp.91-128.
  21. ^ Toso D., Barbero S., Tamborrini P. (2012) Systemic Design: Beyond Ecodesign. Proceedings of the 18th Annual International Sustainable Development Research Conference, University of Hull, UK
  22. ^ "RSD Proceedings « Systemic Design". Retrieved 18 April 2018.
  23. ^ "Feature Article: Learning the Lessons of Systems Thinking: Exploring the Gap between Thinking and Leadership - Integral Leadership Review". Retrieved 18 April 2018.

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