Thinking: Why the Word Matters to Systems and Design


When I was applying for funding to do a post-doctoral fellowship I struggled with the term “systems thinking” as an identifier as I frankly thought it to be a rather silly term. After being awarded a CIHR post-doc in Systems Thinking and Knowledge Translation I still felt I ought to use another term — maybe complexity science or complex adaptive systems would be better — but thinking? It seemed rather unprofessional or scientific to me. But as I dove deeper into the science of systems and struggled to expand, re-learn or un-learn many of the ways I’d grown accustomed to approaching problems I found myself in admiration of the term. Indeed it was about a way of thinking about things, not just studying them.

The same can be said for design thinking, another term I’ve come to admire that I found equally goofy the first time I heard it. Yet, like systems thinking, the more I’ve embraced this school of thought the more potential it has. Design thinking is predicated on the not-so-obvious recognition that nearly everything we come into contact beyond our fellow humans and pets is designed. Whether it is the computer you use, the streets you walk on, the clothes you wear, or even the curriculum you follow in school, it is all designed. Therefore, if we want to make the world a healthier, more creative, innovative and just place approaching it through the lens of design thinking might be useful.

Indeed, this past week I attended a lecture by Henry Hong-Yiu Cheung from the design firm IDEO who spoke on his application of design thinking to his work and the concept of designing systems at scale. As the concept name suggests, this is about fusing design with systems, although I would argue that the level of systems thinking IDEO applies is not matched to the level of design thinking. But then, they are a design firm first.

I’ve been spending much time imagining what our a health promotion and public health system would look like if driven by systems and design thinking? Larry Green has argued that systems science provides a means of facilitating practice-based evidence emergence alongside traditional evidence. Allan Best and others have posited that systems thinking can improve dissemination in health promotion and facilitate knowledge integration.

Building on the work of Green, Best and others, I’ve argued that health promotion is a systems science and practice, however few have said the same about design thinking. My colleague Andrea Yip and I are looking to change that by exploring ways in which design thinking can inform the way we approach public health and health promotion. If the fit isn’t obvious, consider how the design of the places you live, the products you use, and the communities you inhabit shapes your behaviour and choices. Architects have long known how to create spaces that attract people to them, keep them moving, or drive folks away. John Thackara notes that 80% of the environmental impact of any product is determined at the design stage and Andrea and I are interested in whether designing for health might enable us to better influence the impact of our communities, organizations and practices to improve health.

Our first challenge is to change the thinking behind how we approach the problem in the first place. And just like with systems, there is much education to be done to convince people why these twin styles of ‘thinking’ are worthy of consideration in social innovation, public health and health promotion.

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