An Opportunity for Systemic Design

When systems are changing everywhere the opportunities to direct some of that change to design the world we want has never been greater.

Systemic design has been developing over the past decade from a set of loosely connected ideas drawn from different streams of systems thinking and the multidisciplinary field of design. Brought together, this idea of systemic design is, as Alex Ryan suggests, “a mash-up of two dangerous ideas“, noting that it is about “the capacity of humans to give meaningful form to their ideas.” related to systems.

Design is really innovation at scale: our intentions for something different projected into the world.

Scale is critical to understanding systemic design. A system can exist at a hyper-local scale and thus a design may function within a narrow bound of conditions and contexts or it can scale more broadly affecting multiple systems and co-evolving far beyond its original state. Our design choices can have enormous consequences and thus provide a possible lever for projecting our intentions on to the world.

This is why systemic design has never been more relevant given the situation the world is presented with in 2020. Our challenges have scaled across the globe all the way down to our psyche.

What are we going to do about it?

Design at Scale(s)

As I’ve written about at length: design occupies a liminal space that brings together craft, thinking, and creative imagination to generating things that can reproduce and scale. Systemic design projects these qualities outward into shaping how our intentions for our products, services, and interactions around us interact.

The concept of scale has many myths associated and with few exceptions has been poorly theorised, articulated and understood in relation to systems change and design. It is not about more (or bigger) as much as it is about proportion and focus.

What systemic design can do, when done well, is explore and uncover the layers of a system to determine what areas can be changed through intentional action and what relationships are affected by those choices. This is the design of systems and as the world finds itself reeling by effects of a biological agent on nearly every aspect of human systems the choice about what we want from what’s to come has consequences far beyond the boundaries we’re used to working with.

This is about serious conversations about what scales we mean.

Designing for (System) Complexity

As I’ve articulated previously, the unprecedented nature of the global COVID-19 pandemic has tested our ability to make sense of what we are seeing and to fully recognize the complexity that is associated with its effects on our world — big and small.

For systemic design, this means first assessing the levels of the systems that we are seeking to influence. To start, there are systemic design tools that can help us to articulate components of the system and their relationship to each other. The limitation with many of these tools is that they are suited to better understanding complicated problems than truly complex ones. These are problems where the relationships between various parts can be known or determined or they remain reasonably static, even if difficult to untangle.

Tools for understanding complex systems like the Cynefin Framework are useful at making sense of complexity, but offer little guidance on what to do.

This is a moment for systemic design to take that next step. It’s time to evolve many of the tools and approaches to account for complexity, ambiguity, and the dynamism that comes with massive change. This is the opportunity for complexity to get practical, design to get more evidence-supported, and systemic design to go from tools to action.

Consider this a design challenge for systemic design and the opportunity to shape what comes rather than just have it shape us.

Photo by Florian van Duyn on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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