Designing for living systems is an approach to creating things for a world in flux and generating benefit for it.
In my last post, I used the term design for living systems to reflect a changing position in my design practice and one that I see reflected in the design challenges I see around me. I believe this is a better, more appropriate term to describe a way of engaging the practice of design for those designers seeking to address systemic issues. It responds to what I see in the world and in the professional design and systems thinking communities.
This is not advocacy for a new sub-discipline or method; it’s a way to reframe how we approach design practice. It’s also a means to translate more of what falls under systems thinking into practical strategies.
Let me explain what I mean by discussing the term design for living systems in detail.
(My) Design’s Turn of Phrase
Let’s first look at the term design. To design something is to create something for use. That’s the short-hand definition. Design is intentional and oriented around a problem or opportunity, and its value is mainly determined by the utility (and benefits) it generates. When we create things for use, we are designers.
Living Systems refers to the interconnected relationships between the living world that we humans inhabit. Rather than adopt a perspective of human exceptionalism or the myth of independence from nature, this reframing recognizes that we are a part of nature. This point is often lost on designers and humans more broadly.
This phrase also acknowledges the interdependence of humans with the made and natural world around them. Animals, plants, weather, and geography are all dynamic, interactive influences on human life. We act on them, and they on us. This requires us to take a systems perspective and acknowledge the inherent complexity of the living world. We recognize design can’t take a static position; it must fit within the living environment that it joins.
The addition of the preposition for indicates both a focus on design practice and an intended beneficiary of that practice. To design for something recognizes the contribution and effect that our production has. It further recognizes that we are developing things that are in service of a beneficiary. That beneficiary is increasingly diverse in nature and of nature.
An Expanded Frame of Design
Focusing on design for living systems gets us beyond much of the arrogance in design and systems practice (sometimes presented under the guise of systemic design). When we design for living systems, we are pressed to acknowledge the limits of our influence and the responsibility of our designs in shaping and affecting ecosystems. It is a humble approach to design, recognizing that our potential to disrupt and harm is as great as it is to confer benefits. It’s also a modest approach to systems thinking and action as it recognizes the limits to our ability to model and influence complex systems as they are experienced.
This approach diverts us from the misguided belief that we can design human systems at any scale. It can also challenge us to consider what kind of scales our designs are limited to and designed for. This position fundamentally acknowledges the principles of complexity at play in shaping how living systems evolve, adapt, and codevelop. Rather than seeking a systems map that aims to chart the landscape and drive our actions to an outcome, designing for living systems recognizes the folly in seeking transformation beyond means.
We can influence and shape systems but not control them. This requires fundamentally different ways of working and the outcome expectations around it. It requires a means of design thinking that is dynamic. It requires a form of systems thinking grounded in complexity and design methods to work with it. Design for living systems requires us to be optimistic, ambitious, and compassionate.
Too much of our design has been guided by ambitions for human greatness, not respect for healthy ecosystems.
Living Systems as Inspiration Partner
Our air, water, land, and our sharing of the billions of creatures on it are not externalities, but partners in design. They can be beneficiaries as much as victims depending on the design choices we make.
Bruce Mau argues that design must inspire us. Few things can inspire more than a world of possibility that is safe, clean, and protected in ways to allow us to flourish with it. An approach to design based on living systems brings together the best of what we know about adaptive strategy, design-driven evaluation, systems dynamics (in practice), complexity science, and creativity. It’s a response to the challenges before us and the opportunity to generate inspiration when it’s lacking in so many areas of social life.
Who’s with me in taking this next step on a design journey?