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Systemic Design: Two Canadian Case Studies


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This paper introduces two novel applications of systemic design to facilitate a comparison of alternative methodologies that integrate systems thinking and design. In the first case study, systemic design helped the Procurement Department at the University of Toronto re-envision how public policy is implemented and how value is created in the broader university purchasing ecosystem. This resulted in an estimated $1.5 million in savings in the first year, and a rise in user retention rates from 40% to 99%. In the second case study, systemic design helped the clean energy and natural resources group within the Government of Alberta to design a more efficient and effective resource management system and shift the way that natural resource departments work together. This resulted in the formation of a standing systemic design team and contributed to the creation of an integrated resource management system. A comparative analysis of the two projects identifies a shared set of core principles for systemic design as well as areas of differentiation that reveal potential for learning across methodologies. Together, these case studies demonstrate the complementarity of systems thinking and design thinking, and show how they may be integrated to guide positive change within complex sociotechnical systems.
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Alex J. Ryan and Mark Leung Systemic Design: Two Canadian Case Studies 1 Vol.7, Nr.3, 2014, Art. 2, 1-14
Alex J. Ryan and Mark Leung
Systemic Design: Two Canadian Case Studies
This paper introduces two novel applications of systemic design to facilitate a comparison of
alternative methodologies that integrate systems thinking and design. In the first case study,
systemic design helped the Procurement Department at the University of Toronto re-envision
how public policy is implemented and how value is created in the broader university
purchasing ecosystem. This resulted in an estimated $1.5 million in savings in the first year,
and a rise in user retention rates from 40% to 99%. In the second case study, systemic design
helped the clean energy and natural resources group within the Government of Alberta to
design a more efficient and effective resource management system and shift the way that
natural resource departments work together. This resulted in the formation of a standing
systemic design team and contributed to the creation of an integrated resource management
system. A comparative analysis of the two projects identifies a shared set of core principles
for systemic design as well as areas of differentiation that reveal potential for learning across
methodologies. Together, these case studies demonstrate the complementarity of systems
thinking and design thinking, and show how they may be integrated to guide positive change
within complex sociotechnical systems.
Keywords: systemic design, design thinking, systems thinking, methodology, comparative
analysis, procurement, natural resource management.
The currently fragmented state of ‘systems + design’ praxis is curious in light of the affinities
between the two interdisciplines. Systems philosopher C. West Churchman said: A systems
approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another (1968). This
resonates with a basic tenet of design thinking: begin with empathy for users/stakeholders.
Tracing the connection in the other direction, the architect Eliel Saarinen provided the
following counsel: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context a chair
in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan
(quoted in Saarinen, 1977). In drawing attention to the importance of the next larger context,
Saarinen was advising designers to approach their challenge as an open system. An even
stronger link was made by systems thinker Russell Ackoff. Design is the future of systems
methodology(quoted in Gharajedaghi, 2011).
This begs the question: why haven’t more designers and systems thinkers been talking
to each other? To answer this, we must first look to their differences. Design emerged as an
evolution of craft (Jones, 1992). Donald Schön describes the intellectual foundations of
design as rooted in an epistemology of practice (1987). The founder of IDEO, David Kelley,
articulates this as “thinking with your hands.” Drawing, prototyping, and making are central
to designing.
In contrast, Peter Checkland suggests that systems thinking was founded on two pairs of
ideas (1981):
1. Emergence and hierarchy, originating in organismic biology and generalised in
General System Theory; and
2. Communication and control, originating in communication engineering and
generalised in cybernetics.
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General System Theory placed systems thinking above the disciplinary sciences, in order to
provide a non-reductionist foundation for the unity of science (von Bertalanffy, 1969). The
closely coupled field of cybernetics set a similarly ambitious research agenda, in which it
sought to establish a general mathematics of machines. According to Norbert Wiener, who
suggested the name for the field:
cybernetics attempts to find the common elements in the functioning of automatic machines
and of the human nervous system, and to develop a theory which will cover the entire field of
control and communication in machines and in living organisms (Weiner, 1948).
Whereas the designer learns by doing in concrete situations, from the very beginning of the
systems approach, the systems thinker’s knowledge has accrued by abstracting away from the
particular details of any specific instance of practice.
But if this genealogy is sufficient to account for the lack of dialogue between and
synthesis of systems + design, then the two interdisciplines are on a collision course. Since
the mid-20th Century, design has followed a trajectory of increasing abstractness, migrating
from the design of objects, to the design of services, identities, interfaces, networks, projects,
and discourses (Krippendorff, 2006). The emergence of the term ‘design thinking’
acknowledges this more abstract application of design, often at organizational and societal
scales. At the same time, systems thinking has all but abandoned its ambitions to provide a
unity for science. Instead, a diversity of systems approaches have flourished. This includes
systems approaches that subscribe to the methods of action research (Checkland & Holwell,
1998). Action research (Lewin, 1946), an iterative and collaborative process to improve a
situation simultaneously with learning about it, firmly grounds systems thinking in situations
of practice. This collision of systems + design threatens previously occupied intellectual
territories, so it could be violent. Yet it also contains enormous creative potential that might
be harnessed to better connect theory and practice to produce actionable knowledge.
The authors of this paper are approaching the scene of the collision from opposite, but
not opposing, directions. One of us is a systems thinker who got involved in the messy
business of institutionalizing design within the U.S. military. The other is a business designer
who increasingly needs systems thinking to fold design into the core of business strategy
development. Although our methodologies were developed independently (see Martin, 2009;
Naveh, Schneider & Challans, 2009), we have found they provide enough similarity to be
commensurable, and enough differences to stimulate critical reflection.
In this paper, we will present two new case studies where systemic design was applied
with impact to address strategy and organizational challenges. Before introducing the case
studies, we briefly define what we mean by systemic design and provide a comparison of our
respective methodologies. In the following section, our first case study concerns a public
procurement project within the University of Toronto, where design and a systems mindset
helped the Central Procurement Department re-envision how public policy is implemented
and how value is created in the broader university purchasing ecosystem. Our second case
study involves improving the effectiveness of the clean energy and natural resources group
(hereafter abbreviated to the natural resources group) within the Government of Alberta.
Design was used here to reframe the way that the five departments within the natural
resources group work together and to create a learning system for continuous improvement.
Next, we perform a comparative analysis of the two methodologies as applied to the case
studies introduced above. We conclude the paper by interpreting these case studies as a
contribution to knowledge on how systems + design might be synthesized to create a practical
approach to systemic design.
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The Shape of a Systemic Design Project
Systemic design integrates systems thinking and design thinking. By systems thinking, we
mean a way of looking at, modeling, and intervening in the world as if it is composed of open,
purposeful, complex wholes. By design thinking, we mean a normative, user-centered,
iterative approach to innovation that extends the application of design beyond the design of
symbols, objects, and interactions. By synthesizing systems thinking and design thinking,
systemic design creates a learning system capable of adapting to a changing environment
through iterative framing and reframing, spanning action and reflection on action.
The two methodologies considered in this paper are shown in Figure 1 below. On the
left, Rotman’s design thinking methodology is represented as a series of three gears: Empathy
and Needfinding; Ideation and Prototyping; and Business Strategy. On the right, the design
methodology evolved by the U.S. Army is shown as three activities: Environmental framing;
Problem / Opportunity Framing; and Operational Approach. While this methodology was
developed within a military context, it has also been applied to civil and commercial design
challenges. Both methodologies guide the practitioner in moving from deepening and
broadening understanding towards taking strategic action to improve the situation.
Figure 1. Rotman’s Design Thinking Methodology and the U.S. Army’s Design Methodology.
Case 1: Public Procurement
In 2008, the Procurement Department at the University of Toronto decided it needed to re-
examine how it served the university’s expansive research community. Adoption of its
procurement services and compliance to purchasing processes were at an all time low. With
more than $1.1billion in research funds under the university’s stewardship, the department
was tasked with ensuring that the school’s 17,000 faculty and staff delivered value for
money on the goods and services they purchased. The department had great expertise in
government policy and purchasing systems, but they had very little understanding of why
researchers would not follow their rigorous processes. DesignWorks, the innovation research
team at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management (University of Toronto) was asked to
investigate. Over the course of 3 months, each of the methods found in the 3 Gears of
Business Design were applied (Table 1).
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Table 1. Key stages of the University of Toronto Procurement project.
Empathy & Need Finding
(6 weeks)
Ideation & Prototyping
(4 weeks)
Business Strategy
(2 weeks)
Method 1
User Observation &
Activity System
Team understands the
user’s perspective and
Team generates Ideas
with Users. Engages users
for buy-in
Team identifies the key
strategic focus areas and
how the organization needs
to be designed
Method 2
Need Finding
Journey Map
Reframes the problem
from the user’s point of
Team and users
understand how solutions
might be experienced
Method 3
User Personas
Team understands who
they are designing for
Physical low resolution
artifacts that generate
user feedback and
The starting project objective of How might we better design our value proposition to our
users?” was deliberately open and broad to allow new questions to be asked and new
possibilities to emerge. The research goal was not to immediately solve the problem from a
policy or technology perspective as Procurement had done for many years but to understand
the stakeholders’ (i.e. faculty, staff, officers) point of view and ultimately their unmet needs.
This required the team to empathize with them and understand their everyday context and
experiences. For several weeks, the team shadowed 20+ research faculty and staff at work and
listened unbiased to their research stories (e.g. How did you get started? Why research? How
does it feel? What challenges you?). The technique expanded to include other key
stakeholders such as business officers and vendors to better understand the broader
procurement ecosystem and how the players interact and influence one another.
With this empathic understanding, the team synthesized the essence of each key
stakeholder and their needs as personas (Figure 2). This explicit and visual artifact gave
everyone on the design team including Procurement a central design focus (i.e. Who are we
designing for? What are they like? What do they really need?).
Figure 2. Researcher and Lab Manager Personas & Needs
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The stakeholder stories led to a powerful reframe of the challenge for the Procurement team:
procurement should not be the enforcers of policy but a “trusted advisor” for the
community. This was further crystallized by the researcher comment: Policy should be about
helping us do better research and not the other way around help us spend our dollars better
and faster.” This insight, although obvious in hindsight, completely shifted the mindset of the
department and the purpose of their work (i.e. helping people rather than helping the process).
With this understanding in mind, the team set up a series of evening co-creation
sessions with researchers, staff, technicians and business officers to address the unmet needs.
The session brief was to design the ideal research experience from start to finish using various
brainstorming and prototyping techniques (e.g. journey mapping Figure 3, sketching,
storytelling, low-res craft building Figure 4). The physical and tangible nature of the
prototyping process got everyone engaged in the design process and made vague ideas very
tangible and interactive.
Figure 3. Procurement Journey Map
Figure 4. Prototypes of Procurement Fact Sheets
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Over the course of a few days, the team then tested the prototypes with users in workshops
and in the field, receiving highly valuable feedback: what they liked, didn’t like and would
change. They learned that to be the trusted advisor: procurement needed to be talking with the
researcher on Day 1 when the funds are approved and the start of planning rather than at the
purchasing implementation stage which was conventional practice and frustratingly late; and
simple artifacts like tip sheets within easy access and simple language can go a long way to
stay on top of researchers busy minds and save time. This rapid testing allowed the team to
make quick and inexpensive changes to their ideas before any signifcant investment needed to
be made.
The inclusion of the key stakeholders in the solution design process led to higher
engagement with Procurement, created buy-in to the ideas that were generated in the sessions
and demonstrated Procurement’s genuine effort to help make the experience better for the
research community.
This work led to a department simplification and engagement initiative that aimed to
make purchasing more accessible and efficient for researchers to use. This included the design
of an award winning dynamic public procurement process that incorporated flexible
deadlines, real-time feedback, user-friendly language and process simplifications to the
procurement experience (Figure 5).
Figure 5. An activity system for better meeting the needs of end users of the University of Toronto’s
Procurement Services.
As a result of this project, user retention rates for Procurement Services jumped from 40% to
99%. In the first year, the pilot program was estimated to have returned $1.5 million in hard
dollar savings and won accolades from researchers. One of the biggest benefits of the design
methodology would be in the transfer of thinking and skills to the department as stated by the
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In the past, weʼve looked at usersʼ needs from our perspective. From our exercise with
DesignWorks, it is very clear at a strategic level, we need to understand the usersʼ perspective
from a holistic approach and have really taken it to heart. Strategically, we hope to apply this
to every program we have. Weʼve actually piloted a program which is one of the biggest
accomplishments weʼve had in 12 years.
In 2012, Procurement Services received the Canadian Association of University Business
Officers (CUABO) industry award and the University of Toronto’s Excellence through
Innovation award for their transformational redesign of public procurement.
Case 2: Natural Resources Management
In 2012, leaders within the Government of Alberta stated that there was a need to ‘change the
channel’ on how the departments think about their work, and how they actually operate. The
the natural resources group within the Government of Alberta chose to undertake a systemic
design inquiry in order to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Government of
Alberta’s role within the natural resources management system. The workshop was facilitated
by Booz Allen Hamilton’s Center for the Application of Design. Starting with an intensive six
day design workshop using the U.S. Army’s design methodology, the team of nineteen civil
servants developed a deeper understanding of the natural resources group’s role within the
natural resources management system, reframed their mindset, and devised an innovative
operational approach to improving inter-departmental collaboration.
The client’s stated objectives for the workshop were to:
Raise awareness of the design methodology as a systemic approach to messy strategic
Apply the design methodology to a current strategic problem as a proof of concept to
demonstrate institutional relevance; and
Develop design skills in leaders across Government of Alberta Departments and Divisions
to enhance systems thinking and improve collaboration.
In addition to these objectives, the client drafted the following guidance statement to motivate
the systemic design inquiry:
Guidance Statement Version 1.0
Develop a three year strategy for the [natural resources group] departments to improve the
effectiveness and efficiency of the Alberta Government’s management of natural resources
that will streamline our interaction with industry, improve environmental outcomes, and
maintain or increase the revenue stream from industry while increasing public support for our
social license to develop our natural resources.
This statement is intentionally broad, ambiguous, and raises possible value conflicts between
economic, social, and environmental outcomes. The guidance provided purpose and direction,
while allowing scope for reframing and refinement throughout the inquiry.
The first day of the workshop provided theoretical foundations for systems thinking,
design thinking, and integrative thinking. The day consisted of a mixture of lectures,
discussion of assigned readings, and skill-building exercises. The actual schedule for the
practical component of the workshop over the remaining five days is shown in Table 2 below.
The actual schedule differed from the planned schedule, since iteration emerged from the
group’s choices rather than occuring at preplanned intervals. Also note that three days were
devoted to exploring the context, compared with only one day framing the problem and one
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day framing the operational approach. This helped to build shared understanding and avoid
premature convergence on the recieved problem implied by the original guidance statement.
Table 2. Schedule for the practical component of the natural resources management workshop.
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6
Problem /
Method 1
Legacy to
Mental Model
System of
the project
Team choice
of new
boundaries for
the inquiry
viewed from a
new, shared
Map of actors
supporting the
Umbrella idea
for how to
transform the
Method 2
System of
Rich Picture
of relevant
actors and
of the system
in context
redrawn from
the new
Map of actors
opposing the
of the
Method 3
System of
Actors and
issues grouped
into named
of deep drivers
of the current
of the
future system
Map of
resources used
for or against
Model of how
the group will
create a
learning cycle
Design methods such as stakeholder maps and affinity diagrams were used to collaboratively
construct a shared map of actors and issues, which was then iteratively developed into a
systems map, shown in Figure 6. In addition to using different methods, the team iterated
between plenary and small group (three groups of approximately 6) formats to balance shared
understanding and active participation. Group membership was regularly mixed up to
minimize clique formation. The process of creating the systems map artifact clarified the
common purpose of five government departments. Participants described these departments
as historically operating in isolated silos, yet Figure 6 emphasizes the interdependence of the
departments for achieving a common goal.
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Figure 6. A systems map of the Government of Alberta’s Clean Energy and Natural Resources Group.
During the process of mapping the actors and issues, participants raised questions about the
guidance statement. Was it: the efficiency and effectiveness of the natural resources group
that needed to be improved; the efficiency and effectiveness of the natural resource
management system; or efficiency and effectiveness of the natural resource system? After
debating and resolving this and several other issues with the guidance, the team reframed the
statement to better reflect their shared understanding of the purpose of the design challenge:
Guidance Statement Version 2.0
Gain an understanding of the Natural Resources management system and its relationships to
other PODs. To improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the GoA’s role in managing that
system, with a view to supporting economic prosperity, environmental quality, and quality of
This reframing was important for building team member commitment to the workshop.
Additionally, it underscored the provisional nature of all design artifacts and the need for
constant iteration in systemic design.
Next, the team performed a causal layered analysis to appreciate the current situation
beyond the litany of media headlines to examine the systemic causes, worldviews /
discourses, and myths / metaphors that perpetuate the issues currently impacting on natural
resource management. Systemic causes identified include the siloed structure of the
Government of Alberta, natural resource dependence, and demographic shifts. The myth of
the cowboy was seen to be at the core of Albertan identity. The cowboy myth explains the
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connection with the land, the rugged independence, and the lack of a need to justify actions to
others. Cowboys live on the frontier, they are heroes, they operate outside the law, and relate
to the stereotype of the redneck. Even though Alberta’s demographics have changed rapidly
in recent decades, this has not undermined the power of the cowboy myth. It does mean,
however, that it is no longer easy to identify the typical Albertan. One participant sketched
Magritte’s Son of Man to depict the faceless modern Albertan.
The causal layered analysis enabled the team to surface a legacy pattern of thinking
about natural resource management. The legacy mental model was initially developed through
collaborative brainstorming, and iteratively structured offline. The theory of action framework
used by Chris Argyris (1993) for mapping how values-in-use affect action strategies, systemic
patterns, and consequences in organisations was found to be a useful way to organise the
group’s brainstorming. The outcome is shown in Table 3 below.
Table 3. Legacy values, action strategies, patterns, and consequences.
Values in Use
Action Strategies
Control information
Unclear authorities
Limited span of loyalty
Risk averse
Secret Minister’s Reports
Fragile relationships
Narrow identity
Technical knowledge
Collaboration as risky
Public service
Fight & die for the part
Zero-sum games
Questions of legitimacy
Team loyalty
Errors of omission
Time pressure
Lack of trust
Make a difference
Blame lack of resources
Strategy-execution gap
Blame lack of leadership
The team imagined an alternative to this reinforcing set of values, actions, patterns, and
consequences, which is documented in Table 4 below.
Table 4. Alternative values, action strategies, patterns, and consequences.
Values in Use
Action Strategies
Risk tolerant
Question guidance
Important over urgent
Stronger collective vision
Embrace complexity
Slow down to speed up
Risk-tolerant leadership
Meaningful change
Government of Alberta
Purposeful action,
strategic influence
Growing understanding
Communities of practice
Continuous learning
Continual adaptation
Development pathways
Security and stability
Fight for the collective
Growing trust
Control information by
Shared accountability /
shared reward
Succession planning
Collaboration as reward
This voluntary shift from control of my piece (“fight and die for the part) to collaboration
with the collective (“shared accountability and shared rewards”) provided an essential change
in perspective required for the design team to look at the system in a new way and identify
new potential for innovation and growth. The team identified potential for strengthening
collective identity within the government, changing the nature of the relationship between the
natural resources group and its stakeholders, enabling a “kaleidoscopic vision” for the
province, reducing the volume of urgent-but-unimportant distractions, and imagining the
government’s role from unconventional perspectives.
To help translate this potential into reality, the team mapped out a system of support
(actors working to implement the transformation), a system of opposition (actors resisting the
transformation), and a system of resources (means that can be used to support or oppose
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change). They developed a broad operational approach that synthesised the team’s divergent
ideation into a coherent strategy for action. This artifact provided an umbrella concept that
allowed the team to continue working on the detailed design of the natural resource
management system in sub-groups for the next three months.
The project resulted in greater clarity on objectives, a framework for structuring
collaboration, and a re-conceptualized mode of engaging with stakeholders that achieves
alignment through strategic influence. More importantly, these organizational components
were organized into a learning system, capable of continuing to deepen understanding and
adapt to a changing environment. At the same time, participants learned a systemic design
methodology. One participant provided the following qualitative feedback:
I can think of many situations, projects and issues we have encountered in the past in which
this methodology would have been extremely useful - and we are already applying it in
several current situations with great success. The fact that we have senior leaders in our
organization, many with 25 to 30 or more years of experience, eager to use Design signals that
it is not ‘flavour of the day’ but a practical approach to tackling complex issues.
The efforts initiated in this workshop evolved into a larger effort within the Government of
Alberta to build an Integrated Resource Management System. As a result of the workshop, the
Government of Alberta established a standing cross-ministry systemic design team, a
systemic design community of practice, and initiated multiple follow-on projects. Follow-on
systemic design projects have ranged from the design of an environmental management
agency and common risk management framework for the upstream energy sector to early
childhood development.
Comparative Analysis
The first insight from a comparative analysis from a systemic design perspective is that
neither methodology is evenly balanced. The Rotman approach is a design methodology
informed by some systems techniques. The U.S. Army approach is better characterized as a
systems methodology that employs some design methods. It is not necessary for every
systemic design project to contain an equal mix of systems thinking and design thinking. The
approach should accommodate the requests of the client and the requirements of the situation.
However, from the perspective of the integration of systems + design, neither case study
produced a true synthesis that balanced systemic thinking and designerly action.
The following attributes were common across the two projects. Both projects shared:
A process for exploring diverse worldviews and surfacing mental models of
A holistic view of the challenge (human, technological, and organizational systems);
A systemic perspective and a problem seeking mindset that helped to reframe the
A drive to cut unconventional paths towards goals, as well as to question the goals
A willingness to embrace complexity in order to create new opportunities for profound
A willingness for practitioners to adopt a facilitator / enabler role rather than being
“The Expert”; and
A highly collaborative approach that leverages the expertise of each participant.
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Table 5 below contrasts some differences between the methodologies as practiced in the case
Table 5. Differences between the Rotman Methodology and the U.S. Army Methodology.
Rotman Methodology
U.S. Army Methodology
Explicit use of empathy (needs before solutions)
Explicit use of systems maps
Physical prototyping
Genealogy to uncover the roots of mental models
Rapid testing / Placing small bets
Theoretical grounding
User feedback
Narrating the journey of learning
Design aesthetic
Integrating education with practice
The Rotman methodology was first derived from the early work of Roger Martin (Rotman),
David Kelley (Stanford and Patrick Whitney (Illinois Institute of Technology). This
non-linear, action oriented and emergent form of thinking is a departure from conventional,
linear methods of business thinking, yet common practice in highly creative design fields (e.g.
industrial, architecture, graphic). The DesignWorks team created a multi-media story to
capture the current and ideal Procurement journey. This allowed the department and key
stakeholders to understand all aspects of the challenge, from user insight, to ideation, to
implementation. Participants in the project learned that adopting a user-centred perspective,
and specifically empathizing with users, can greatly transform how problems are framed and
innovative solutions are formed.
The U.S. Army methodology produced multiple iterations of systems models using
various techniques, such as Rosalind Armson’s (2011) systems maps. Sohail Inayatullah’s
(1998) causal layered analysis was used in this case to perform a genealogical analysis of the
thinking behind the observed situation. The methodology is strongly grounded in theory,
which has been documented elsewhere (Naveh, Schneider & Challans, 2009; Ryan et al.,
2010). The systemic design team produced a written narrative to complement the
visualisations of their design. This enabled the team to document a detailed written account of
their systemic design inquiry at two levels: the content of the workshop, and their journey of
learning about design. This reinforced an approach to systemic design that did not separate
learning from doing, or theory from practice. Participants learned systemic design at the same
time as they acted to resolve a current organisational challenge.
We believe the similarities of the two methodologies provide a common ground on
which to build a more centered approach to systemic design, while the differences provide
opportunities for learning and improving both methodologies.
Lessons for Systemic Design
The comparitive analysis provides some insight on how systems thinking and design thinking
can work together. Our analysis draws explicitly on just two data points, so the lessons we
present in this section must be seen as suggestive rather than conclusive. Our aim is not to
advocate for a particular methodology or variant of systemic design. Rather, we hope to
stimulate more conversations between systems thinkers and design thinkers, in order to
generate stronger couplings between the two fields.
Both the University of Toronto procurement services and Government of Alberta
natural resources case studies demonstrate that systems thinking and design thinking can be
successfully integrated. In the University of Toronto case study, systems methods helped the
team to better appreciate the user ecosystem and to design an activity system to change end
user perceptions of Procurement Services. In the Government of Alberta case study, design
methods helped the team to better appreciate diverse stakeholder perspectives, to ideate and to
visualize actions to improve inter-departmental collaboration.
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A systems approach provides a broader perspective of the problematic situation from which
high leverage areas for intervention can be recognized. Design provides a humanistic
perspective of the needs of real users, and craft skills for giving tangible form to abstract
ideas. These two approaches are highly complementary, and can compensate for one
another’s weaknesses. Design’s ethnographic methods and bias for generative action balances
the systems practitioner’s tendency to continue to expand system boundaries to broader and
more abstract models of the situation. The systems sciences provide a rich body of theory to
support design practices that have evolved from craft without rigorous theoretical grounding.
A more centered assemblage of systems + design could be qualitatively more powerful than
systems thinking or design thinking approaches applied in isolation. For today’s and
tomorrow’s most complex challenges, a new synthesis of systemic design is required.
Alex J. Ryan
Senior Systems Design Manager
Government of Alberta, Department of Energy
Mark Leung
Director, Rotman DesignWorks
University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management
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... They represent a departure from the classical view of the public sector as "the sole provider of public goods" (Torfing, Sørensen, and Røiseland 2019) as well as from siloed performancebased systems with narrow targets based on New Public Management (Tonurist et al. 2020). Research and evaluation specifically on (human-centred) design for policymaking (Bason 2014(Bason , 2017Kimbell and Bailey 2017;Lewis, McGann, and Blomkamp 2020) and systems thinking for policy (Ryan and Leung 2014;Bijl-Brouwer and Malcolm 2016;Haynes et al. 2020) is beginning to emerge. In-depth case studies of design-led policy practice are rare but much in demand. ...
... Firstly, following the democratic tradition of participatory design, equality of voice is actively promoted through creating the conditions for genuine participation. This entails a shift in the role of the lead designer or policy practitioner from "expert" to "enabler" (Ryan and Leung 2014), and "finding ways to give voice to those who may be invisible or weaker in organizational or community power structures" (Luck 2018). Secondly, in recognition of systems behaviors and self-determination, leadership is distributed and decisionmaking devolved as much as possible (Lankelly Chase 2020; Leadbeater and Winhall 2020; Yunkaporta 2019; Abercrombie, Harries, and Wharton 2015). 5. Inclusive collaboration. ...
... Secondly, in recognition of systems behaviors and self-determination, leadership is distributed and decisionmaking devolved as much as possible (Lankelly Chase 2020; Leadbeater and Winhall 2020; Yunkaporta 2019; Abercrombie, Harries, and Wharton 2015). 5. Inclusive collaboration. Systemic design engages diverse worldviews, leverages the expertise of each participant, and enables stakeholder collaboration to create implementable plans and ethical action (Ryan and Leung 2014;Jones 2018). This reflects the foundational cybernetic principle of "requisite variety," which can be applied in systemic design to achieve the optimal selection of diverse stakeholders to participate in dialogue (Jones 2014). ...
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As the complexity of policy problems is increasingly recognized, and participatory approaches gain popularity, policy workers are applying different methods to engage a wide range of stakeholders and citizens in policy development and implementation. Alongside burgeoning interest in various forms of design and systems thinking, systemic design has emerged as a descriptor for a practice that integrates dialogue, design and co-creation for sensemaking and decision-making. As an approach to participatory policymaking, systemic design involves creating the conditions for stakeholders to more meaningfully participate in building shared knowledge and taking collective action. This article puts forth a new practice framework for systemic design in public policy and social innovation. It distills insights from the author’s experience and knowledge as a researcher, evaluator, practitioner and educator in the design and delivery of public policy and human services. The five core domains of the practice framework—principles, place, people, process and practice—are based on established understandings of design-led, systems-informed and participatory approaches to policymaking, as well as knowledge from critical practice reflections, recent research and evaluation reports. The relevance of the practice framework is illustrated through a case study of a design-led approach to a community services policy in New Zealand. Examples from the case study demonstrate some of the benefits and challenges of systemic innovation and participatory policy design.
... 14 The process was guided by design principles that reposition the role of researcher/designer from 'expert' to 'enabler'. 15 The flower templates were individually cut out and placed along the table to be completed in people's own space and time. Participants commented on the novelty and cheerful nature of the flower prompts. ...
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This paper provides a recipe for Kai-dness, as designed by staff and students from Te Herenga Waka, Victoria University of Wellington’s Faculty of Architecture and Design Innovation. It sets out both the ingredients and the method for Kai-dness. It celebrates the associated lessons learned and the agents of change who combined as ‘the Kai-dness Crew’ to facilitate conversation and collaboration through commensality, the sharing of kai. The plate this was served upon was the fifth Social Movements, Resistance, and Social Change Conference in November 2020. This paper suggests that there is power in the sharing of kai to aid the social transitions required in moving towards more positive futures. Vol. 12 (2021): Special Issue: Activating Collectivity - Aroha and Power
... One of these case studies is one I have developed through my experience in participating and contributing to the development of the Canadian National Youth Leadership and Innovation Strategy framework, which convened hundreds of youth and youth-serving organizations in order to understand the youth leadership and innovation system in Canada (MaRS Studio Y, 2017). fte second and third case studies are those profiled by Ryan and Leung (2014). In each case, I use identify phenomena representing the practice of emic (or etic) understanding in the research orientation of the work, as acknowledged by the above framework. ...
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Our contribution is based on a case study of the systemic, human-centered and iterative approach employed by OvestLab, Modena, and reflects on relevant implications for the implementation of a circular economy in Italy. OvestLab is an ongoing experimentation that contributes to current debates within academia, local administrations and civil society on urban vacants, namely buildings and spaces that are no longer serving their purpose as places of production, market exchange and social interaction. It also shows how a circular approach to commerce, supported by interdisciplinary expertise, can ensure sustained revenues, reduce material consumption and address territorial changes due to complex variable forces, such as technological innovations and market volatility. Finally, OvestLab offers an example of how knowledge exchange with similar initiatives in other countries, enabled by an online platform, fosters interterritorial learning that is beneficial to all parties involved. From a methodological point of view our analysis is informed by two main sources. Firstly, one of the authors has been involved with OvestLab from its inception, both as part of the executive board in one of the associations responsible for the project, and as a member of a local artist collective. Secondly, we integrated her description and reflection with documents written both as intermediary outputs for the project or by other actors not directly involved with OvestLab. Located in the West part of Modena, OvestLab is part of the city’s Villaggio Artigiano (Artisans Village), which for many years represented a virtuous example of collaboration between the local administration and small private enterprises. Since the 2008 financial crisis, however, the Village experienced significant socio-economic decline, which was exacerbated by an increase in vacant buildings that served both residential and productive purposes. OvestLab is based in a former factory that, after closing ten years ago, has recently been requalified to become a hub for local open spaces and shared initiatives that address a number of multifaceted territorial issues, among which the lack of public spaces. The project is led by two associations, namely Amigdala and the Archivio Architetti Cesare Leonardi. Conceptually, OvestLab wants to promote initiatives that are founded on the sense of community shared by local stakeholders (which is undoubtedly fragmented but still present); that reflect upon alternative imaginaries to guide actions addressing both ecological and economic issues; and that propose new symbolic and cultural meanings to spaces that can support the resilience of the territory and its community. To analyze the collaborative actions currently ongoing as part of the Village’s regeneration process, we draw a number of theoretical guidelines from systemic design literature: • An evaluation of the regeneration process not only through its final output but also the intermediate steps that led to it while at a meso level, defining the processes and circular design skills necessary to reverse the obsolescence of urban vacants and spaces. • How new interactions that originate from a node within the urban fabric to create a network of new relations, can be more inclusive of previously unengaged citizens, and activate new social dynamics that are valuable for the local community. • How processes of distributed governance among local stakeholders foster a sense of community while offering new spaces that local actors can adapt to their needs and characteristics. • How allowing local communities to autonomously define and manage 120 | their relation to the space favors new forms of autopoiesis within organizations and transdisciplinary cultural projects managed in a decentralized fashion. • How a spontaneous phenomenological structure that values action over planning can be employed to work iteratively and better adapt the reactions of the context while also promoting latent potential and resources, which may already be present in the territory or can be integrated with it. • How working daily at the change of the local reality while also seeking dialogical opportunities with actors that operate at different territorial scales (regional, national and European) enables mutual learning and adds value both within the local community and the extraterritorial one. Our aim is to contextualize these concepts through the analysis of the following actions: • Supporting a number of initiatives - namely local gruppi di acquisto solidale (GAS, ethical purchasing groups), Genuino Clandestino and Alimentazione Ribelle - who aim at reducing food waste and promote distributed food production that revolves around local producers. This is an example of how local actors are adapting the space according to their specific necessity. • Using furniture produced with recycled or reused materials during workshops that promote upcycling and artisanal practices and engage citizens of all ages. • Creating, together with CivicWise and Ostello San Filippo Neri, a platform for distributed accommodation that capitalizes on the availability of vacant and underused buildings; thus applying the recycle and reuse ethos not only to product but also service design. • Publishing a collaborative magazine to build a collective narration of the project and foster mutual learning among people of different ages, backgrounds and professions that include local actors as well as external collaborators. • OvestLab is part of CivicFactories, an international network of territorial experimentations on urban regeneration, which includes initiatives in Paris, Valencia and Santa Cruz. This allows the local community to communicate and share best practices, which are informed by direct learning feedbacks and are enabled by CivicWise’s P2P online platform for glocal learning.
... Traditionally, design practice and design education have focused on giving form to physical things -apparel, buildings, messages, tools, and vehicles-the artefacts that constitute material culture . However, since the mid-20 th -century design it has followed a trajectory of increasing abstraction, migrating from the design of objects to the design of services, identities, interfaces, networks, projects, and discourses (Ryan & Leung, 2014). This immaterial turn has broadened the design field and made it more welcoming and more connected to interdisciplinary collaboration. ...
Conference Paper
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Systemic design is an emergent field demanded by the complexity and the scale of 21st-century problems. Its objective is to provide a holistic vision over fragmented entities to design responsibly for incremental change. For addressing the complexity of societal and environmental problems, it is important to equip future designers with a broad systemic design skill set. Industrial design education needs to be restructured and regularly updated to transfer required competencies compatible with the nature of contemporary issues. The Competency Domain Model (CDM) proposed in this paper, lists, and categories the essential designer competencies in four different domains. This classification could serve as a framework for educational reforms in the near future, and facilitate meaningful communication between different design programs. The model is applied to 15 industrial design departments in Turkey in order to understand the current status of design education in the national context and to present its potentials for others. Research results are shared within the context of insider knowledge.
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Teknolojik gelişmeler ile birlikte tasarım anlayışı ve pratiği de zamanla değişmiş, faaliyet alanı genişlemiş ve çeşitlenmiştir. Tasarımcılar sınırları belirli olmayan, karmaşık toplumsal ve çevresel problemlere çözümler üretebilmek için alışageldikleri ürün tasarımı yeteneklerinin ötesinde bilgi ve becerilere ihtiyaç duymuşlardır. Bu kapsamda tasarımcının rolleri değişmiş, yeni alt disiplinler ve tasarım yöntemleri ortaya çıkmıştır. Tasarım alanına eklenen ve gün geçtikçe artan bilgi ve yeteneklerin takip edilmesi ve endüstriyel tasarım eğitiminin bu değişiklikler doğrultusunda güncellenmesi önemlidir. Bu araştırmada Türkiye’deki endüstriyel tasarım bölümlerindeki eğitimin kapsamı ve mevcut durumu incelenmiş ve sistemli olarak analizlerinin yapılması amacıyla Buchanan’ın tasarımın dört seviyesi çerçevesinden yararlanılmıştır. Türkiye’deki 26 üniversitenin endüstriyel tasarım bölüm başkanlarıyla iletişime geçilmiş ve çevrimiçi olarak paylaşılan anketi bölümlerinde verilen eğitimi değerlendirerek doldurmaları istenmiştir. Toplamda 18 bölüm başkanı anket araştırmasına katılmıştır. Anket safhasından elde edilen veriler, sonuçları doğrulamak amacıyla; bölümlerin internet sayfalarında paylaşılan ders programları, ders katalog formları ve bölümle ilgili akademik yayınlarla mukayese edilerek bir analiz oluşturulmuştur. Araştırma sonuçları, ürün tasarımı projeleri ve yetkinliklerine ek olarak hizmet tasarımı, kurumsal ve bölgesel tasarım, sosyal sorumluluk için tasarım gibi daha soyut ve bütünleşik projelerin ve yöntemlerin de uygulanmaya başladığını göstermiştir. Sonuçlar Türkiye’deki endüstriyel tasarım eğitiminin günümüzdeki durumunu ve yönelimini özetler niteliktedir.
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Researchers and practitioners alike are in general agreement that the public sector is increasingly tasked with managing ‘complex problems’. Many authors have warned that the established practices in government are not sufficient to deal with such problems. The integration of systems thinking in design practice has been advocated as a promising approach to understand and more effectively deal with the increasing complexity of societal challenges. However, the literature on systemic design largely remains in the academic and theoretical discussions. In 2020, the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) has pioneered the development and implementation of systemic design as its approach to designing and delivering change. This article outlines practice insights into the ATO's systemic design framework, including its applications to a range of initiatives, including the stimulus measures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. It discusses early insights into considerations of implementing systemic design at scale. Future research should focus on the implementation factors that may enable or inhibit its successful adoption.
Causal layered analysis is offered as a new futures research method. It utility is not in predicting the future but in creating transformative spaces for the creation of alternative futures. Causal layered analysis consists of four levels: the litany, social causes, discourse/worldview and myth/metaphor. The challenge is to conduct research that moves up and down these layers of analysis and thus is inclusive of different ways of knowing.