Systemic Design: Design for Complex Social and
Peter Jones, OCAD University, Toronto, Canada
Keywords: Systemic design; Sociotechnical systems; Design
methods; Systems thinking; Wicked problems
Systemic design integrates systems thinking and theory with ad-
vanced design methods in an evolving interdisciplinary field to ef-
fect anticipatory change in complex social sociotechnical and social
systems. Systemic design (or systems-oriented design) differs from
the commonly-designated systems design in that systemic design is a
design field (systemic as the modifier of design) and systems design
is the design of systems as objects, a practice developed through sys-
tems engineering. While systemic design can be simplistically de-
fined as the application of systems approaches to advanced design
problems, the field has taken shape as an advanced design discipline,
embracing architecture, planning, and social research as critical ad-
jacent practices for its applications. Systemic design studies reveal
an overarching scientific philosophy of pragmatism, embracing mul-
tiple perspectives to describe a system and its problems and struc-
Systemic design has developed as an interdisciplinary field based on
the integration of systems thinking and systems methods that effec-
tively inform human-centered design for complex sociotechnical and
multi-stakeholder social systems. While systemic design can be sim-
plistically defined as the application of systems approaches to ad-
vanced design problems, the field has taken shape as an advanced
design discipline, embracing architecture, planning, and social re-
search as critical adjacent practices for its applications. Systemic de-
sign studies reveal an overarching scientific philosophy of pragma-
tism, embracing multiple perspectives to describe a system and its
problems and structures.
Systemic design is distinguished from service or experience design
in terms of scale, social complexity and integration – it is concerned
with higher order systems that that entail multiple subsystems (that
might be defined services). By integrating systems thinking and its
methods, systemic design brings human-centred design to complex,
multi-stakeholder service systems. It adapts from known design
competencies – form and process reasoning, social and generative
research methods, and sketching and visualization practices – to de-
scribe, map, propose and reconfigure complex social systems.
The history of design practice reveals the attempts to codify and rig-
orously resolve complex structural problems and public infrastruc-
tures, from the Bauhaus movement in 1920’s Germany, to the aspira-
tional Loewy and Dreyfus period of early industrial design, to
Buckminster Fuller’s design science in the 1960’s. Whereas the ear-
lier movements tended to invest their contemporary design
knowledge to design and manufacture complicated products and en-
gineering challenges, in the 21st century the most significant chal-
lenges have turned to the sustainability of large-scale social and
technical systems characteristic of modern society.
Systemic design differs from these earlier design disciplines
(and from systems science) by its concern for longer-term contem-
porary challenges irresolvable by conventional problem-solving ap-
proaches, often called wicked problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973).
Systemic design research and practice applications commonly ad-
dress social system problems such as stakeholder governance in pub-
lic policy, urban planning and habitability, food security, equitable
economics, community sustainability, ecologically sensitive energy,
and healthcare systems. Most of these are problem contexts suscep-
tible to a wide variety of interpretations of value and risk, requiring
design methods sensitive to surveying, understanding and resolving
multiple conflicting desiderata and values.
Systemic design has emerged as a pragmatic, integrative ap-
proach toward resolving critical experienced concerns through
means of human-centred and system-oriented design. By crossing
multiple levels and boundaries of system situations in research and
application, it is situated in a pragmatic, not theoretical, orientation
to systems. With a developing literature but no generally accepted
canon, systemic design continues as an exploratory discipline, with
no strict boundaries in its search for effective adaptation of design to
systemic problems. The most general methodology can be expressed
as the adaptation of systems thinking modes and theory to design
contexts as a rationale for deeper understanding and proposing de-
sign decisions for high leverage interventions.
2. Historical Background
Systemic design approaches macrosystem, ecological, and infra-
structural domains through consideration of human-centric use and
the balancing functions of the natural, living or social systems
touched by human intervention. Systemic design has evolved in less
than a decade from an outlying perspective to deal with increasing
complexity in design problems, from a small number of graduate de-
sign schools, to a growing interdisciplinary context, encompassing
systems and complexity sciences through design applications. With a
developing body of research and applications in multistakeholder
planning, urban design, healthcare, public policy, and digital innova-
tion, systemic design now draws upon theory and domain
knowledge from systems sciences, social sciences, applied research,
organizational studies, ecology, urban and cultural studies, and cul-
Systemic design has become established in courses and curricula in
at least 15 universities as an advanced practice involving rigorous
design research, sophisticated multistakeholder collaboration, and
the integration of multiple form-giving methods, most typically
based visualization, interaction, and graphic design. As professional
practices with deep specializations, industrial design, interaction de-
sign, service design, information and visual design have developed
different adaptations of systems thinking that find similar aspects in
Systemic design has developed through the pathway of design prac-
tice, as opposed to systems science or even design science. It has
more in common with other well-defined practice fields such as ser-
vice design and interaction design, except oriented to defining, co-
creating, and developing plans, tools and integrated artifacts for so-
cial, socioecological and sociotechnical systems. It follows a dis-
tinctly different approach than social system design, which has his-
torically been engaged as models of collective stakeholder inquiry as
collaborators in designing plans and actions. As acknowledged by
Banathy (1996), Gharajedaghi (2011), and Metcalf (2010), social
systems design provides guidelines for systems thinking in complex
social applications. In practice social systems are not approached
with design methods or toolkits (such as the Systemic Design
Toolkit or IDEO’s Human-Centered Design).
In the evolution of design thinking, strategies for designing products
and services within complex social systems have been advanced. An
influential design theory integrating a systems view was Richard
Buchanan’s (1992) definition of four universal orders of design (for
“wicked problems in design thinking”). The theory defines four or-
ders or design contexts that express the products of design:
1. Artifacts and communications: design as making, or tradi-
tional design practice
2. Products and services: design for value creation (including
service design, product innovation, multichannel, and user
experience), design as integrating
3. Organizational transformation (complex, bounded by
business or strategy): change-oriented, design of work prac-
tices, strategies, and organizational structures
4. Social transformation (complex, unbounded): design for
complex societal situations, social systems, policy-making,
and community design.
Buchanan’s observation was that designers draw upon these contexts
as “placements” or ways to creatively reconfigure a design concept
in a situation, through interaction. Placements refer to positions em-
ployed for integrated design strategies across four classes of design
targets. All designers build vocabularies of design thinking and
techniques, as well as a set of skills and styles applicable in their
domains of work. Designers do not follow a fixed series of orders to
reach an outcome, but rather adopt placements as a strategy for crea-
tive invention. This central practice identifies a significant difference
between the systems approach and design-led systemic design.
Design and systems thinking formed with design science, a system-
atic approach to defining large-scale systems. The development of
design science attempted to bridge design practice and the empirical
sciences, following Fuller (1981) and Simon’s (1969) positions of
design as a process of creating sophisticated forms and concepts
consistent with scientific and engineering principles. In practice, de-
sign science evolved toward a strong orientation to design methods
and process, manifesting a systematic mindset and approach, but
without the creative discovery of science or design. The inherent ra-
tionalism of design science and the first design methods movement
were later rejected by even some of the originating designers and
In the course of applied systems thinking, many schools of
thought have articulated a mode of design as a disposition toward
systems, with major contributions developed as:
Hasan Özbekhan (1969), Normative planning
Erich Jantsch (1975), Evolutionary design
Fernando Flores (1986), Ontological design
Russell Ackoff (1993), Idealized design
Bela Banathy (1996), Social systems design
John Warfield (1990), Generic design science
Alexander Christakis (2006), Dialogic design science
John Pourdehnad (2011), Systems and design thinking integration
Many other systems theorists and scientists advocated design orien-
tations to problem resolution and intervention in complex problem
contexts, including the following (in an incomplete list):
Stafford Beer (1994), Team Syntegrity and Viable System Model
Elinor Ostrom (1985), Design principles for polycentric govern-
Humberto Maturana (2013), Systemic and meta-systemic laws
Several designers and architects emerged within the systems think-
ing discourse to orient cybernetic and systemics as design practices,
Klaus Krippendorff (2007)
Christopher Alexander (1969)
Ranulph Glanville (2007)
Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro (2007)
Harold Nelson and Erik Stolterman, (2012)
Don Norman and Pieter Jan Stappers (DesignX, 2016)
Systems thinking has progressed to a stage in its history where a rel-
atively stable set of preferred theories and perspectives have for sys-
tem description (or explanation), prediction (or control), and inter-
vention (change). Jackson (2010) catalogued the predominant
schools of systems thinking as hard systems, soft systems, system
dynamics, critical (emancipatory) and postmodern systems thinking.
Three other branches can be located in complexity science - com-
plexity theory, network science and cybernetics. These disciplines
have informed design theory, but they have found less interdiscipli-
nary integration with design in educational programs, as a pragmatic
sense of application to resolving complex problems.
The acknowledged schools do not promote a clear function of design
or a relationship to design thinking. Most of them identify methods
and conditions for intervention in a given system. We find no
acknowledgement that the notion of “intervention” is both a) an ad-
mission of system objectification and b) a position on the necessity
for a design process.
Social systems can be described as emergent or designed (organized)
structures with interconnected sub-functions that produce a humanly
intended outcome. For the purposes of systemic design, all systems
can be constructed as social systems, whether organizations, ecosys-
tems, technical systems or even individuals. Typical systemic design
problems are complex service systems, socially organized, large-
scale, multi-organizational, with coherent emergent identities and
Overall, a major aim of systemic design is to enable design practices
to engage the best knowledge from systems thinking and theories to
engage stakeholders as participants in these systems to co-design
better organizations, policies, social programs, and service systems.
The methods and principles enabling systemic design are drawn
from many schools of thought, from systems and design thinking,
theory, and practice.
Systemic design, as an applied design discipline, entails methodo-
logical and epistemological pluralism, drawing on a rich variety of
design and research modalities in the fertile ground of pragmatic,
creative approaches to complexity. Systemic design adapts multi-
level modes of inquiry and methodology to guide design practice in
defining and including the containing systems and complex stake-
holder relationships inherent in complex services and social systems.
Systemic design is concerned with higher order social systems that
encompass multiple sociotechnical subsystems. It differs from in-
dustrial, service, or experience design in terms of its ability to ad-
dress multiple scales, social complexity interventions in multiple en-
tailments (relations containing systems and) is distinguished and
integration. By integrating systems thinking and its methods, sys-
temic design adapts from known design competencies - form and
process reasoning, social and generative research methods, and
sketching and visualization practices - to describe, map, propose and
reconfigure complex services and systems.
3. Theory and Methods
Systemic design, as with other design disciplines, appropriates theo-
ry in service of effective interpretation of social and technological
interactions of people with the environment. Aside from academic
design studies, design, in its best-known mode as a practice-based
discipline, operates from a basis of experiential knowledge and crea-
tive adaptations (through craft and integrative skills). Design prac-
tices and skills are assessed in terms of the quality of an artifact or
service’s as-designed fit to a purpose or context. Latour (2008) sug-
gests the quality of design as “good or bad” reveals an ethical out-
come of whether something has been designed well. He presages the
contexts of systemic design by envisioning a future of design for
complex matters of concern, one that will face new accountabilities
for the effects of good or bad design:
“This is of great importance because if you begin to redesign cities, landscapes, natural
parks, societies, as well as genes, brains and chips, no designer will be allowed to hide
behind the old protection of matters of fact. … By expanding design so that it is relevant
everywhere, designers take up the mantle of morality as well.” (Latour, 2008, p. 112)
Systemic design has been influenced by contemporary and classical
philosophy, by humanism and living systems theory, by strong eco-
logical worldviews and by culturalism. As systemic design was orig-
inated and developed relationally from across a wide range of per-
spectives, there are no guiding historical traditions or discourses that
limit or promote a given philosophical or epistemological stance.
Therefore, the development of the literature has followed the pro-
grams, research agendas, and methodological commitments of the
active research community.
3.1 Theoretical Frameworks of Systemic Design
Formative studies such as Pourdehnad, Wexler & Wilson (2011) pre-
sented early approaches to define a consensus integration of system
thinking and design thinking. The common aim of these early stud-
ies was to address complex system problems by the intuitive and ab-
ductive approaches implicit in design thinking informed by the re-
flexive and analytical methods of systems science. From a design
science tradition, Baskerville et al. (2009) proposed an integrated
view of a generic design process with a soft systems/action perspec-
tive. However, much earlier than all these studies, Warfield (1990)
applied the generic design science approach to social systems, a
methodology we would clearly describe as systemic design today.
Most of these ideas recognize the perspective of design as a practical
problem-solving epistemology, one that may be considered third cul-
ture with science and arts/humanities (Cross, 1990).
Design research adapts theoretical frameworks for the purposes of
interpretation of interactions in complex systems (often as products
and services) and employs social science theory for understanding
human relations in sociotechnical systems and complex environ-
ments. A selection of developed theoretical frameworks guiding sys-
temic design research and practices follows.
Systemic Design Principles
In search of founding principles for systemic design, in the relation
between systems theory and design praxis, Jones (2014) proposed a
thesis of ten principles integrating the mutual contributions of design
and systems theory for sociotechnical design. The principles are
considered to be equally respected by both design and systems prac-
tices, revealing in a summary the mutuality between the fields. Sys-
temic design principles provide the basis for design proposals con-
sistent with relevant systems theory and epistemology. can help
resolve the perceived differences between the fields for collaborative
engagement and research. The following summary descriptions de-
scribe the principles in brief:
1. Idealization is an ideal state or set of conditions that compels action toward
a desirable outcome or signifies the value of a future system or practice.
2. Appreciating Complexity acknowledges the dynamic complexity of multi-
causal (wicked)problems and the cognitive factors involved in understanding
the relationships within the problem’s complexity.
3. Purpose Finding defines a process of iterative purpose seeking, recognizing
that purposes are constructed interdependently with stakeholders in language
and can be determined by agreement, and designed or redesigned.
4. Boundary Framing is the principle of determining the most effective fit be-
tween a concept and its target environment, considered as both concept fram-
ing and boundary critique,
5. Requisite Variety in design proposes that, whether in a social system or in-
formation system, the functional complexity of a given design must be cali-
brated to and provide sufficient options for interacting with the known and
potential factors of its target environment complexity.
6. Feedback Coordination describes the identification of critical feedback rela-
tionships (first-n order) in social and technological systems for coordinating
the dynamic fit to environmental and contextual functions.
7. System Ordering defines the function of design as a process of coordinated
formation of options, including information, assets, organizations, and social
systems, in meaningful ways by human custodians. Designers define human-
ly useful structures that enable visibility and salience within complex situa-
8. Generative Emergence describes the selection of emergent manifestations
for design signification. Compositional emergence manifests in design activ-
ity as an outcome of ordering, from artificial micro-systems that adapt an ar-
tifact to environments. Created emergence manifests from organizing sys-
tems, which include physical connections, designed forms, organizing
processes and the synergies that emerge from among these functions.
9. Continuous Adaptation is maintaining through adaptation a preferred sys-
tem purpose and objectives (or desiderata) throughout the lifecycle of con-
formance to environmental demands and related system changes.
10. Self-organizing in design enables actions that increase awareness, incentives
and social motivations to accelerate organizing behaviors.
Systems theory/thinking and design thinking/praxis share a common
orientation to addressing complexity in wicked problem contexts.
Across all ten principles, the primary difference in perspective is that
systems thinking (derived from theory) promotes an understanding
of complexity independently of action or solutions. Systems science
disciplines (e.g. system dynamics) typically orient through deductive
and analytical reasoning of complex problems, often purely in theo-
ry. Design thinking, while embracing an open approach to challenge
framing, orients to action and generative creation, to initiate abduc-
Systems theories are formulations of models and reasoning
methods that enable problem solving at an abstracted and systemic
scale of application. Design thinking approaches the same problem
contexts through continuous and iterative interpretations toward
progress on intended outcomes, using successive approximations
with differentiated artifacts. Systemic design as an emerging inter-
discipline continues to pursue an optimal or effective balance that
integrates perspectives to improve and accelerate resolution of com-
plex social system challenges.
3.2 Methodology and Design Method
As an emerging discipline developed through supervised studies,
experiments and observations of practice, and a primary conference,
systemic design has no established canon of methods. Due to the
wide variety of transdisciplinary influences and theoretical influ-
ences, systemic design enjoys an extraordinary variety of methods in
Figure 1 presents a model of the type and distribution of common
methods developed and cited in systems design applications. Most
of these methods are developed and recognized in systems or design
research, and until recently, rarely applied in both social systems and
design contexts. Only two are specifically defined from systemic de-
sign practice, Gigamaps and synthesis maps.
Fig. 1. Systemic Design Methods by Methodology and Application
The model, as evolved from the Braa and Vidgen (1999) allocation
of information studies methods, organizes qualitative and quantita-
tive methods according to four intents of use, along two axes. The
model considers that different stages of research or engagement may
entail different intentions for outcome, requiring different methods
that support those intents. Therefore, these methods might not be
mixed in the same stage of a systemic design program but selected
according to the intended decisions and outcomes of a stage of re-
Understanding and Anticipation
Techniques for Understanding are those methods helpful for devel-
oping in-depth knowledge and detailed explication of structures,
events, and processes in systems and practices in the current
timeframe. Anticipation includes the entire class of methods and
models useful for predicting and projecting future outcomes and
events that result from design, intervention, or decisions across
timeframes. These two dimensions can be seen as a spectrum rang-
ing from understanding systems as they function historically and in
the present time, extending to near and mid-term causal outcomes of
design decisions, to modeling and simulation of far and very long-
term future scenarios. In practice most methods are either more un-
derstanding or anticipatory, but participatory engagements such as
those in the centre can be used in all temporal contexts.
Design and Change
The Design and Change spectrum suggests differences between the
function of design and change intentions. For the purpose of the
model we make the distinction that Design intent formulates novel
programs or significant innovation to systems and services. Change
is more oriented to the reform of existing organizations, programs
and systems. Change programs typically involve a wide range or in-
tentionally selected stakeholders, while Design projects might only
involve design teams or small research groups involved in focused
design and planning.
Five types of methods are classified by methodology:
Planning and Analytical Methods
Visual and Conceptual Methods
Simulation and Gaming
Critical and Evaluative
Participatory and Co-Creative
The survey of methods associated with the model is not comprehen-
sive, partially due to both a selective focus on significant published
methods and for readability and representation. A full description of
methods would necessitate a lengthy article, so by way of indicating
references the most significant citations are given.
Planning and Analytical Methods
Transition planning (Geels, 2004)
Visual and Conceptual Methods
Gigamaps (Sevaldson, 2008)
Synthesis maps (Jones & Bowes, 2017)
Rich picture (Checkland, 2000)
Modeling (Visual models)
System mapping (Blair, Boardman & Sauser, 2007)
Soft Systems Methodology (Checkland, 2000)
Three Horizons (Curry & Hodgson, 2008)
Simulation and Gaming
Network centrality analysis (Murphy & Jones, 2019)
System Dynamics (Forrester, 1994)
Critical and Evaluative Methods
Activity Theory (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006)
Boundary Critique, Critical heuristics (Ulrich, 1983)
Developmental Evaluation (Patton, 1994)
Participatory and Co-Creative Methods
Generative workshops (Sanders & Stappers, 2013)
Dialogic Design (Christakis & Bausch, 2006)
Team Syntegration (Beer, 1994)
Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider &Srivastava, 1987)
3.3 Modes of Practice
Many non-identified design practices have implemented the con-
cepts and theories of systems science in rigorous ways, since at least
the 1960’s, as presented in the historical background (Section 2). In
the contemporary period in which systemic design emerged, repre-
sented earlier by the author as the fourth generation of design meth-
ods (Jones, 2014), the influence of systems thinking in design had
shifted from system dynamics and soft systems to complexity, emer-
gence, and second-order cybernetics.
Design practices in this early stage of nascent advocacy included
Hugh Dubberly’s On Modeling series in ACM interactions, with
Paul Pangaro, the design turn in cybernetics by Ranulph Glanville,
and the Systems-Oriented Design studies from Oslo School of Ar-
chitecture and Design (Sevaldson, 2008). John Thackara(2006),
supported by the Design of the Times conferences, shifted the focus
of design thinking from high concept demonstration projects (e.g.
human computer interaction, ambient intelligence) to human-
experienced social concerns manifested by planetary wicked prob-
lems. Harold Nelson and Erik Stolterman’s The Design Way (2012)
resulted from a long collaboration on the integration of systemic ap-
proaches to design across scales and contexts. Peter Jones published
Design for Care (2013) to introduce systemic design approaches in
healthcare design and fostered the development of the Systemic De-
sign Toolkit. All of these authors spoke at the RSD Symposia held in
Oslo during this period.
Systems-oriented design (SOD) practice, developed over the last
decade by Sevaldson (2008), redirects the various functions of de-
sign to characterize and address the concerns revealed in high com-
plexity situations. As a design-led practice that incorporates other
disciplinary knowledge as necessary, SOD orients to social complex-
ity as large-scale design contexts. SOD shifts the application of de-
sign thinking and practice from the tradition of instrumental design
of better products for consumers within market economies, to design
for delivering societal benefits that might result from a holistic ap-
proach rather than a client-invested economic directive. Many of the
cases and studies in SOD are therefore found in social services
(ranging from policing to mental health to immigration), healthcare
and public health issues, regional and municipal planning, product
lifecycle sustainability, and public infrastructures.
Sevaldson shows that design practice generates legitimate forms of
knowledge, representing a designerly way of knowing (Cross, 2001).
Scientific ways of knowing have not recognized the contribution of
design knowledge, for example compared to the way that engineer-
ing knowledge is generally accepted as a necessary knowledge sys-
tem in complex problems. Design practice should be seen as inher-
ently systemic, as it is oriented toward the highest effectiveness of
an intervention that might result in a net positive overall benefit.
Design intelligence and insights, through creative investigations and
multi-perspective engagements, can reveal significantly better sys-
tems, services and interventions in complex problem areas. A prima-
ry methodology created within the SOD framework is taught as
Gigamapping (Sevaldson, 2011), a practice for expressing collabora-
tive design investigations within highly complex domains. The visu-
alization of Gigamaps represents the extensive mapping across mul-
tiple layers and scales in a representative (as envisioned) or actual
(organizational) system, allowing multiple team members to interac-
tively investigate relations between multiply crossing categories and
facilitating boundary critique in the conception and framing of sys-
The synthesis mapping approach developed by Sevaldson’s collabo-
rators at OCAD University in Canada (Jones & Bowes, 2017)
evolved along different lines, due in part to the infeasibility of work-
ing directly with system stakeholders as the AHO Gigamapping pro-
cess typically requires. The synthesis maps are similar in format and
expressed complexity, but rather than “cocreating” within a system
of concern, synthesis maps document the results of design teams
conducting systems research through open evidence collection, ex-
pert interviews, and transdisciplinary analysis. Because of this tech-
nique’s capability to present system complexity supported by ac-
cepted evidence in the domain, stakeholders unaffiliated with the
synthesis map project discover as much value and learning as prima-
ry users of the maps. They are also useful as design, planning and
communicative artifacts within a domain (such as cancer care, urban
planning, complex policy, digital governance), even if many of the
visual models employed in the synthesis are foreign to the viewers.
The purpose of visual narrative construction can be seen to facilitate
understanding of the salient relationships being attended to within a
system of concern to stakeholders and informed audiences. These
maps facilitate a methodology for representing and conceptualizing
the inherent complexity in social system design challenges. maps are
deliberately dense, multi-leveled, and often complicated. Gigamaps
are system designing artifacts that not only explain and propose but
design effective solutions and new relations within complex soci-
otechnical systems such as in healthcare, public policy, or urban de-
Gigamaps and synthesis maps create contexts for systemic design to
be performed beyond analysis and proposal formation. They enable
mixed stakeholder design teams to envision and formatively visual-
ize large-scale, highly complex, part-whole system structures and
networks. The systems constructed by these system maps are not ob-
jectified entities existing in the world but are models of processes
and structures of organizations and actors, co-constructed by agree-
ment among stakeholders.
The systems being mapped are formed in a real sense by their map-
ping, made tangible through cycles of design conversation, estab-
lishing a consensual linguistic domain that persists into organiza-
tions beyond the interpretations of the Gigamap. With both
Gigamaps and synthesis maps, the primary beneficiary and user of
the maps is the domain team with whom the designers collaborate.
The maps are created as intentionally complex, so they present the
salient concerns within the system as understood by the team in their
“native complexity,” a complexity well-understood by domain par-
ticipants, and so they are not reduced to abstractions for the purpose
of public communication. In most cases, and primarily in synthesis
maps, a central narrative is constructed that organizes the system
models and complex diagrams and serves to communicate the mean-
ing of the analysis to a wider range of stakeholders.
Dialogic Design Practices
Dialogue and collective wisdom practices have been developed over
decades within the canonical practices of systems sciences. Some of
these, such as Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider& Srivastava, 1987)
had crossed over from organizational development practice into ad-
jacent system-level applications. Other strategic dialogue approaches
(in particular, Team Syntegrity and Dialogic Design) were developed
as systems methods from the start, requiring rigorous facilitation, li-
censed software, and training to perform well. While these delibera-
tive methods have developed and adapted over time, more recently
the more rapid-paced, design-led cocreation approaches to genera-
tive workshops (not dialogues) have been introduced into similar
Systemic design has recognized and adopted the value of
deep to facilitate systemic understanding and decisionmaking in
shared issues of concern in highly complex domains. John Warfield
(1990) and Alexander Christakis (2006) developed social system de-
sign practices supported by constant theoretical and methodological
development. Warfield’s Generic Design Science and Interactive
Management practice (1994) were foundational works documenting
the practices developed over 30 years of applications in the field.
Structured Dialogic Design (SDD) has evolved through sev-
eral iterations since 1973 (early uses of ISM) for managing large-
group deliberations. Warfield developed the earliest computer-based
interpretive structural modeling (ISM) software, using a paired-
comparison protocol to assign dialogue “votes” in a reachability ma-
trix, in order to construct an influence map from the progression of
reach relationships in a network of dialogue statements. ISM was
used in the earliest applications of the methodology for community
asset mapping by Raymond Fitz, published in Fitz and Troha
(1977).Christakis applied the ISM algorithm along with a defined
collection of software-based methods from Interactive Management
for a facilitated groupware process (Cogniscope). He developed Dia-
logic Design Science methodology (the scientific basis of axiomatic
principles directing method selection and use) from collaboration
with Warfield over the same period. The integrated facilitation and
software-based methodology was trademarked as Structured Dialog-
ic Design in 2008.
The methodology is process-oriented, focused on managing
the dialogue process, ensuring the quality of performance. The SDD
method embodies principles of dialogic design based on Warfield’s
science of generic design, a Peircean domain of science model and
empirical study of years of prior applications of Interactive Man-
agement. SDD adopts deliberative techniques that mitigate and man-
age groupthink and other group dysfunctions and collects data that
measures collective learning. The method consists of scientifically
validated techniques that enable a diverse group of participants to
generate the variety of perspectives necessary to describe and under-
stand complex situations. These techniques have been refined by
years of evaluation to minimize the time needed for effective and
Warfield’s Domain of Science Model (DoSM) provides an-
other theoretical frame for the functional development of systemic
design as a discipline and practice. The DoSM represents an ideal-
ized model of iterative development of a discourse, a general formal
model applicable to any scientific field development. The model
represents not the application of design action, as in Figure 1, but the
DoSM is a meta-process, a deliberation between necessary proposed
functions of a practice grounded in systems science. The DoSM de-
scribes four staged cycles, for the translation of knowledge (the cor-
pus) to effective design action, wherein learning from reflection in
each stage yield insights informing the successive stage.
Fig. 2. Domain of Science Model for Systemic Design Cocreation
Jones (2018) recently described a general application of the
DoSM as a foundation for coordinating the engagements for learning
(research) and decision making in multi-stakeholder social system
design. From a design management perspective, these discovery and
deliberative engagements are considered contexts of cocreation
work. Cocreation is understood as the collaborative structuring of
design activity for informing and feedback in systemic design (direct
intervention with system function) and dialogic design (system rep-
resentation by decisionmakers).
The model described four locations of action associated with the
distinctly necessary functions for design engagement with stake-
holders in systemic design. Three basic social system functions de-
fine the different needs for engaging each context, as well as their
best-fit methods and associated practices.
Cocreation structure – The design team and participants in the
context (Each context provides an expansive learning exchange
from the prior stage, and each comprises a distinct decision fo-
cus: Core internal design research group, Design and sponsor
Team, Stakeholder Arena, and Value, public or market).
Design function and process – The purposeful function of that
context, and essential process
Outcome of design cocreation – The artifacts or form of design
output from the cocreation process.
Four contexts for systemic design cocreation and decision making
are identified, consistent with the DoSM model of the design and
learning cycles in translating theory from the Corpus to method and
Application with stakeholders:
1. Lab – Academic and Experimental. A Lab context provides a
private, exploratory venue for core research teams to test theory
and methods. A Lab provides a safe-to-fail methodological testbed
for formulating and evaluating individual and small group pro-
cesses as experiments. New methods not yet used with stakehold-
ers are defined and tested, based on theorizing from “Arena” or
2. Studio – Design-Led Exploration. The studio environment engag-
es participants in direct project collaboration. Studio work is a
stage of developmental design research. Design practices have the
need to convene core client teams for concept formation and
methodology design for sponsored projects for an Arena context.
The Studio context involves process and Arena engagement de-
sign, as well as evaluation, method selection and stakeholder dis-
covery and sampling.
3. Arena – Stakeholder-focused (private context). The Arena repre-
sents the venue for engagement of committed participants in
cocreation and decision making. The Arena provides the context
for applications that co-produce enduring value (beyond the ses-
sion itself) for all participants. The Arena is the only context in the
cycle where it makes sense to identify “stakeholders” as partici-
pants, as the Agora involves citizens and methodological devel-
opment does not involve stakeholders.
Stakeholder Cocreation: Facilitated events, stakeholder design engage-
Shared model design: Stakeholder creation, ownership of actions, deci-
Models, Decisions: Stakeholders co-create working models for action &
4. Agora – Open Innovation (undefined public context). The Agora
provides an open-ended context for engagement of citizens as par-
ticipants in cocreation through inquiry and futures creation ac-
cording to their own self-determination. Cocreation in Agoras typ-
ically engages publics in topical concerns of known interest, but
the level of investment (commitment) to action or design may be
Value Cocreation: Co-facilitated public engagement, focus on shared citi-
zen issues in inquiry
Futures design: Citizen cocreation of proposals for future policy, pro-
Policies, Public goods: Citizens develop proposals for change, & future
Warfield proposed theoretical guidelines for the development of
a discipline that address contexts of action, stakeholder roles in the
design, and effective methodology. Christakis applied this model in
Dialogic Design and developed a series of principles that govern the
practices convened in Arena and Agora contexts.
The cocreation framework proposal originates from the seven
axioms instantiated in dialogic design science, which stand as first
principles in stakeholder participation, decision making and public
participation. A total of 16 components were defined by the
Christakis and Flanagan (2010) framework, extended by Jones
(2018) as follows:
1. Foundation Domain
Component 1: Axioms (7 Dialogic Design axioms)
Component 2: Definitions
2. Theory Domain
Component 3: Principles
Component 4: Context Theory
Component 5: Ontological Participation
Component 6: Theory of Action Intervention
3. Methodology Domain
Component 7: Roles and Controls
Component 8: Stakeholder Discovery
Component 9: Boundary Discovery
Component 10: Values Base
Component 11: Modes of Anticipation
Component 12: Representation Methods
4. Application Domain
Component 13: Cocreation workshop: Dialogic Design Co-
Component 14: Stakeholder search conference (Arena)
Component 15: Civic inquiry (Agora)
Component 16: Observatorium (Agora)
Each of these components is summarized and referenced in Jones
(2018), however it will serve as a helpful guidance to restate the axi-
oms and principles that service as the foundation for both dialogue
and critical design practices informed by stakeholder participation:
Component 1: Axioms
Seven definitional axioms represent a foundation for a science of
cocreation through collective cognition, as axioms that precede de-
sign principles for engagement practices. The seven are codified as
core functions in practices of collective cognition for collaborative
action. They were proposed as the minimal meaningful, necessary
functions for supporting rigorous dialogue for social systems design.
They are equally meaningful to design cocreation as to dialogic de-
sign, from which they were constructed. The seven axioms are
summarized in canonical numeration, titles, a definition, and the au-
thor whose work is attributed to the discrimination of the axiom.
1. The Complexity Axiom: Observational variety must be respected when en-
gaging observers/stakeholders in dialogue, while making sure that their cog-
nitive limitations are not violated in our effort to strive for comprehensive-
ness (John Warfield).
2. The Engagement Axiom: Designing complex social systems, such as for
healthcare, education, cities, and communities, without the authentic en-
gagement of the stakeholders is unethical and results in inferior plans that are
not implementable (Hasan Özbekhan).
3. The Investment Axiom: Stakeholders engaged in designing their own social
systems must make personal investments of trust, committed faith, or sincere
hope, in order to be effective in discovering shared understanding and col-
laborative solutions (Tom Flanagan).
4. The Logic Axiom: Appreciation of distinctions and complementarities
among inductive, abductive, deductive and retroductive logics is essential for
collective futures-creation. Retroductive logic (referred to in design as back-
casting) makes provision for leaps of imagination as part of value-and emo-
tion-laden inquiries by a variety of stakeholders (Norma Romm and Maria
5. The Epistemological Axiom: A comprehensive human science should in-
quire about human life in its totality of thinking, wanting, telling, and feel-
ing, as indigenous people and the ancient Athenians were capable of doing.
It should not be dominated by the traditional Western epistemology that re-
duced science to only intellectual dimensions (LaDonna Harris and Reyn-
6. The Boundary-Spanning Axiom: A science of dialogue empowers stake-
holders to act beyond imposed boundaries in designing social systems that
enable people from all walks of life to bond across possible cultural, reli-
gious, racialized, and disciplinary barriers and boundaries, as part of an en-
richment of their repertoires for seeing, feeling and acting (loanna Tsivacou
and Norma Romm).
7. The Reconciliation of Power Axiom: Social systems design aims to recon-
cile individual and institutional power relations that are persistent and em-
bedded in every group of stakeholders and their concerns, by honoring req-
uisite variety of distinctions and perspectives as manifested in the Arena
Component 3: Principles
The original seven dialogic design principles are based on designing
conversations for collective cognition and action based on approach-
es to requisite variety. These seven requisite principles are defined in
Christakis and Bausch (2006) as:
1. Law of Requisite Variety (Ross Ashby) Central principle of dialogic design
science and the foundation for the derived principles in the theory, based on
Ashby’s (1958) rule that variety in a system must be controlled or mediated
by equal or greater than its variety in a control system.
2. Requisite Parsimony (G.A. Miller, 1956) Based on the limitation of short-
term memory, the psychological principle of the attention to 7 +/- 2 chunks
of information in a short-term presentation. Warfield observed that individu-
als in problem solving situations with other participants experience a short-
term attention limitation of 3 +/- 0 units of information.
3. Requisite Saliency (Boulding, 1966)states that the relative saliency (distinc-
tiveness) of observations can only be understood through comparisons with-
in an organized set of observations.
4. Requisite Meaning and Wisdom states that meaning and wisdom are pro-
duced in a dialogue only when observers search for relationships of similari-
ty, priority, and influence within a set of observations. This principle is at-
tributed to C.S. Peirce’s abductive logic (Frankfurt, 1958).
5. Requisite Authenticity and Autonomy in distinction-making demands that
during the dialogue it is necessary to protect the autonomy and authenticity
of each observer in drawing distinctions (authorship attributed to Tsivacou,
6. Requisite Evolution of Observations states that learning occurs in a dialogue
as the observers search for influence relationships among members of a set
of observations(attributed to Kevin Dye, Christakis and Dye, 2008).
7. Requisite Action states that action plans to reform complex social systems
designed without the authentic and true engagement of those whose futures
will be influenced by the change, are bound to fail (Attributed to Laouris,
originally suggested by Özbekhan, 1969).
Systemic Design Toolkit
The association of systems theories and principles within design dis-
ciplines has not been demonstrated or widely developed in current
design praxis. As human-centred design has become widely accepted
through design thinking training, attempts have been made to scale it
to fit system contexts. The design paradigm of user-centred and hu-
man-centred design (HCD) has led to a myopic view of social sys-
tems, and all systems in which human practices are entailed. It is
found that HCD fails to account for several crucial elements inherent
to systemic design, as with a definite anthropocentric focus, HCD
promotes human access and individual inclusion. The emphasis on
need satisfaction and service logics has not been balanced by a cri-
tique of the consumer society that demands accessible services with-
in the public marketplace. This privileging of the human agent, es-
pecially at the individual level of participation, inherently leads to
unsustainable growth outcomes or weakly sustainable systems at
best. Human-centred design detaches the wider range of stakehold-
ers from design for production and service, by focusing on preferred
uses and users. Finally, HCD sponsoring organizations tend to be
driven by commercialized business models, as opposed to whole
system or flourishing models, that as of yet have no common stand-
ard business model for strongly sustainable models of service deliv-
Responding to the need to integrate design for whole system con-
texts and sustainability praxis a range of techniques have evolved
within the RSD discourse community. A collection of visual tem-
plates representing major systems thinking methods, designed for
use in stakeholder cocreation, were developed by Van Ael (2018) of
the Belgian design firm Namahn1. With continuing support from
members of the Systemic Design Association2, the collection of can-
vases was produced and published as the Systemic Design Toolkit.
1 Namahn is a boutique design consultancy located in Brussels. Kristel van Ael is a
partner in the firm specializing in systemic design. http://namahn.com
2 The Systemic Design Association was formed in 2018 by the co-founders of the
RSD Symposia, as a membership learned society with headquarters in Oslo, Nor-
way. The SDA was started after 6 years of operation of the Systemic Design Re-
search Network as a group of academic research partners organized to developed
systemic design practices and publications.
Fig.3. Systemic Design Toolkit Methodology.(Image courtesy of Namahn).
The Systemic Design Toolkit organizes seven stages of design for
systems problems within an integrated methodology that balances
the application of systems thinking and design approaches.
The seven stages reveal principles and methods drawn from prior
references and from the literature upon which the toolkit templates
were developed. The stages and their rational and underlying meth-
1. Framing the System
The first step in the process engages methods for framing the
system contexts to be considered in the design. Framing in
this context is taken from Dorst (2017), but is considered an
interactive learning, system-oriented process. Key methods
include context mapping, system niche definition, and actor
2. Listening to the System
Listening in the systemic context is considered a necessary
step for design research, design-oriented with stakeholder
studies and learning from human interaction with the various
perspectives on the system as defined and framed in Step 1.
Key methods include activity and actant analysis, stakehold-
er analysis, and metaphor exploration.
3. Understanding the System
Understanding involves system analysis and causality defini-
tion, as the steps switches back to system-orientation. The
purpose of this step is to develop deep insights into the be-
haviour and relationships of system functions through analy-
sis of feedback and system dynamics. Key methods include
system mapping, causal loop diagram, archetype identifica-
tion, and socioecological and system level definition.
4. Defining the Desired Future
Step 4 returns to the design cycle, where “desired future” is
understood as idealization of the emerging system, defining
value cocreation, and collaborative foresight for system
stakeholders. Key methods include scenario mapping and
value proposition definition.
5. Exploring the Possibility Space
The system-oriented step 5 defines the pathways and lever-
age points within the system as emerging through design and
analysis. Paradoxical relationships within the system model
are identified, and first strategies for interventions are
mapped. Key methods include future state mapping, synthe-
sis mapping and centrality analysis.
6. Designing the Intervention Model
The intervention model is a corresponding design step to de-
fine the options and interaction touchpoints associated with
the interventions. Key methods include synthesis mapping,
activity modeling, and stakeholder collaboration.
7. Fostering the Transition
The final step is conceived as an integrated design/system
thinking stage of defining transition pathways for coordinat-
ing the interventions or change program. Transition planning
and landscape fitness pathways are key methods in this step.
The Systemic Design Toolkit was developed as a participatory ap-
proach to system analysis, stakeholder design, and solution formula-
tion. The application of systemic design demands the participation
of stakeholders across existing social systems boundaries. Unlike
other disciplines of design, systemic design does not recognize a
single or discrete model of end users or consumers. It generally de-
fines participants in a system, and human and non-human actors that
may participate in one or multiple social systems of interest.
Systemic design promotes several key distinctions atypical in ser-
vice or information design. Its theory and practices are strongly an-
ticipatory. All systems design involves intentional changes to exist-
ing and often well-established systems and institutions. The anticipa-
tory context drives design practices entailing future outcomes.
Drawing on the ethical foundations of social systems traditions (e.g.
Özbekhan, 1969, Banathy, 1997) the systemic designer is charged to
recognize and sample from all stakeholders implicated in the envi-
sioned systems change. The question is frequently heard, “whose fu-
ture?” The worldviews, goal and values of participants in multiple
future contexts are included and represented through foresight-led
systemic methods, provided within the toolkit, that enable stake-
holders with variety of temporal reasoning capacities to equally con-
tribute to future systems design.
The methodology elicits tacit knowledge from individuals and al-
lows small groups to externalize and recombine knowledge generat-
ed in the articulated exercises. The toolkit surfaces underlying theo-
retical concepts and design decisions.
Systemic design activities aim to help the participants to collectively
make sense of the challenge and provide them with plans of action
they can carry out in the systems they are ordinarily entangled in.
The activities transform them into agents of change in their daily
field of action.
The toolkit does not define an explicit sequence of methods but ra-
ther a grammar that enables selection and integration of systemic de-
sign vocabularies (methods and tools) for specific complex projects.
Consequently, unlike other design disciplines, systemic design is not
bound to a specific outcome, be it a product or a service, or the crea-
tion of a single solution. The Systemic Design Toolkit enables
teams to identify, develop and design interventions and practices that
carry the processes for change and produce self-organization in
4. Systemic Design Discourses
Systems theory and design developed clear interdisciplinary connec-
tions during the era of the Ulm School of Design and Buckminster
Fuller’s design science, contributing to the first design methods
movement. Over the course of design education since the 1980’s, the
systems sciences and design fields evolved in decidedly different di-
rections, as each discipline became specialized in core disciplinary
methods. Practitioners in both systems science and design have at-
tempted over numerous times to connect effective knowledge and
techniques between the fields, but a coherent interdisciplinary prac-
tice did not emerge until recently. Advanced design practices have
recently developed to mediate programs of strategic scale and higher
complexity (e.g., social policy, healthcare, education, urbanization),
and have adapted systems thinking methods beyond the well-known
techniques in systems dynamics and soft systems.
Academic programs in systemic design have developed more toward
methodological and design research rather than theoretical contribu-
tions. Design schools, even at the graduate level, provide training in
skilled practices and understanding of these practices in contextual
applications. Epistemological and theoretical contributions have fol-
lowed the lead of applied research in social systems and policy prob-
The development of a systemic design discourse community of
scholarship and practice has only taken shape since 2010, as only
sporadic literature exists before the early attempts to define the
boundaries of a field or practice. Systems studies until then have
generally considered design and design thinking as a complementary
methodology, analogous to creative planning, but not as a body of
knowledge. Design schools and consulting practices have developed
well-defined systems change and practice models, but these are of-
ten proprietary, not recognized by systems disciplines, and have ir-
regular if any demonstration in scholarship, pedagogy, or published
The discourse forming in systemic design studies and scholarship
has acknowledged the earlier movements of transformation design
and sustainability design, as important frames drawing on systemics,
field integration, pragmatic epistemologies, and mixed design and
research methods. Systemic design methodologies developed from
the theory and methods base of early innovators in the practice, be-
fore a consensus on the scope, definition and a tentative framing of a
discipline was outlined in conferences and publications.
Workshop discussions in 2011 led to early proposals for journal pub-
lications developing the knowledge production of systems thinking
in design programs. The first colloquium was held in 2012, as the
Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD) Symposium at the
Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO) for the purpose of
engaging interested scholars in the project of initiating a discourse.
At this time only a small number of graduate design programs other
than AHO (among these Toronto’s OCAD University and India’s
National Institute of Design) had designed curricula explicitly based
on methods of stakeholder-based complex mapping, systems-
oriented design research, and dialogic methods for engagement.
Debates between initial organizers led to a decision to frame the dis-
course as systemic design. This reference was conceived to address
the shared constructivist orientation of design practices toward sys-
temic contexts, and to reorient practice from the misplaced con-
creteness of systems found in previous approaches as “objects of de-
sign.” As the RSD symposia grew, connections with other schools
represented in the discourse led to events at Politecnico di Torino
and Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design. Proceed-
ings have been published as open access articles from the early
meetings, and multiple special issues of design journals (She Ji and
Form Academic) and a Springer book (Translational Systems Sci-
ences) have been published to disseminate the peer-reviewed work
emerging from the symposia.
The Systemic Design Research Network was started in 2014 as a
small organization to coordinate research and practice development
and organize the annual symposia. In 2018 the SDRN was reor-
ganized as a membership society, the Systemic Design Association
(SDA), and has co-evolved with the RSD symposia as a dedicated
organization developing the field, practices and scholarship. The
SDA is a member organization of the International Federation of
Systems Research (IFSR) and is the only scholarly society associat-
ed with the complementarity of systems studies and design practices.
As specialized disciplines, systems thinking and advanced design
practices have been considered both necessary, yet insufficient sepa-
rately to transform the desired change and enhance human develop-
ment in the many complex challenges of modern institutions, in civ-
ic, ecological, advanced technology, and governmental policy
domains. Leading practitioners in both core disciplines have
demonstrated similar motivations for envisioned societal outcomes,
as projects attest in emerging ecological economic and organization-
al models, flourishing communities and enterprises, effective hu-
man-centred health practices, democratic governance, citizen-
centred cities and services. In their separate practice and methodo-
logical domains, design research (reflective practice, multidiscipli-
narity and human centricity) and systems practice (critical systems
analysis, system dynamics, multimethod interventions) have much to
contribute, yet require integrated complementarity to address the
complexity of such tasks. A fusion of disciplines and perspectives is
necessary. Systemics lends design thinking explanatory theory, inte-
grating principles, and power tools of disciplined methodology. De-
sign lends systems thinking the pragmatic applications of
stakeh9dler creative participation, integrated methods, the under-
standing of human activity and interaction with technology, the sur-
prising power of observing human experience in design research.
The current field of systemic design practice and study recognizes
the lack of broad recognition or acceptance of the field, and many
projects of real complexity remain in the prototype stages. Yet An
expanding discourse community and a flourishing literature has
demonstrated the sustainable value of this emerging field of theory,
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