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Wednesday, August 5 • 14:30 - 15:00
Toward Ecologizing as a Systemic Design Approach for Planetary-Scale Problematiques

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The problematique of the Anthropocene – climate change effects, oceanic and terrestrial deformations, planetary ecological disruption, massive human and species migration - presents humanity with the largest-scale design problem ever faced by human societies.  Effective human responsibility toward this problem system requires coordination of political, business, civil society, and scientific leaders and constituents over extended periods of time. The only problem systems similar in scale and urgency historically addressed by massive coordination of human and mechanical/artificial resources have been wars and space missions, and to some extent urban development. We might further reckon that these activities have been mobilized in their own eras by new modes of planning and forms of anticipatory and system design. We face an even greater urgency in this contemporary problematique, yet our sciences and practices seem ill-equipped to respond with definitive proposals and methods. As Bruno Latour (2013) writes in Modes of Existence, “between modernizing and ecologizing, we have to choose.” Choosing ecologizing, then, requires a coordination effort on the scale of our previous modernization projects. Yet the values of ecologizing are largely at odds with the rational, classically scientific, hard systems modes of such projects.

This presents our community with a compelling opportunity and ready-made vision for applications of new general systems theory across human, social and natural systems. We have numerous and perhaps competing systems models for approaching these problems, but unfortunately for the type of “engaged problematique” we face, most of these methods result in elegant analyses, not the most compelling antecedents for action. When we apply traditional GST modes of thinking to today’s multicausal systemic problems, we often proceed toward an inevitable paralysis of action, as we constantly find our agency and decisions trapped within disciplinary and institutional silos.

Systemic design has been developed in these most recent years as a response to social and institutional complexity, developed independently from systems sciences as a design-led approach to inquiring and mapping complex services and social systems as if they were highly complex industrial design models. As known systems principles were discovered in these design processes, it became apparent that systems-oriented design shared much in common with systems practice, but had innovated new forms of visual representation and collaborative participation in sensemaking activities. At the same time, thinkers in the design field (Harold Nelson, Ranulph Glanville, Hugh Dubberly) informed an advanced design theory from the systems body of knowledge.

Systemic design and systems practice share many similar processes. Both share a concern and interest for boundary negotiation (framing) and for attending to deeper action contexts than “problems as given” (problematizing). Both advocate social and participatory research to understand variety and to identify opportunities for transformation (or leverage points). Both advocate methodological pluralism to ensure different stakeholders are engaged, and that solutions are envisioned through multiple conceptualizations. Both aim for a sufficient satisfaction of a solution’s fit to its environment. While these practices may not share traditions of epistemology, use and types of evidence, aesthetics and style, or theories of change, these appear as areas for fruitful co-development.

Systemic design methodology has been developed as a rigorous field of practices based on direct social, action and design research.  Design research and design science enjoy traditions of transdisciplinary perspectives, as the design fields have developed in concert with a wide range of domains and applications. Systemic design has advanced as a multi-epistemological practice informed by ethnography, participatory design and action research, and foresight research. It is also aligned with formal methodologies such as dialogic design science (Christakis and Bausch, 2006), sensemaking methodology, and service design.  A precedent article (Jones, 2014) established an axiomatic and epistemological basis for complementary principles shared between design reasoning and systems theory. Systemic design is concerned with higher-order socially-organized systems that encompass multiple subsystems in a complex policy, organizational or product-service context.  By integrating systems thinking and its methods, systemic design brings human-centered design to complex, multi-stakeholder service systems as those found in industrial networks, transportation, medicine and healthcare. It 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.

A project of ecologizing recalls Ozbekhan’s (1970) aim of orienting social systems toward “ecological balance.”  Ecologizing would entail a sustained attempt across human cultures and jurisdictions to restore human systems to agreed criteria consistent with ecological balance, a project that would necessarily require many years and significant coordination of social and technological projects. Such a project, with its social engagement and re-invention of services and their delivery, requires us to conceive of nothing less than a massive human-centred and environmental design project. Ozbekhan’s original thrust proposed that the Club of Rome engage a similar audacious reinvention of social systems to intercept the global problematique of his time.  We now live in the most precarious outcomes and effects of the problematique, of the interconnected forces and systems he envisioned in the late 1960’s. We are faced with a design project we might reference as ecologizing. It is therefore incumbent on our generations and collective values, resources and ingenuity to reframe, reimagine and redesign societal and political frameworks to facilitate our best design programs consistent with restoring or recreating an ecological balance for the flourishing and even survival of humanity and the life on our planet.


Christakis, A.N. and Bausch, K.C. (2006). How people harness their collective wisdom and power to construct the future in co-laboratories of democracy. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Jones, P.H. (2014). Systemic design principles for complex social systems. In G. Metcalf (ed.), Social Systems and Design, Volume 1 of the Translational Systems Science Series, pp 91-128. Springer Japan.

Latour, B. (2013). An inquiry into modes of existence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ozbekhan, H. (1970.) The Predicament of Mankind. New York: Club of Rome.

Keywords: Systemic design; Human-centered design; Design methodology; Dialogic design; Social systems design


Presenter / Artist
avatar for Prof. Peter Jones

Prof. Peter Jones

Associate Professor, SFI Graduate Program, sLab (Strategic Innovation Lab), OCAD University
SIG Chair:  Systemic DesignPeter is a US citizen that moved to Canada to discover new movements in socially-responsive innovation. He was a founding faculty in the SFI program and maintains connections to international research and design communities of practice, which he hopes to... Read More →

Wednesday August 5, 2015 14:30 - 15:00 CEST
Stockholm 1 Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz, Gabriele-Tergit-Promenade 19, 10963 Berlin, Germany

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