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Systemic design interventions: Using systems thinking and design thinking to intervene in systems

Rygh, Karianne, de Droog, Marc and Arets, Danielle (2013) Systemic design interventions: Using systems thinking and design thinking to intervene in systems. In: Relating Systems Thinking and Design 2013 Symposium Proceedings, 9-11 Oct 2013, Oslo, Norway.


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Today’s design professionals are operating in an expansive, and increasingly complex field. Through working in challenging new contexts, we can see a growing number of designers seeking collaborations with experts in other disciplines and developing a design language, methods and tools applicable to new fields. Previously considered as a trade activity, the design profession is evolving by designers adding their value through design thinking to firms trying to innovate and to societies that are trying to make change happen. (Kimbell, 2011) However, in order to be of value, there is an increasing need for designers to adopt system thinking in their approaches to creating new solutions for complex problems.The notion that designers only design objects, is a dominant view, as Christopher Alexander stated in 1971: “The ultimate object of design is form”. However, it is this notion that is still in the process of evolving. In The Sciences of the Artificial (1969), Herbert Simon identified design as the knowledge that is in the domain of professions such as engineering, management, or medicine and saw design as a rational set of procedures responding to a well-defined problem.Systems thinking has a long tradition in science, constantly revealing new ways to approach complexity, from system analytics to scenario planning strategies. For a long time, system thinking has mainly been used in analytics, in the fields of natural science and business sciences. Therefore, combining systems thinking with the more open and creative aspects of design thinking, is a promising approach for design practice.
Richard Buchanan’s paper “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” (1992), shifted design theory towards a more generalized ‘Design Thinking’ which he believed could be applied to everything from a tangible object to an intangible system. Buchanan’s version of design thinking is less concerned with individual designers and how they design, but seeks instead to define design’s role in the world.“Professional design, in particular design as practiced within the studio-based tradition of many art schools, is taking a new place on the world stage”, states design researcher Lucy Kimbell. She specifically refers to the fact that design has been implemented in managerial discourse. But do practitioners from the different fields really speak the same language? What can designers bring to management thinking? And in turn, how can designers use tools and methodologies from business thinking?In this paper we will stress the importance of integrating designers in system thinking in order to deal with the wicked issues of our contemporary society. We will apply the framework of system thinker Meadows and the social toolkit of design thinker Lucy Kimbell to develop a new systematic approach dealing with complex issues facing our society.
Leverage points In order to show how designers can be integrated in system thinking it is necessary to pin point the areas of a system where the effects of designers’ interventions will be of strongest value. We will use the leverage points defined by Meadows (1999) to indicate the places in a system where a small change or tweak, can lead to big changes in behavior or outcomes. Meadows indicated a hierarchy of leverage points within systems, the hierarchy of each leverage point being determined by its effectiveness. Leverage points to intervene in a system, Meadows, 1999 12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards) 11. The size of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows 10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures) 9. The length of delays, relative to the rate of system change 8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to connect against 7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops 6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information) 5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints) 4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure 3. The goals of the system 2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system – it’s goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters – arises 1. The power to transcend paradigm
Different professionals, ranging from accountants and business consultants to engineers and strategists, are already working in the field of system change, focusing on one or another leverage point. Designers, however, have been rather absent. We would like to add designers to this spectrum by recognizing that out of all available professionals, designers, as creatives, have a lot to offer when it comes to tweaking the most difficult leverage points.According to Meadows, paradigms are the sources of systems and are therefore more difficult to change. However, all that is necessary for a shift in paradigms is sparking a new understanding within an individual. This is where we believe designers can fulfill an important role. Following recent developments in designing choice architecture (Thaler, Sunstein, 2008), based on incremental knowledge about our human thinking processes (Tversky, Kahneman), we already see a glimpse of this kind of design thinking in a systemic field as economics. Thaler and Sunstein describe examples on how to ‘nudge’ people’s decisions in wicked problems as choosing the right pension scheme or improving school choices.
Another example of a systemic design intervention, is the design research project of Karianne Rygh, ‘Choice Within the Making – Changing Mindsets through Prison Manufacturing’, triggering new understandings both in the inmate and within society. Society shares the idea that inmates are undeserving of anything but ‘lock-up’ and ‘paying their dues’. This idea constitutes a paradigm focusing on punishment rather than the long-term safety of our society. Most prison systems today have one common failure: a large number of re-offenders returning and overpopulating the prisons. Rygh´s systemic design approach to skilled carpentry training within Norwegian prisons, is aimed at reducing the number of re-offenders by using furniture production as a hands-on, informal tool to foster reflective thinking, using time as a tangible form of rehabilitation. As a designer, Rygh saw manufacturing within prison as an overlap between inmates and society, since prison-made furniture is sold to the public. She therefore designed a manual for producing a rocking chair where every step of the process requires the inmate to look back at what he or she did in the previous step, in order to move several steps forward. Triggering new understandings and new modes of thinking can in turn change behavioral patterns and shift paradigms, but for this to happen through the prison system, there needs to be freedom of choice within confinement. Enabling each inmate to include their own form language in a chair while at the same time training them to reflect over their choices within the making, is one approach to a systemic design intervention contributing to the safety of our society and gives added value to the end products being sold outside of prison. With our research we aim to build a framework designers can use to find and use leverage points in order to tweak social and political systems. The framework shall be based on theoretical research, in-depth interviews and case studies within our CRISP (Creative Industries Scientific Program) network, ranging from science to design and business.

Item Type: Conference/Workshop Item (Lecture)
Divisions: Faculty of Design
Date Deposited: 06 Feb 2018 14:52
Last Modified: 20 Dec 2021 18:45
URI: https://openresearch.ocadu.ca/id/eprint/2174

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