Environment and Sustainability

Proceedings of RSD6, Relating Systems Thinking and Design 6
Oslo School of Architecture and Design, Oslo, Norway  18th-20th October 2017


Keynote relevant for this section

John Ehrenfeld:
Flourishing Lives in Another World


Other section relevant to environment and sustainability




Helén Marton, Andrea Cuesta:
Unlocking Barriers to Sustainable Food Procurement in Finland: a Case Study.

Paul Emmerson and Robert Young:
Design as Civics: A citizens’ practical philosophy for making wise decisions that ‘aim’ for the ‘good life’ in our unsustainable era.

‘The Design Ecosystem’ – A systemic view towards design and society, in the Indian context.




Unlocking Barriers to Sustainable Food Procurement in Finland: a Case Study.

Helén Marton, Andrea Cuesta

systems thinking
design thinking
design for government
circular economy

The case “A Model for Regional Sustainable Circular Food” has been commissioned to the 2017 Design for Government (DfG) course at Aalto University by the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MMM) and the Ministry of Environment (YM), alongside Sitra and Motiva. 

It explores and addresses issues around creating a regional circular food system in Finland and making profitability and sustainability match in this context. This submission falls under two themes of the RSD6 conference: democratic participation and policy innovation and human-scaled and regional economies. 

The case is currently in its final ideation and proposal stages, and will be concluded on May 23rd 2017, so the final outcomes are still inconclusive. However, the value of this case already shows in methodologies used and artifacts produced, final results notwithstanding. Our team went through focused, iterative phases of Desktop Research, Empathic Design, Systems Thinking and Behavioral Insights. Throughout the case, methods of both Design and Systems Thinking were applied, and worked with in tandem to explore issues of a sustainable food system. 

The case presents an example of the Finnish government’s eagerness to embrace design and system methodologies through commissioning this brief and working together with students throughout the course. A commitment to experimentation and innovation is on the highest political agenda in Finland, namely the Governmental Program; and such efforts are evident with increasing interest in the course from various Ministries. Thus, this case is related to the theme of democratic participation and policy innovation. Additionally, the case is also related to the theme of human-scaled and regional economies, as it concerns itself with the regional sustainable food system. Our project grappled with concepts around the culture of centralization, price wars, power relations and viability of small, local farmers when competing in this environment. We also explored the role of public procurement, and how the centralized practices affect and systematically disadvantage small, local farmers in the process and have no effective way to factor environmental impacts into the public procurement decisions. 

“A Model for Regional Sustainable Circular Food” project is a 14 week long process where students are required to discover wicked challenges and propose interventions into the system using various Design and Systems Thinking methodologies as well as extensive desktop research into best practices and other relevant literature. 

Throughout the process a rich selection of methodologies were used. In the Empathic Design phase we used interviewing, “sketchnoting” approach, design games like the ATLAS game and stakeholder mapping game. For Systems Thinking, we created system models, rich pictures from the soft system methodology and created participatory systems modeling exercises. For synthesising the information, we used affinity mapping. As for the ideation phase, we used the EAST card deck from the Behavioral Insights Team (UK) besides more traditional brainstorming techniques. Then, the ideation matrix method was used to evaluate our ideas. 

During the empathic and systems stage, we especially appreciated using games, design games to be specific; as they were a fruitful and participatory way to engage stakeholders. According to design game scholars and practitioners, Tuuli Mattelmäki and Kirsikka Vaajakallio, these games introduce a structure and elicit a playful mindset that can result in a rich output as participants suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in play. The stakeholder mapping game resulted in rich discussion and a visual interpretation of actors, connections and flows in the Finnish food system. The participatory systems modeling was useful in uncovering the complex world of public procurement from the perspective of public procurers themselves. 

The case offers knowledge around design and systems thinking methodologies used to create interventions on wicked challenges, in a governmental context. It presents the challenges of combining these methods, as well as the perceived benefits. It also presents the final intervention proposed to the commissioners of the brief and the ministry response to the ideas presented.


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Design as Civics: A citizens’ practical philosophy for making wise decisions that ‘aim’ for the ‘good life’ in our unsustainable era.

Paul Emmerson and Robert Young

Design as Civics
Practical Philosophy
Sustainability as Fairness
Fairness between Citizens

Today’s and future generations suffer a lack of fairness resulting from the unsustainable systemic environmental effects of capitalism’s western consumer lifestyles. A ‘wicked problem’ that we posit, in part, design ‘supports,’ because design is an amoral practice and lacks a systemic perspective. Capitalism’s ‘free market’ metaphor wants and desires – its power – dominates design practice and pedagogical theory. 

Our response challenges capitalism’s power. Our theory integrates systems thinking and design as the basis of a social practice of citizens’. Whereby citizen’s, applying their values as agonistic political conjectures, confront ‘free market’ ideology. We contend sustainability is represented as the systemic relationship frame term ‘sustainability as fairness’ (SaF), whereby fairness equals ‘fairness between citizens’ (FBC). 

Our thesis foundation synthesises the Ancient Greek practice of civics with design. It forms the practical philosophy we term design-as-civics (DaC). DaC is a reflexive, systemic radical political praxis for citizens. It intrinsically possesses the explicit value-rational teleological moral goal of delivering the ‘good life’ for all through its ‘aim’ for ‘fairness between citizens.’ We report our findings here briefly from two projects upon which the full paper will expand.


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‘The Design Ecosystem’ – A systemic view towards design and society, in the Indian context.


systems thinking
design ecosystem
systems theory
systemic foresight
Indian context

Design, at the simplistic level, is a human endeavour to make our environments more congenial; the denominators of which are arbitrary and change from context to context. We have reached a point in time where design cannot be an activity in isolation synonymous with mere creativity or innovation. With the need for design to be able to provide a holistic solution, it necessitates a look at the entire system. 

It has been noted by a number of designers, design thinkers and system thinkers that a change in paradigm is underway in our society which not only concerns with the World of Design but the environments’ we live in. It is therefore perhaps pertinent to take a re-look at not only our understanding of ‘design’ but also how the same can be differently employed for alternate design solutions. Towards this end, the concept of Design Ecosystem is proposed. Though still in the conceptual stage and further directed to an evolving stage, the concept, provides an alternate perspective and, hopefully, an approach in consonance with the needs of the day. For the most part, in India we continue to follow the understanding of design as in the West, where it originated as an industrialisation by-product. The need of the day though, seems to be adopting a much wider definition of design that would incorporate the practices that have developed sans industrialisation too. 

The term ‘system’ implies an orderly arrangement, an interrelationship of parts. The approach views Design and the Society through the lens of systems theory that enables us to see the structure and the behaviour of the system, and makes an attempt to understand the relationship between the two. Thus, the design community is related to an ‘ecosystem’. To draw a parallel with a system of both biotic and abiotic components, the design community is made up of the players that actively affect the system and of other variables that can be said to be part of the ‘exo-system’ that affects it. The proposed term ‘Design Ecosystem’ views the encompassing environment and the society as a whole, besides the components that ‘design’ seeks to directly address , each of which is in fact affected by ‘design’ at every possible sub-system level. The overlapping, nested, and networked subsystems operating within broader systems need to be identified; their elements, their interconnections and function/purpose of each sub-system, which is the most crucial determinant of systems behaviour, requires determination further. 

The objective of interpolating the concept of ecosystem in an exhaustive understanding of design is to capacitate individuals and organisations in providing holistic long-term solutions even for situations that might possibly arise in the future; this is achieved because the solution proposed encompasses all the components of the system – the ecosystem in entirety. While this approach might already be adopted in the West, at least in parts, the need for the same appears severely wanting in the Indian context where it is perhaps even more pertinent and imperative, and, yes, equally challenging. 

This ‘eco-system’, in the Indian context, should take into account the ethnic variations, the socio-cultural factors, the geographical factors, the political and economic factors, and the roles these play in producing patterns of behaviour over time. Identifying these patterns is key to understanding the system, and thus the emergent properties of the system, the leverage points that can initiate desired change, and determining the potential for threshold behaviour and qualitative shifts in system dynamics. A framework that focuses on knowledge and understanding of system dynamics is therefore proposed for the ecosystem – an ’open’ and complex system forever in a state of ‘flux’. The research and analysis needs to unify information from both specific social values as well as wider objective forces. This requires thinking that is capable of grasping the big picture, including the interrelationships among the full range of causal factors underlying them.