Plenary speeches

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



Praveen Nahar:
In memory of Ranjan: The NID approach to Systemic Design

Onny Eikhaug and Tom Vavik:
Democracy for All – Inclusive design in practice

Kees Dorst:
Design beyond design

Ben Sweeting:
Cybernetics, virtue ethics  and design

Joanna Boehnert:
The Visual Representation of Complex Systems



In memory of Ranjan: The NID approach to Systemic Design

Praveen Nahar

“Design is human intentions and actions that create new value” – M.P. Ranjan

With its large population and enormous socio-cultural-economic-environmental diversity, India is like a microcosm for the world. Most of the challenges that the world faces, are all present in India. Design education has been addressing tactical and creative level however it became imperative for designers in India to explore vision led design approaches which address diversity and complexity. They had to understand design from a broader and deeper perspective, which is at systems level.

At National Institute of Design we have been exploring various concepts and concerns of System Design from macro to micro perspective on design in local and global context and prepare students to deal with fair amount of ambiguity and complexity. This is delivered through various courses and projects. Over the last decade it has evolved and now major projects deals with complex issues and wicked problems from socio-cultural-economic-environmental perspective with high level of ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity through various intermediate tools and frameworks. The educational framework for systems design is reflective, evolving, transdisciplinary, and occurs at various levels. This has been every enriching for the students as well as for faculty and the institute as a whole to open up to vastness of design and what design can do in almost any field.




Democracy for All – Inclusive design in practice: 

Onny Eikhaug and Tom Vavik

A people-centred strategy for innovation and participation – benefiting society, business and the individual.

Onny Eikhaug

Inclusive design, also known as universal design, is defined as the design of products and environments in such a way that they can be used by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design.

Inclusive design is a philosophy, a strategy and a practice. In Norway, it has developed based on our ideas of equality and inclusion. The Norwegian model of social governance, also labelled the Nordic Model, goes beyond the provision of basic needs to protect human rights, focusing on social and democratic ambitions.

For nearly two decades, inclusive design has been a government focus, aiming for a society where every citizen can participate on equal terms. This might be a utopia but it is setting a direction and by cross-section collaboration committing 16 ministries to achieve milestones as set in the first Government Action Plan for Universal Design already in 2005. A lot has been achieved since, based on new legislation and a top down – bottom up approach, involving local government and municipalities as well. It started with establishing legislation, with several acts and regulations that has been amended in key areas such as transport, built environment, buildings, employment and ICT.

Now the third action plan is running until 2019 focusing on digitalisation, technology and a follow up on long-term projects and milestones towards 2025. This is part of the government strategy for sustainability; benefitting society, business and the individual.

To ensure citizen participation and equal opportunities across all areas of society, inclusive design is the strategy to achieve this, putting people at the centre of the process when developing products, services and environments. Human diversity is key, and goes far beyond age, gender and disability, to include sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural and social background to mention a few. Using various tools and methods for involving users and stake holders within the design and development process is becoming a more successful and proven way of engaging with people.

Inclusive Design brings the perspective of real people to a problem and inspires a multitude of viewpoints and unexpected insights. The resulting solutions can therefore be more creative, innovative and user-friendly, bringing new thinking to familiar challenges within business and public sector, and in that way, contribute to a better and more inclusive society. These tools and methods are applicable also when developing more inclusive, people friendly cities; but urban planning take-up of the approach is still at an early stage.

The Innovation for All programme at DOGA is one of the many measures in the Government Action Plan and has since 2005 been focusing on promoting inclusive design as an effective strategy for innovation. Main activities are knowledge transfer and competence building besides conducting pilot projects with enterprises in public and private sector.

This presentation will look at the historic background, how government, trade and industry together with design and architecture are the drivers for a more inclusive and democratic society. A few Norwegian cases will be included.


Innovating with people – The Business of Inclusive Design, Onny Eikhaug




Teaching for democracy in a holistic perspective

Tom Vavik

This presentation describes and reflects on how teaching the concept of Universal Design (UD) to design students has developed the last decade at the Institute of Design at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO). Four main changes are described. Firstly, the curriculum has evolved from teaching UD guidelines and principles to focusing on an inclusive design process. Secondly, an increased emphasis is put on cognitive accessibility and multisensorial interactions. Thirdly, the teaching of UD has moved from second to the first-year curriculum. Fourthly, an increased focus is put on non-stigmatizing aesthetics expressions.  The presentation will focus on the basic values and principles for these changes and argue why they are necessary and important. Some future challenges will be presented at the end, asking the following questions:
Cultural sustainability –  how to ensure cultural heritage, belonging and identity? What about the marginalized and excluded groups of today? 

Inclusive Buildings, Products and Services, Tom Vavik





Design Beyond Design.

Kees Dorst

There is a fundamental shift in the types of problems that practitioners across all professions have to deal with. When we networked ourselves (through the internet, globalisation, etc) we have inadvertently networked our problems, too – we have made them more complex than ever before. 

A complex system consists of many elements, with many relationships and interdependencies. These problems have, in their complex interconnected nature, become more like ‘infrastructure problems’ – but traditionally we have left those very complex systems problems to the Engineers, that tend to optimize the system by technical parameters. That is why we have cities that are optimized for traffic flows, rather than people. 

This should surprise us more than it does: it stands to reason that Design should be involved in these big sociotechnical problems, for its crucial ability to combine a Human-Centered/Social perspective with the creation of Technical solutions. Yet Design is not involved at all. 


Could there be something in the very nature of design practices that limits Design’s ability to deal with these very complex systems? Does ‘design reasoning’ not serve us anymore above a certain level of complexity? Or does ‘design reasoning’ then turn into Engineering, or into a wholly different type of practice that we do not recognize anymore as truly ‘designerly’? 

In this paper we will interrogate this question deeply, going into logic and the reasoning patterns behind Design, as well as into new and emerging approaches that are currently being developed (in Design practice as well is in Academia) to address the issue of complexity.


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Cybernetics, virtue ethics  and design.

Ben Sweeting

In this paper I explore the shared ground between considerations of purpose in virtue ethics and cybernetics, drawing on the example of design to bridge between the two. In so doing I connect the conference theme of human flourishing, which is at the heart of virtue ethics, with discourse in cybernetics and design.

The collaboration between Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener and Julian Bigelow (1943) was a key part of the origins of cybernetics, dramatically reintroducing the notion of purpose into scientific discourse. Purpose had been replaced by a more mechanistic account of causality because of difficulties associated with the Aristotelian concept of final causes. Early cybernetics bypasses concerns with final causes occurring after the events they cause through its circular understanding of causality (Stewart, 1959/2000). Later, in the discussion following his (1990/2003) influential “Ethics and second-order cybernetics”, Heinz von Foerster summarises cybernetics in similar terms:

“…we are all cyberneticians (whether or not we call ourselves such) whenever we justify our actions without using the words “because of…,”or “à cause de…,” but with the phrase in English “in order to…,” which in French is much more Aristotelian, “à fin de…” ” (p. 298).

Considering Rosenblueth et al.’s paper from a design perspective brings out additional complexity. The examples that Rosenblueth et al. cite as non-purposeful (a clock, a roulette wheel, a gun), while not exhibiting “intrinsic purposeful behaviour” (p. 19) in the same way as a servo-mechanism, can be said to be a purpose in themselves (the goal of their designing and making) and can also be used purposefully. These and other considerations were also raised in
exchanges with the philosopher Richard Taylor (Rosenblueth & Wiener, 1950; Taylor, 1950a, 1950b), whose critique anticipates the development of cybernetics in terms of what Andrew Pickering has described as a “forward looking search” (Pickering, 2010).

Taylor was later an advocate of virtue ethics. Much like cybernetics had reintroduced the notion of purpose into scientific discourse, challenging the mechanistic accounts of causality that had been favoured since the enlightenment, so too the modern revival of virtue ethics, instigated by G.E.M. Anscombe (1958) and developed by Alasdair Macintyre (1981/1985, 1988) and others, sought to challenge the similarly mechanistic ethical theories of consequentialism and deontology with reference to the Aristotelian tradition.

Cybernetics and virtue ethics have had little if any explicit exchange. There are a number of areas in which they may contribute to or provide useful critiques of each other:

• Differentiating the pursuit of external goals from internal ones distinguishes between virtue ethics and consequentialism, and between cybernetic notions of purposefulness and the instrumental “command and control” agenda with which it has sometimes become confused.
• MacIntyre’s discussion of social practices with internal goals, which is a central but underdeveloped part of his (1981/1985) account, can be clarified through cybernetic ideas (Sweeting, 2015a). In turn, MacIntyre’s emphasis on internal goals complements second-order cybernetics’ concerns with the inclusion of observers.
• Both virtue ethics and cybernetics are concerned with unspecified and changing goals—with what Pickering (2010) called a “forward looking search” and MacIntyre (1981/1985) characterised as a “quest”. MacIntyre’s (1981/1985) definition of the good life—“the good life for man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for man”—may find support in cybernetic understanding of circularity, self-reference and reflexivity.
• While the most significant contributions to ethical discourse from cybernetics (e.g. Glanville, 2004/2009; von Foerster, 1990/2003) do not refer to virtue ethics, they can be understood as similarly oriented towards the ethical qualities (virtues) of participants (e.g. responsibility, listening) rather than the rightness or wrongness of particular actions.

I explore each of these points of exchange by understanding them in the context of design, drawing on Glanville’s (2007) understanding of the close parallels between design and cybernetics and Nicholas Negroponte’s (1970, p. 119) identification of the good life (human flourishing), and so design, as in conflict with processes such as optimisation. As well as helping develop an account of ethics that is compatible with designerly thinking (Jonas, 2006)—as opposed to the difficulty of applying deontological and consequentialist approaches in design (Sweeting, 2015b)—I propose that design activity may be drawn on for examples of how such ethical qualities can be pursued in complex and ethically charged circumstances more generally.

Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958). Modern moral philosophy. Philosophy, 33(124), 1-19. doi: 10.1017/S0031819100037943
Glanville, R. (2007). Try again. Fail again. Fail better: The cybernetics in design and the design in cybernetics. Kybernetes, 36(9/10), 1173-1206. doi: 10.1108/03684920710827238
Glanville, R. (2009). A (cybernetic) musing: Desirable ethics. In The black boox, volume III: 39 steps (pp. 293-303). Vienna: Edition Echoraum. (Reprinted from: Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 11(2), 77-88, 2004).
Jonas, W. (2006). A Special Moral Code for Design? Design Philosophy Papers, 4(2), 117-132. doi: 10.2752/144871306X13966268131596
MacIntyre, A. (1985). After virtue: A study in moral theory (2nd corrected ed.). London: Duckworth. (Original work published: 1981).
MacIntyre, A. (1988). Whose justice? Which rationality? London: Duckworth.
Negroponte, N. (1970). The architecture machine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Pickering, A. (2010). The cybernetic brain: Sketches of another future. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Rosenblueth, A., & Wiener, N. (1950). Purposeful and non-purposeful behavior. Philosophy of Science, 17(4), 318-326.
Rosenblueth, A., Wiener, N., & Bigelow, J. (1943). Behavior, purpose and teleology. Philosophy of Science, 10(1), 18-24.
Stewart, D. J. (2000). An essay on the origins of cybernetics. [Originally part of PhD thesis, University of Bristol, Bristol, 1959]. Retrieved from
Sweeting, B. (2015a). Cybernetics of practice. Kybernetes, 44(8/9), 1397-1405. doi: 10.1108/K-11-2014-0239
Sweeting, B. (2015b). The implicit ethics of designing. In A. Ryan & P. Jones (Eds.), Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD4) 2015 Symposium. 1-3 September.
Taylor, R. (1950a). Comments on a mechanistic conception of purposefulness. Philosophy of Science, 17(4), 310-317.
Taylor, R. (1950b). Purposeful and non-purposeful behavior: A rejoinder. Philosophy of Science, 17(4), 327-332.
von Foerster, H. (2003). Ethics and second-order cybernetics. In Understanding understanding: Essays on cybernetics and cognition (pp. 287-304). New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.


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The Visual Representation of Complex Systems: A Typology of Visual Codes for Systemic Relations.

Joanna Boehnert

Sustainability practitioners have long relied on the use of images to display relationships in complex adaptive systems on various scales and across different domains. Visual representations play an important role in facilitating communication, learning and collaboration on social, environmental and economic issues that are characterised as complex systems. This research addresses the need for more effective visual representations of the key features of complexity. With the creation of ‘A Typology of Visual Codes for Systemic Relations’ the project will address the need for images that are widely understood across different fields and sectors in order to facilitate conversations and decisions making between researchers, policy makers, practitioners and evaluators (with varying degrees of familiarity with complexity science). By attempting to identify the best visual practices and standardise visual codes used to represent some of the key features of complex systems (such as tipping points; thresholds; 
domains of relative stability; levers; hubs; t
ime-dependent evolution; feedback loops; emergence and self-organisation; 
adaptation, unpredictability / unknowns; structural attractor; path and path dependency; distributed control; domains of stability; systems of systems) this project will contribute to the evolving the visual language used to communicate complexity. Ultimately this short research project aims to support learning as a basis for informed decision-making at the Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus (CECAN) and other communities engaged with the analysis of complex problems.