Systemic Design Cases

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


Plenary relevant for this section
Joanna Boehnert:
The Visual Representation of Complex Systems



Maja van der Velden:
Design for living in the doughnut: the case of the mobile phone

Jenny Darzentas, Helen Petrie, John Darzentas:
Employing Service Design and Systems Thinking Approaches as tools to support collaboration across a multi-stakeholder initiative: the responsible food consumption exemplar

Marie Davidová and Kateřina Zímová:
COLridor at Zvonařka: Co-Design and Co-Living for Sustainable Futures



Design for living in the doughnut: the case of the mobile phone.

Maja van der Velden

lifecycle thinking
mobile phone
planetary boundaries
sustainable design
System thinking (Checkland & Poulter, 2010; Jackson, 1991; Sevaldson, 2011) offers a framework for conceptualising a product as an open system of complex interactions. At the same time, the open system is located within a complex set of planetary boundaries, which form the ecological ceiling for any system on our planet. Research led by scientists from the Stockholm Resilience Center and Australian National University resulted in the Planetary Boundaries framework, which establishes nine “specify precautionary biophysical boundaries within which humanity can thrive” (Steffen et al., 2015).
Economist Kate Raworth (2012, 2017) added an inner circle to the nine boundaries, called the social foundation (see Figure 1). This foundation, based on the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), consists of twelve social aspects. Together, the ecological ceiling and the social foundation create a “safe and just space for humanity”. Economic activity taking place in this space is, by necessity, “regenerative and distributive”. Any other type of economic activity will result in overshooting the ecological ceiling or contribute to a shortfall in the social foundation. How can we design for living the doughnut? I am exploring this safe and just space for people and planet as a design space, taking the mobile phone, one of the most unsustainable, digital consumer goods, as my case.
At the start of 2016, Norway, a country of five million people, had a mobile phone density of 97% (ages between 16 and 65). Even so, two million new mobile phones were sold in Norway in 2016 (Elektronikkbransjen, 2017). The systemic approach taken in my research project informs the understanding of the mobile phone as a product that starts its life in the cobalt mines in Eastern Congo and ends its life among e-waste scavengers and small recycling workshops in India, China or Ghana. Other lifecycles are possible too, but this scenario is quite common. In this perspective, selling two million new mobile phones in Norway in 2016 is a risk to the “safe and just space”. The particulars of this risk arevisualised in a so-called Risk Catalogue. The Catalogue presents the social and environmental risks found in the lifecycle of the mobile phone. By combining systems thinking and lifecycle thinking, it becomes possible to map the effects of design decisions not only in the use phase, as often is the case in critical inquiries in HCI, but also in the resource extraction phase, the manufacturing phase, and the end-of-life phase. Some of the risks can be related directly to design of the mobile phone, while other risks are the effect of other aspects of the product lifecycle, but here design may play an indirect role in sustaining these risks. I my contribution I will map the risks found in the mobile phone lifecycle on the doughnut of social and planetary boundaries and discuss options for intervention through design.Figure 1. The doughnut of social and planetary boundaries 
Checkland, P., & Poulter, J. (2010). Soft Systems Methodology. In M. Reynolds & S. Holwell (Eds.), Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A Practical Guide (pp. 191–242). Springer London.
Elektronikkbransjen. (2017, January 30). Bransjetall og statistikk. Retrieved 13 April 2017, from
Jackson, M. C. (1991). The origins and nature of critical systems thinking. Systems Practice, 4(2), 131–149.
Raworth, K. (2012). A safe and just space for humanity: can we live within the doughnut. Oxfam Policy and Practice: Climate Change and Resilience, 8(1), 1–26.
Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Sevaldson, B. (2011). GIGA-Mapping: Visualisation for complexity and systems thinking in design. Nordes, (4). Retrieved from
Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., … Sörlin, S. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 1259855.


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Employing Service Design and Systems Thinking Approaches as tools to support collaboration across a multi-stakeholder initiative: the responsible food consumption exemplar.

Jenny Darzentas*, Helen Petrie*, John Darzentas**

* Human Computer Interaction Research Group Department of Computer Science, University of York, UK

** Department of Product and System Design Engineering, University of the Aegean Greece



The application of Systems Thinking to support design interventions in challenging situations that are characterised as being highly complex and human-centric is the subject of this paper. Such situations are increasingly acknowledged as major design problem spaces requiring the participation of multiple stakeholders and use of inter-disciplinary thinking tools.

The situation of interest concerns an inter-disciplinary project in the area of food security that concerns many stakeholders. The project aims to develop a deeper understanding by researchers from many disciplines of issues throughout the food supply chain (“from farm to plate”) in order to inform policy and to design innovative services for farmers, retailers and consumers to improve resilience in the supply chain. This is an ambitious set of aims in a project with a very open structure that yet still needs to be accountable. This means that the project needs to set and meet its own success criteria, when it is not clear:

  • what opportunities may emerge
  • what collaborations across disciplines are feasible
  • whether the results that are currently envisaged will actually emerge

One possibility, as happens with many inter-disciplinary projects, is that the numerous subprojects within the project will be successful in their own spheres,  but these subprojects will not be able to integrate sufficiently to maintain

The authors propose to support the governance of this situation by introducing a Service Design perspective that utilises Systems Thinking.

The situation is complex because it is inherently human-centred. The idea has been presented to the researchers in the initiative in terms of the value of adopting a shared perspective to their work. Such a shared perspective can be based on two parts. One is engaging the power of the metaphor of service design. The other is providing a shared understanding of the initiative using Systems Thinking. That is to acknowledge the problem space as a system, although the research is organized into specific subprojects. A shared understanding expressed in systemic terms enables researchers to appreciate aspects such as:

  • identifying as many stakeholder groups as possible
  • the situation being amenable to design interventions
  • the rich interdependencies that are present in a systemic view, and that the approach of an assemblage of subprojects may not readily apprehend
  • the necessity of negotiating and creating a collective understanding
  • that there will be outcomes, both favourable and not so favourable, that cannot have been foreseen at the outset (and that these are the result of the system’s emergent properties)
  • what systemic notions such as ‘requisite variety’, of ‘self-organisation’, ‘social attractors’, and ‘self-reference’ may mean and what they may offer in this design space.

Adopting the systemic perspective does more than give a shared view, it also gives a shared vocabulary with which to label developments, or to actively seek outcomes. It legitimises the need to network and to spend time on areas where one is not considered an expert, to acquire new knowledge and understanding and learn new ways of approaching complex situations. As a result it is possible to begin to break down the conventions and cultures that sustain working in siloes with peers and although having mutual appreciation of each other’s work, there is most oftenlittle time or incentive to look ‘over the fence’ into another disciplinary area, or way of doing things.

The specific aspect of the project we will describe here is that of designing services to support consumers to make sustainable food choices that promote wellbeing for both people and planet. This work recognises that stakeholders are traditionally independent actors with their own individual understandings of the food sustainability issue. The task is not to adopt a common vision, but to find ways to work within a similar interpretation of the situation and to establish what needs to be done, that is comfortable and worthwhile for each stakeholder. It is commonly acknowledged that it is difficult to move towards some flexibility in previously held ideas and interpretations of a vision, and if not review them, at least lay them open to scrutiny by others. Our fieldwork so far has made use of the co-creating service design paradigm, as a robust means to engage stakeholders and work towards a shared systems-based perspective.

In this paper, we describe the work of part of an inter-disciplinary project that involves experts from many disciplines including computer science, human-computer interaction (HCI), management, politics, environmental studies, economics, psychology and epidemiology. It also includes representatives in the various stages in the food supply chain such as food producers (e.g. farmers), distributors (e.g. retailers and supermarkets), and consumers. The overarching aim of the project is to leverage the work of various stakeholder groups involved in food production and distribution as well as consumption to promote understandings of sustainability, and of resilience in food chains against the background of food security, a problem of global proportions. There are many complex issues in promoting responsible food consumption. Very often these issues are conflicting: consumers ask themselves whether they should purchase goods from remote regions of the world, in order to support farmers in less resourced countries; or should they purchase from local farmers, and also save on foodmiles?[1] Another issue is how can consumers access information about sustainability at the point of purchase and how consumer information can be trustworthy, and sensitive to particular cultures and dietary regimes. These issues require understandings of many bodies of knowledge from different disciplines, such as consumer behaviour, knowledge about food security and responsible food consumption.  Such issues are so complex that researchers are still trying to understand them themselves.

The initial aims of the researchers were threefold: a) to understand the aims of the food security project and see what technological interventions might support responsible consumer behaviour and how these should be designed so as to be valued by users (that is be easy to learn and use) (the work of the HCI and psychology researchers); b) to understand what particular facets of responsible consumer behaviour should be promoted (the work of the food security researchers); and c) to investigate how best to support this team, and other such projects, in their endeavours (the work of the Systemic Design researchers).

From our point of view, our design problem space is also that where stakeholders are working independently, while contributing to the large vision, in their own unique ways. We have a sense that although various groups involved might disband and go their separate ways once this project was over, the experience was already spawning interests that could be developed further by individuals, as well as inspiring others to join them to form new communities. This means that design interventions can look towards these outcomes too.

What is of interest to the systemic design community is the use of systems thinking to learn, understand and ‘capture a Holon’ which includes these stakeholder communities. That way, amongst other things, the motivations of the stakeholders may be uncovered. As a result, it should be possible to map these to form new directions, or to give voice to previously unexpressed aims and interests. For example, HCI researchers working with consumers have come up with a list of situations and features that they feel would encourage responsible consumer behaviour both in the supermarket and in the home.

In the home they are investigating methods to support the reduction of food waste. It is already known that much food purchased is subsequently thrown away. There are a variety of reasons for this, including  because the food is past its ‘use-by-date’ (although sometimes the food is still edible); because consumers do not know what to do with it, and are not sure how long it is safe to keep it; and because consumers do not know how to prepare it. Thus one feature that is felt to be helpful is some way for notifying consumers about what food they have that is approaching its ‘use-by-date’: that way food would not get overlooked in the fridge or cupboard and subsequently be thrown out. Another feature is to suggest menus based on food that is coming up to the ‘use-by-date’ to encourage consumers to make use of food that they already have. Work by Sainsbury’s, a supermarket in the UK with a commitment to reducing food waste, found that many people are not knowledgeable about food preparation[2]. Another group (CanCook), working to find ways to deal with food poverty, notes that many people have very basic cooking equipment, as well as difficulties in storing fresh food[3].  

It is with such a set of ideas that the design interventions will go forward to help to implement some of these features. Accordingly, technological support can be designed to be multi-purposed, serving both some of the soft, but extremely important, objectives (e.g. developing successful working partnerships between local people, supermarkets, local farmers and producers) while implementing clearer ‘hard’ goals (e.g. technological support to try to help reduce food wastage).

Going back to the theme of collaboration in multi-stakeholder initiatives, this project serves as an exemplar for other similar projects. In systemic terms, the project has, through the interests of the stakeholders, recognised, amongst other things, emerging themes and properties in their world:

  • consumers, retailers and producers who are linked in a food supply chain, but who as groups of individuals themselves have many other co-existing interests and motivations
  • researchers, coming from different disciplines, also with differing expectations about methodologies and end goals.

Collaborating together to articulate the larger vision has raised the work from being simply technological support, to understanding the many possible ways forward. The next step is to formulate ways to move the larger vision into design interventions, inspired by the paradigm of service design (i.e. services are the main output, whether these are delivered with technological support or via other means). For this, the boundaries, interrelationships and functions of each of the directions to be taken need to be articulated, in order to understand where the interdependencies lie, and how some features may affect interrelationships. For instance, a mobile app to provide on-the-spot advice may obviate food purchases that could be wasted. However, this could mean that gifts of food that are part of culture or opportunistic food purchases that are part of many consumers enjoyment when out shopping, will not be catered for.

The expectation is, that if each one of the projects is able to report back, not just on the implementations they have developed, but on the results expressed in systemic terms (boundaries examined, elements considered, interrelationships revealed, and functions (or activities) existing or desired), then there is a possibility to mutually understand concepts and potentially identify common findings, in order to create and maintain collaboration that is both initiative-wide and of strong practical use.

Acknowledgements: We thank the IKNOWFOOD research project


[1] Foodmiles: a mile over which a food item is transported during the journey from producer to consumer, as a approximate unit of measurement of the fuel used to transport it.

[2] Sainsbury’s:





COLridor at Zvonařka: Co-Design and Co-Living for Sustainable Futures.

Marie Davidová and Kateřina Zímová

systemic approach to architectural performance
systems oriented design
performance oriented architecture
non‐anthropocentric architecture
The old garden of log-house Zvonařka with adjacent Nusle Stairs is Prague’s nature like bio-tope with remarkable diversity (see Figure 1) and together with the adjacent railway, parks and gardens generates rare bio-corridor within the city centre. As it is located in one of the most expensive residential areas, the pressure on its building development is high. In 2011 a large apartment-complex design was submitted for permit, arguing for keeping the greenery character due to its green roofs (RH-Arch, 2011). Neither previous, nor recently proposed metropolitan plan lists the area for protection (Institute of Planning and Development Prague, 2016). From the personal conversation with its creators, the Institute of Planning and Development Prague has its interest in increasing city’s density, not extending its bio-corridors and bio-diversity. The plan is neither co-designed with ecologists nor with local communities or NGOs. It is created purely by urbanists, marking the areas in the plan from the table. As also confirmed by the Concept of Metropolitan Plan Justification, the plan does not consider “details“ (Kubeš et al., 2014). It also states that for the reason of being behind the range of land planning, the design is not done in respect of European Commission’s strategy of Green Infrastructure (European Commission, 2010), but instead, the term Landscape Infrastructure is used (Kubeš et al., 2014). This term is not respecting the complexity of the strategy. First author’s architectural NGO Collaborative Collective (Collaborative Collective, 2012, 2016) fixed through cooperation with second author’s ecology support and evaluation focused NGO CooLAND (CooLAND, 2016a, 2016b) first ecological pre-study (Zímová, 2016) for reasoning its relevance, building on and submitting detailed investigation for funding. 
Within spring semester 2017 a fully transdisciplinary systems oriented co-design studio course will be led by Collaborative Collective and CooLAND among the Faculty of Art and Architecture at TU of Liberec (architectural and environmental design students), the Faculty of Forestry and Wood Sciences (forestry and wood engineering students) and Faculty of Living Environment (ecology students), both at the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, the Faculty of Humanities Studies at the Charles University (students of social and cultural ecology), local community and the local environment (see Figure 2). This ‘GIGA-mapping’ (Sevaldson, 2011, 2015) and ‘full scale realisation prototyping studio’ (Davidová & Sevaldson, 2016) will focus on supporting the local bio-tope by building shelters for habitat of i.e. bats, insects or homeless people. The design process, prototyping and further local development will fully engage local specific environment together with the local community. In this sense it is not only participation but co-design . Here the co-design method involves both, biotic and abiotic agents within so called ‘Time Based Design’ investigated by Sevaldson (Sevaldson, 2004, 2005, 2017) where the project does not end by the building finalisation. This project is to motivate humans to co-live with other species and among each other across the social differences. The common events such as honey harvest from planned bee-hives should support the eco-system through ‘urban prototypical interventions’ (Davidová, 2004; Doherty, 2005). This ‘non-anthropocentric architecture’ (Hensel, 2013, 2015) was concluded by first author’s previous study on performance to be at the end also most beneficial for humans (Davidová, 2016). It is therefore alarming that though the UN agenda for 2030 sustainable development is calling for collaborative partnership of all stakeholders and fight of poverty while being determined to ensure that economic, social and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature to reach prosperity (United Nations, 2015), its goals are so anthropocentric, that ‘Cities and Communities’ are discussed in separate goal (United Nations, 2015, 2016a) from bio-diversity, discussed in ‘Life on Land’ goal (United Nations, 2015, 2016b). These goals are not in any sense cross-referenced. As opposed to this human-centred approach, this project is to demonstrate the relevance of consideration of human settlements as being part of overall eco-system. Through generating public awareness and pride for the local specificity and community, we believe the bio-corridor will be marked into Metropolitan Plan and no future building development in the precious garden will be enabled. Through this ‘Ecological Urbanism’ that involves ‘anticipation, sensing, curation, collaboration, production, interaction, mobilisation, measures, adaptation and incubation’(Mostafavi & Doherty, 2016) , our politics is going from the bottom up! 


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Co-designing a real-world laboratory for systemic design in the Italian Alps: how complexity shapes the process.
Tobias Luthe
sustainability transitions
place-based research
boundary objects
scaling effects

Real-world laboratories (RwL) are part of a dynamic family of sustainability research settings, i.e. living laboratories, urban labs, or social innovation labs. They share the idea to use experiments in real-world settings to understand and shape societal transformations towards sustainability. RwL create spaces for transdisciplinary research, developing and experimenting with potential solutions to complex sustainability challenges. They provide opportunities for informing global sustainability through place-based research and systemic design, and help define context-specific pathways towards sustainability.

On the case of the RwL MonViso Institute (MVI) in the Italian Piedmont mountains, demonstrated on a number of concrete examples and experiments, we explore the RwL approach for improving the understanding about systemic design and social-ecological transformations and how they differ from current modes of research. We pinpoint challenges and opportunities to inform the transfer to global sustainability from place-based, context-specific pathways towards sustainability, applying the RwL concept of combining transformation, experimentation, transdisciplinary (TD) collaboration, long-term orientation, transferability, learning and reflexivity. The interdependency of these characteristics is showcased by different experimental settings at the MVI, for example with University groups engaging in TD and systemic design research on-site, while critically reflecting, presenting and cognitively evaluating results and effects with local stakeholders and international audiences on a global scale.

The systemic design process of building the MVI as RwL and demonstration hub for systemic design is complex and guided by this complexity. We illustrate this on a number of examples: for instance, balancing local traditional knowledge, local building regulations and necessary innovation in building materials and techniques is both systemic design and a later-used demonstration of it. The doing and the demonstration of systemic design are interwoven and feedback into each other, which make the SD process quite complex, leading to conceptually less-systemic design decisions that actually only demonstrate the reality in doing systemic design in a real-world setting. Thus, the inherent complexity that becomes obvious only in the doing is shaping the process of developing the MVI. Further examples are funding or social inclusion, while all are connected.

Finally, we reflect on the MVI design as RwL applied to different scales of transformations. The specific challenges and benefits imposed on the MVI RwL, given its location, provide insights into labs as boundary objects and on their typologies to connect sustainability research and systemic design across scales.