Theory of Systemic Design

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


Keynote and plenary relevant to this section

Richard Buchanan:
Dialectic and Inquiry in Design

Ben Sweeting:
Cybernetics, virtue ethics  and design


Content of this section

Dino Karabeg and Fredrik Refsli:
 The Paradigm Strategy

Piotr Michura and Stan Ruecker: 
Design as production of presence – systemic approach to re-designing novelty.



The Paradigm Strategy

Dino Karabeg and Fredrik Refsli

systemic innovation
social systemic change
knowledge federation

In our last year’s RSD5 symposium contribution we introduced polyscopy as a prototype of “a different approach to information” that can radically augment our “power to transcend paradigms” – and hence our “ability to intervene into systems” in general, and into the global system in particular. We now apply polyscopy to support the core intention of RSD6 and help resolve its main challenge, namely to treat the environment, the economy and the democracy as a single indivisible whole. 

What should information be like, how exactly should we create it and use it, so that it may best help us overcome the difficulties that our present way of evolving as society has led us to, and begin to evolve in a radically better way? Polyscopy points to the pivotal role of a community-wide gestalt (high-level view of a situation or issue, which points to a way in which it may need to be handled). The motivation is to allow for the kind of difference that is suggested by the comparison of everyone carrying buckets of water from their own basements, with everyone teaming up and building a dam to regulate the flow of the river that is causing the flooding. We offer to the SDR community what we are calling The Paradigm Strategy as a way to make a similar difference in impact, with respect to the common efforts focusing on specific problems or issues. The Paradigm Strategy is to focus our efforts on instigating a sweeping and fundamental cultural and social paradigm change – instead of trying to solve problems, or discuss, understand and resolve issues. 

In what way can we facilitate the emergence of a new cultural and social paradigm? We submit an answer by extending our portfolio of “trimtabs for systemic change” that we presented several years ago at the Bay Area Future Salon. Examples include the design epistemology – an intervention into the very foundation based on which truth and meaning are created in our society; and knowledge federation as a way to use the new information technology to empower social-systemic re-evolution. 

We work under design epistemology when we no longer consider ourselves as “objective observers of reality”, but as active participants. Knowledge work becomes a system within a system – or within a hierarchy of systems; and we adapt this system, and how we act within it, as it may best serve the wholeness of those larger systems. 

We propose, accordingly, to jointly intervene into the SDR system. Instead of giving a conventional presentation of this work, we propose to co-create with you, the organizers, a plenary event, and to: 

– Share The Paradigm Strategy as a videotaped message with pointers to details (multimedia introduction) beforehand 
– Summarise our proposal in a ten-minute presentation at the beginning of the event 
– Have a public dialog (whose interaction we will design together) where the SDR community will digest and assimilate this proposal, and perhaps already begin to seek ways to implement it in practice 

Already this very small act, where we recreate our own i.e. the SDR’s system to increase its impact and achieve its projected goal, will be a step into the new paradigm; and arguably the key step toward shifting the paradigm. And we have proposals in store that can take this initiative significantly further, even within the short span of an hour. 

A note about our title: “Putting the two buzzwords together is so awkward that it’s almost cool.” We undertake to extend the conventional academic language and action toward forms of expression that lead to impact. The two authors of this proposal represent the two main sides of polyscopic information (Karabeg as a scientist and Refsli as an academic researcher in communication design and a communication designer), depicted ideographically as the circle on top of a square that together compose the polyscopic information “i”. The rigorous and analytical utterances of the academia must be coupled with state-of-the-art communication design, if they are to have impact. We submit our title to our shared consideration as a new buzzword – or a new “battle cry” – which the SDR6 may offer as a new guiding light to other communities where serious efforts to improve our civilisation’s future prospects are being made.




Design as production of presence – systemic approach to re-designing novelty.

Piotr Michura and Stan Ruecker

innovation through design
human-centered design
production of presence
Spencer-Brown’s form concept

“The reality and recurrence of symbiosis in evolution suggests that we are still in an invasive, ‘parasitic’ stage and we must slow down, share, and reunite ourselves with other beings if we are to achieve evolutionary longevity.” (Margulis and Sagan, cited in Clarke and Hansen, 2009, 7) 

In this paper, we propose that radical innovation not only changes meanings (and can be driven by meaning change), but also, more fundamentally, changes people’s experience of presence (and vice versa), which is the larger framework in which ascribing meanings takes place. Taking this position as the basis for a systemic approach to design has the potential to radically change our understanding of what it means to do “human-centred” design. 

According to Norman and Verganti (2014) radical innovation (as opposed to incremental innovation) can come from change in technology or change in meaning. The change in meaning which can lead to radical innovation can be supported by research through design, but only when the researcher-designer avoids the traps of following the currently supported meanings. If designing is making sense of things, designing radical novelty must involve changing a framework in which sense-making takes place. 

Humans “make sense of things” (Krippendorf, 1989) to the extent that the created, new structures fit. Humans construct their worlds by “re-cognising stabilities” within a recursive process of acting and sensing the results of acting (Krippendorf, 2007). The stabilities that make human worlds, are just enough, no more no less, to build a coherent, non-contradictory view of the assumed reality. 

To design, according to second order cybernetics, is to act and to participate within systems, constantly produced by their constituents, in order to create opportunities for desirable, preferred actions (Krippendorf, 2007.) A designer is always involved as a component of the system s/he wants to influence. 

We agree that radical innovation involves changes on the implicit level of the design system. By reshaping the very boundaries of the system, radical innovation enables people to realize potentialities. But we propose that defining designing as “making sense of things,” which fits perfectly into the construction of Norman and Verganti, is not the whole picture of what design is. Consequently the possible innovation made through design can also take place on other levels. 

But what if designing could be approached as a nonrepresentational phenomenon, something which is not to be interpreted (endowed with meaning) in the first place, but instead allows another form of relationship with the artificial? 

Following the ideas of Gumbrecht (1999), we propose that designing contributes to “production of presence,” which is a gesture that Gumbrecht contrasts with meaning-making. Drawing on the history of literary scholarship, Gumbrecht argues that hermeneutics and interpretation gained so much attention within humanities that researchers have tended to overlook other aspects of cultural phenomena. He points to examples of how jazz improvisation, conversation or football matches unfold. These are events that are able to catch us in the appreciation of a moment. Although they might be analysed according to categories of meaning or symbolic value – those analyses miss the actual point of what those events are about. According to Gumbrecht they are first of all nonrepresentational and non-meaning-producing acts. 

He proposes that human engagement with the artificial is not narrowed to attribution of meaning and that in addition to meaning-making, there is our “experience of presence” – an intense feeling of “here and now.” Presence in his view is “the convergence of an event-effect with an embodied form.” It is about emergence of forms, following the Luhmanian reading of Spencer-Brown’s calculus of form, where distinction and indication select what is to be observable. The form is a unity of distinction – marked and unmarked states, demarcating boundaries of a system against its environment. 

Gumbrecht speaks about “embodied form” associating the presence effect with spatial and tangible material aspects that effect our bodies and senses. Landgraf (2009) in the analysis of Gumbrecht opposes this view, placing the source of those effects in pre-representational acts of making a distinction. He points to drawbacks of connecting the notion of presence solely to embodiment in a danger of pushing a more or less tacit process into something concrete and real (and making materiality a precondition of experience and observation). 

“With the help of such conceptual substitutions [system/environment distinction, Spencer-Brown’s form concept], we can comprehend the psychic and the nervous systems as observing and relating to their environment long before comprehension mediated through language and abstraction is initiated.” (Landgraf 2009, 196.) 

Similarly Katherine Hayles (2017) points to non-conscious cognition as possibly shared among organisms as well as extended into the realm of networked machines. She states that organisms and machines are involved in “processes that interpret information in contexts that connect it to meaning”, where meaning is understood, on the very basic level, as a selection of information. She provides a non-anthropocentric view that we live in hybrid human-technical assemblages. 

Analogically to Luhmann’s idea of “a person” understood, quite surprisingly, as a complex of expectations put forward by the social system, we want to argue that designing of novelty might be based in a thorough reconceptualisation of commonly assumed system boundaries involving resignation from the central position of a human and even in questioning the very notion of it. 


Clarke, Bruce and Mark B. N. Hansen (2009). Introduction. Clarke, Bruce and Mark B. N. Hansen Emergence and Embodiment. Durham & London: Duke University Press. 

Hayles, Katherine, a lecture Contesting for the Meaning of Meaning: Cognitive Technologies, Cognitive Humans, Cognitive Others, at the University of Rhode Island, April 17, 2017. 

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich (1999) Epiphany of Form: On the Beauty of Team Sports. New Literary History, 30: 351-372. 

Krippendorf, Klaus (1989). On the Essential Contexts of Artifacts or on the Proposition that ‘Design Is Making Sense (of Things),’ Design Issues, V(2), 9-39. 

Krippendorf, Klaus (2007).The Cybernetics of Design and the Design of Cybernetics. Kybernetes 36(9-10), 1381-1392. 

Landgraf, Edgar (2009). Improvisation: Form and Event. Clarke, Bruce and Mark B. N. Hansen Emergence and Embodiment. Durham & London: Duke University Press. 

Norman, Donald A. and Roberto Verganti (2014). Incremental and Radical Innovation: Design Research Versus Technology and Meaning Change. Design Issues, 30(1), 78-96.





Cognitive Point-of-View in Recursive Design
Evan Barba
multiscale design
recursive design scale
systemic design
Systems thinking employs the concept of scale to denote the level at which a system is observed, and commonly organizes these levels into multiscale hierarchies of systems and subsystems (Pattee 1973; Wilensky and Resnick 1999; Salthe 2002, for examples). However, less formal uses of scale seem to be central to the way human beings organize the external world and represent it, both consciously and unconsciously, in the mind (Santayana 1998; Sale 2007; Hegarty et al. 2006). Many implicit and explicit uses of scale can be found in scientific and academic discourse as well as everyday language. Each of these uses has distinct nuances, but they all share in a broad definition of scale as a nested hierarchy of levels, and this suggests a common underlying conception or process that helps to organize human thinking. 
Despite being fundamental to how we conceive of the world, there is little systematic study of the way designers employ scale in their practice, and few general principles or models of design that explicitly use scale as an organizing concept. Nevertheless, its foundation in systems thinking and its vital role in human cognition suggest that scale-thinking is likely to be an important feature of the design process. In this presentation I will further explore the role of scale in design by reanalyzing a well-known case study, the design of Herman Miller’s Mirra Chair, to demonstrate the multiscale, or recursive, nature of the design process. In particular, I will focus on the notion of cognitive point-of-view as a way to understand how designers continually reframe problems and resituate themselves at different scales. Background 
In 2001, the internationally acclaimed Herman Miller furniture company, famous for its classic Eames Lounge Chair and high-end Aeron office chair, began designing a new mid-level office chair—the Mirra Chair. The company partnered with McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, headed by architect William McDonough, to implement their trademarked environmentally sustainable Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) design strategy for the Mirra Chair (McDonough and Braungart 2002c; McDonough and Braungart 2002a). The Mirra Chair was the first product designed using a C2C protocol, and accounts of the process have appeared as published case studies (Lee and Bony 2009; McDonough and Braungart 2002b). Among other things, those case studies detail the ways that the constraints imposed by the C2C protocol forced the Herman Miller design team to reimagine its design and manufacturing processes. Some of the more notable observations include the attention paid to the fabrication and chemical composition of materials used in the various components of the Mirra Chair (armrest, base, back support, etc.) and the need to address the design of the production line and packaging (both of which where previously outside the boundaries of the design process) to meet C2C requirements. 
When reanalyzed through a systems lens, the Mirra Chair case study provides a detailed account of how the C2C protocol required the design team to design at multiple scales. The accounts portray a design team that continuously shifted its focus from designing the form of the Mirra Chair itself to designing the various subsystems that produce its material components. This was a departure from the process the team had used for previous products, which treated the acquisition and fabrication of materials solely as constraints rather than as opportunities for the design of more effective subsystems. By continually shifting their perspective, the team was able to accomplish their environmental and product goals while also facilitating the C2C design of future products. Recursive Design 
A similar notion of taking multiple perspectives on a given system was described abstractly by Joseph Goguen and Francisco Varela (Goguen and Varela 1979). They used the term cognitive point-of-view (CPOV) to describe the way observers focus their attention when analyzing a system, and offered seven possible configurations of observer, system, subsystem(s), and environment (Figure 1). Their intention was to draw a distinction between two complementary approaches, behavioral and recursive. In the behavioral approach, the observer works only with the observable behaviors and collective variables of a subsystem. In the recursive approach, the observer analyzes the subsystems at the component level, reconfiguring them to create more desirable outputs. The complementary relationship between behavioral and recursive approaches is a model of how CPOV changes when working at multiple scales. 
Goguen and Varela’s work readily describes the Mirra Chair design process. The Mirra Chair accounts detail a change from the “old way” of designing a product to a new process using the C2C protocol. This change can also be described in Goguen and Varela’s terms as a move away from the behavioral approach to a recursive one. In the old method, designers dealt only with the outputs of a subsystem. For example, they would discuss the properties of PVC in terms of collective behaviors like strength, durability, malleability, melting point, etc., but did not attempt to re-design PVC itself when these properties were insufficient. Yet, the C2C protocol required them to do just this. It forced the design team to look recursively into all the subsystems they relied on, treating them as unique design problems in their own right that needed to be addressed in order to proceed with the higher-scale design of the Mirra Chair. 
The recursive model maps nicely onto the discussion of the Mirra Chair in many respects. Yet, some work needs to be done to update it if we wish reveal a more general theory of the role of CPOV in design. Using the Mirra Chair case study as a point of reference, my presentation will provide a more thorough discussion of the ways in which the concepts of cognitive point-of-view and recursive design can help explain the Mirra Chair design process. In the course of that discussion, I will identify the limits of the original model, and show how it can be extended to yield a more dynamic notion of cognitive point-of-view and a general theory of recursive or multiscale design. Finally, I will discuss the implications of this theory in regard to a variety of topics relevant to both design and systems. These include ways we might train design students to more consciously and reflectively employ recursive design when addressing problems in interdisciplinary contexts, how organizations and teams might employ a recursive approach to projects and project management, and how we might proceed with a more formal research agenda in recursive design.