RSD7 Plenary Speakers

Proceedings of RSD7, Relating Systems Thinking and Design 7
Politecnico di Torino, Turin, Italy  23th-26th October 2018

State of the Art Practice: Are we Ready for Systemic Design Toolkits?

Authors and Panelists: Peter Jones (OCAD), Stefanos Monastiridis (Namahn), Alex Ryan (MaRS), Vanessa Toye (MaRS), Kristel Van Ael (Namahn), Philippe Vandenbroeck (shiftN)

Social Innovation
Youth Empowerment
Education systems

At the RSD5 symposium in Toronto (2016), Namahn and shiftN presented the first version of their Systemic Design toolkit and assessed its fit to practice in the conference workshop. Since then, the original authors have collaborated with Peter Jones (OCADU) and Alex Ryan (MaRS Discovery District) for continued development of the toolkit towards a mature version, ready for general use.

A panel session was presented at the RSD7 Symposium in Torino to present the release version of the toolkit.

Why a Systemic Design Toolkit?

After 7 years of RSD symposia, we believed some concern could arise that the field might be too dominated by academic studio-led methods and projects. We had not seen a movement toward pragmatic practice development, applying the learning from RSD to preferred methods and guidelines. With this collaborative methods toolkit, we wish to offer the Systemic Design community a set of thinking-and-doing instruments.

Changing a system requires the involvement of the actors within the system. We need their knowledge, capabilities and motivation to initiate and foster systemic change. This toolkit establishes a common understanding and language, enabling dialogue among the actors and other stakeholders, including a diverse designer team. It offers methods and hands-on tools for co-analysis of complex challenges, co-design of advanced concepts, and co-creation of systemic solutions.

The methods and tools build upon the research of prominent systems thinkers and design thinkers such as Russell Ackoff, Donella Meadows and Christopher Alexander. The methods in the toolkit are explained by their prominent theories.

The tools have been continuously improved during project work for clients and academic teaching by the authors. Many cases are available from the authors’ work in healthcare, government, and industry to demonstrate the fit of methods to these applications.

Guidelines and Underlying Principles

The toolkit was developed with the following principles in mind:

• Participatory: “No single profession, group or organization can successfully address today’s societal challenges alone” (Sharon Matthias and Jess McMullin, RSD6). The application of Systemic Design demands the participation of stakeholders across existing social systems boundaries. Unlike other disciplines of design, Systemic Design has no model of the end user or consumer. It only has participants, who may live in different social systems that must be understood.

• Anticipatory: All systems change leads us to a design for futures, but we must always ask “whose future?” The worldviews, goal and values of participants in multiple future contexts must be included and represented through foresight-led systemic design methods that enable stakeholders with variety of temporal reasoning capacities to equally contribute to future systems design.

• Externalising Knowledge: A common understanding can only truly be achieved if the underlying thinking process is shared by all. The toolkit makes the underlying theoretical concepts and design decisions explicit. The (Nonaka and Takeuchi) SECI knowledge model (Socialization, Externalization, Combination, Internalization) explains the diffusion of knowledge and uptake of new practices.

• Presence Producing: Systemic Design is practiced through engaging activities that produce an intense feeling of “here and now” (Piotr Michura and Stan Ruecker, RSD6). During these activities, the participants challenge and shift the system boundaries towards new forms.

• Empowering: The Systemic Design activities aim to help the participants to collectively make sense of the challenge and provide them with plans of action they can carry out in the systems they are ordinarily entangled in. The activities transform them into agents of change in their daily field of action.

• Multi-level and Multi-perspective: The design process supported by the toolkit is distinguished by continuous modulation between levels of abstraction by alternately ‘zooming out’ of the system and ‘zooming in’ on the stakeholders.

• Formative Contexts: The toolkit doesn’t aim to offer a well-defined sequence of methods but rather a grammar that allows the designers to bring the Systemic Design vocabulary (the methods and tools) together in a way that makes sense for a given project. The order of activities depends on the context of application and social dynamics of the moment, a process of designing for formative contexts (Ciborra, 2002).

• Open-ended: Consequently, unlike other disciplines of design, Systemic Design is not bound to a specific outcome, be it a product or a service, or the creation of a single solution. Systemic Design aims at identifying, developing and stimulating interventions to change and self-adapt the system on the way.

Panel Proposal

A panel discussion was proposed to accomplish 3 aims: To announce the toolkit as a new resource included in the SDA membership launch, to share the toolkit in an open dialogue about its use and value, and to encourage dialogue about the state of the art of practice.

The panel follow consisted of brief presentations from the authors, who self-moderated an interactive discussion with the audience to engage people in the following questions:

• What makes the toolkit state of the art? What are the relevant criteria in practice to qualify a systemic design toolkit?

• What other toolkits or “methods collections” exist today in the intersection of design and systems thinking? Are these actually state of the art or improved legacies?

• What are the key practice areas in which the toolkit will be of value? Where will we see it deployed earliest?

• How do we intend to enhance and update the toolkit? What feedback from the practice are we looking for?

• Do we even need a toolkit? What are the alternatives to a structured methods collection?

Future Development

As a system of practice, the Systemic Design Toolkit is in its initial stages of development and use and is expected to continue in a dynamic state of constant evolution, incorporating ideas, theories and approaches from other contributors. To that end, the core team represented by the authors agreed to engage in a long-term collaboration aimed at sustainable bringing this body of knowledge to a higher level.


Ciborra, C. (2002). The Labyrinths of Information: Challenging the Wisdom of Systems. Oxford University Press.

Jones, P. (2014). Systemic design principles for complex social systems. In G. Metcalf (ed.), Social Systems and Design, Volume 1 of the Translational Systems Science Series, pp 91-128. Springer Japan.

Matthias, S, & McMullin, J. (2017). Systemic Maturity Models and Multi-organization collaborations: the ACMHI Mentally Healthy Campus Maturity Model. Proceedings of RSD6 Symposium, Oslo, Norway.

Michura, P, & Ruecker, S. (2017). Design as production of presence – systemic approach to re- designing novelty. Proceedings of RSD6 Symposium, Oslo, Norway.

Nonaka, L., Takeuchi, H., & Umemoto, K. (1996). A theory of organizational knowledge creation.
International Journal of Technology Management, 11(7-8), 833-845.

Van Ael, K, & Vandenbroeck, P. (2016). Towards a Systemic Design Toolkit. Workshop and Proceedings of RSD5 Symposium, Toronto.

Vandenbroeck, P. (2014). Working with Wicked Problems. King Baudouin Foundation, Brussels.

Systemic Design Association

Author and Panelist: Sevaldson Birger (Oslo School of Architecture and Design)

Systemic Design

The Systemic Design Association (SDA) was founded on 23 October 2018 as a not-for-profit association, registered in Norway.

The SDA charter and organization were formulated in the founding meeting at Politecnico Torino 2018, to formalize the creation of a membership society associated with the RSD community. SDA is led by former RSD chairs and scientific committee members, and is established to facilitate the emerging systemic design practice and research community represented in the RSD symposium. The inaugural board members of the Systemic Design Association include:

• Chair: Silvia Barbero (Politecnico Torino)
• Vice-chair: Birger Sevaldson (AHO)
• Secretary: Jenny Darzentas (Aegean)
• Treasurer: Benedicte Wildhagen (DOGA)
• Board member: Peter Jones (OCAD University)

Formerly known as the Systemic Design Research Network, SDRN was a cooperative educational group founded in 2012 with the following aims:

• To advance the practice of systemic design as an integrated discipline of systems thinking and systems-oriented design
• To convene an annual international symposium, Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD)
• To advance the knowledge, theory, and publications in the domains of systemic/systems-oriented design and industrial and social systems design methods in systems practices.


The SDRN was founded at AHO, Oslo School of Architectural and Design, in partnership with OCAD University, Toronto and was organized by a standing committee of six co-organizers Silvia Barbero, Jodi Forlizzi, Peter Jones, Harold Nelson, Alex Ryan and Birger Sevaldson. In 2016, Politecnico di Torino (with a Systemic Design graduate program founded by Aurelio Peccei) joined the SDRN and hosted RSD7 in 2018.

SDRN is a cooperative association based on both academic and industry relationships, and invites faculty and students worldwide to participate in events and share research. We are a member group of IFSR and host a moderated, open online community. RSD participants are invited to join the online forum, and are welcome to participate with us in future activities: workshops, publishing, symposium events.

As organizers of the Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD) symposium, discourses and publications have been developed for the following areas of research:

• Strategic Design and Social Systems
• Systems Oriented Service Design
• Advanced Design Methods and Systems Thinking
• Systems Theory in Design
• Teaching Systemic Design and Systemic Literacy

Systems theory and design developed clear interdisciplinary connections during the era of the Ulm School of Design and Buckminster Fuller’s design science, resulting in the design methods movement (informed by Rittel, Alexander, JC Jones and Archer). However, in the recent decades this co-evolution has not persisted, as each field has specialized in preferred core disciplinary methods. Practitioners in both systems science and design have attempted to entail the more effective models and techniques from the other field, but usually in piecemeal fashion, and only if a problem was so suited or if supported by clients. Systems thinking has generally considered design thinking a soft complement, or analogous to creative planning. Design schools and consulting practices have developed well-packaged presentations of “systems change” approaches, but these are poorly supported by systems theory, interdisciplinary courses or rigorous systemic methods.

Now we call on advanced design practice to lead programs of strategic scale and higher complexity (e.g., social policy, healthcare, education, urbanization) we have adapted systems thinking methods, creatively pushing the boundaries beyond the popular modes of systems dynamics and soft systems.

Systemic design is distinguished from service or experience design in terms of scale, social complexity and integration – it is concerned with higher order systems that that entail multiple subsystems (that mgiht be defined services). By integrating systems thinking and its methods, systemic design brings human-centred design to complex, multi-stakeholder service systems. It adapts from known design competencies – form and process reasoning, social and generative research methods, and sketching and visualization practices – to describe, map, propose and reconfigure complex social systems.

The proceedings of the RSD Symposia have developed since RSD2 as a kind of foundation for the emergence of research (techne and empirical studies) and inquiry (praxis and phronesis) defining the discipline. As scholarship has further evolved through these discourse communities, we have curated and edited a series of journal publications in FORM Akademisk and She Ji (primarily) as well as an edited volume in the Springer Systems Science series. New courses are showing at universities in Europe and the Americas, beyond those represented in the RSD discourse, as the interdiscipline grows in depth and applicability.

Practitioner insights on systemic change from the New Plastics Economy initiative

Author and Panelist: Widmer Simon (Ellen MacArthur Foundation)

Circular economy
Systemic change
Systemic initiative
Circular design
New plastics economy

At the Ellen MacArthur Foundation our mission is to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. Through our systemic initiatives we aim to transform key industries from a take-make-dispose model towards a circular economic one. This keynote aims to share some practitioner insights the Foundation has gained in effecting systems change, especially from its longest standing and most successful initiative to date, the New Plastics Economy initiative.

Get the system in the room: To change the system, it’s important to get the system into the room. For plastics, we set out to gather the world’s leading polymer manufacturers, packaging companies, consumer goods brands, and recyclers, plus governments and NGOs – representatives of the entire system.

Lead with a positive vision: Arguably one reason the circular economy has gained so much momentum is that it lays out a positive vision we can collectively move and innovate towards. We found that it’s crucial to define such a vision because in the early stages of an initiative there no consensus on the target state.

Portfolio of solutions: At beginning of the initiative we had discussions among participants about “the thing” that would allow a breakthrough: A new technology? Government policy? Practical demonstration projects? Company commitments? More evidence? More public awareness? What we have learnt is that a portfolio of well-coordinated, mutually reinforcing interventions is necessary to build momentum across industry, governments, and public.

Reject incrementalism: Given the scale of the challenge and the exponential increase in linear material flows, it became clear that we would have to go beyond incrementalism. In fact, 40 years after the introduction of the recycling symbol, fragmented and incremental efforts only brought us to 10% recycling of plastics on a global level. Hence finding solutions with the potential to scale across the system is essential.

Influential nodes: It’s impossible to move everyone at the same time and important to identify the most influential nodes in the system that can help reach a tipping point. For plastics these were mostly leading brands and retailers who make important decisions on how to package their products, whether to rely on single-use packaging or not, whether to use virgin or recycled materials, etc. With the Global Commitment of 150 international companies, we’ve seen how leading brands have a ripple effect both horizontally (to other brands and retailers) and vertically along the supply chain (e.g. to the packaging manufacturers).

Global and local: A global perspective and alignment is essential to tackle global issues, yet ultimately change often happens at a local level. In the initiative, we aim to represent this by driving action worldwide through the Global Commitment and helping put in place national implementation plans known as Plastics Pacts.

Love the problem: Perhaps most importantly we need to love the problem and be comfortable with what is an often challenging and iterative learning process. Design thinking applied on a systems level (e.g. empathy for stakeholders in the system, prototyping and testing across the system, quick iterations, cross-disciplinary and cross-value chain collaboration) can help us on this journey. We have therefore developed The Circular Design Guide resource as a free online tool to support individuals to start applying design thinking in the context of the circular economy.