Blending systems and design practice for social good

An ominous orange haze was clouding out the sun when I woke on the first of January in the South Island of New Zealand. Returning to Melbourne a few days later, my partner and I picked up face masks to protect ourselves from the toxic smoke invading the city, as bushfires raged in every state of Australia. The fires had barely subsided when the face masks were back out, offering flimsy protection from the panic and disease spreading around the world. Since then, unemployment levels have skyrocketed and we wait with dread to see the full economic fallout of the lockdown. Now, America is burning, as #BlackLivesMatter protests bubble up throughout the States and fellow settler societies, screaming for attention to be paid to ongoing harm from deep-rooted racism. And we’re not even halfway through the year.

These crises are reminding us just how interconnected our health, environment, economy, culture and society are. Such urgent and complex problems are creating huge pressure on public and community leaders and organisations to respond ethically and effectively. More than ever, we need to forge shared understanding and sensitive responses with the people most affected by these issues.

A systems-aware approach to co-design offers a map to navigate these confusing times, through building trust and knowledge with diverse stakeholders and co-creating results that actually meet people’s needs. It is no panacea. There is a lot of hard work to be done here, but combining systems thinking and participatory design can help us to understand what’s going on and respond appropriately.

Many people are already adopting and applying methods of design and systems thinking as they attempt to address complex problems. Designer Kate Goodwin, for example, has written about ‘making friends with complexity’ in our recent work to improve the justice system’s responses to disability. Combining co-design and systems practice, we brought together people with lived experience and stakeholders from the justice, health and disability sectors to understand why people with cognitive disability are so badly overrepresented in the Victorian criminal justice system. Together we identified and designed ways to better respect, recognise and support people with mental ill health and disability who come into contact with the justice system. A key output from the project is SupportingJustice.net.

Supporting Justice team members Kate Goodwin and Dorothy Armstrong explore design concepts (Paper Giant, 2019)

There are lots of different labels for this blended approach, each with its own particular emphasis: systemic design, design for complexity, systems-oriented design, systems-led design and systems innovation. I’ve also been toying with calling it systems-aware co-design (suggested by Kelly Ann McKercher) or design-for-systems (suggested by Rebekah Forman). I’m curious to hear what others think of these terms— please comment below if you have an opinion, especially if one really resonates with you!

You could just call it “good co-design”. But that lacks a little nuance. And there are some good examples of community-based co-design that don’t explicitly take a systems thinking lens. So let’s stick with systemic design for now — though don’t mistake this for a claim that we can design a whole complex system.

I like Peter Jones’ definition of systemic design as ‘a design-led practice that integrates dialogue in co-creation for sensemaking and decision making’. I also like Alex Ryan’s depiction (see image below) of systemic design as ‘a field of possibility’ that integrates systems and design thinking and practice through action and reflection. These definitions clearly distinguish systemic design from esoteric, abstract approaches to complexity science, on one hand, and from shallow, commercial methods of user-centred design on the other. They converge on the need to engage with stakeholders and pay attention to context in order to respond to ‘wicked problems’. There is much to be gained by drawing on and combining these separate traditions while avoiding the pitfalls of each when used in isolation.

Systemic design as a field of possibility — image by Alex Ryan, based on a graphic by Birger Sevaldson

It is surprising that those of us working in strategic design, social innovation and systems leadership don’t already have a common language and shared understanding of this blended approach. Yet, despite some notable exceptions (namely Buckminster Fuller, Herbert Simon, Béla H. Bánáthy and Richard Buchanan), design thinking and systems thinking have developed largely in isolation from each other. Enduring differences between these two approaches can be traced back to design thinking’s commercial origins in material practice, or craft, while systems thinking emerged as an abstract theory aiming to integrate different scientific approaches. This difference can be summed up as design’s ‘action-oriented or generative bias’ compared with systems thinking’s theoretical bias (see Jones 2014).

In a forthcoming paper, I explore how these traditions come together in the emerging practice of systemic design (or whatever we end up calling it). As I delved into the literature and reflected on my practice and professional relationships, some of the reasons for our lack of shared understanding and terminology became clear. The scientific orientation and obtuse language of many systems-oriented publications limit their appeal and relevance to practitioners. On the other hand, whether working in a bureaucracy or a private consultancy, the fast-paced and action-oriented approach of many practitioners results in limited reflection on and innovation of practice. As I have previously pointed out, more and better documentation and evaluation of co-design in the public realm would help to build knowledge of this practice.

Bringing together my learnings as a researcher, practitioner, evaluator and educator, I have developed a practice framework for co-design in complex systems. It articulates what needs to be taken into account when tackling complex problems and designing for social change. The five core elements of this practice framework are: place, process, practice, people and principles.

Five elements of the Systemic Design Practice Framework © Blomkamp 2020

With its explicit systems lens, the practice framework builds on my previous work on co-design for policy and social innovation. Important additions are the dimensions of people and place, or context, alongside the key features of co-design as principles, process and practical tools. The framework is informed by ethical principles, ethnographic research on design practice in the public sector, practice knowledge from working in social innovation and strategic design consultancies in New Zealand and Australia, as well as analysis of case studies and theories from related disciplines.

My aim with the practice framework is to offer an accessible, flexible and contemporary guide for designers, leaders and others working in the public and community sectors to consider the necessary components of systemic design. It does not set forth a rigid model or narrow recipe, but recognises the diversity of contexts and circumstances in which this work takes place. Early sharing and testing of the framework suggests it could be a useful point of reference for planning and commissioning work, reflecting on practice, and evaluating process and impact.

I look forward to sharing the practice framework in a future article and with participants in my upcoming workshop series on Co-Design in Complex Systems.

Acknowledgements: Some of these ideas were developed in work with Paper Giant and the Centre for Innovative Justice at RMIT, workshops for RMIT’s Master of Design Futures and the National University of Singapore, as an Honorary Fellow at The University of Melbourne and an UnSchool Fellow in Disruptive Design, and in conversation with Kate Goodwin, Rebekah Forman, Kelly Ann McKercher and Seanna Davidson.

Pragmatic idealist, working to co-create compassionate systems. emmablomkamp.com

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