Systemic Design Association

Systemic Design Association (SDA) is a membership-based organization bringing together transdisciplinary practitioners, academics, students and creative professionals whose mission is to advance the practice & theory of systems-oriented design as an integrative discipline.

The Systemic Design Association aims to:

  • Advance knowledge, theory, methodology, practical application and publication in the domain of systemic design, including the planning, design, facilitation, visualization, governance, management and evolution of diverse industrial and socio-technical systems
  • Convene an annual international symposium, Relating Systems Thinking to Design (RSD)

SDA was founded in 2011 when the Norway and Toronto chapters jointly formed Systemic Design Research Network (SDRN), anchored in Toronto by a research group in Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab) at OCAD University. As Profs. Jeremy Bowes and Dr. Peter Jones have developed the primary courses in Systemic Design for OCADU's Strategic Foresight and Innovation program, we have trialed (and erred) enough to recognize and validate highly effective approaches to quickly and powerfully combine social research, expert studies, stakeholder workshops and mapping to inform systemic services and societal innovations. We have several years and courses of gigamaps and synthesis maps demonstrating the deep synthesis and creative research from student teams. Today, SFI graduates now bringing positive impact through systemic design through employment in numerous places of influence, including Elections Canada, Policy Horizons, the government of Alberta's systemic design policy innovation group.

History and Aims

SDA (née SDRN) was founded at AHO, Oslo School of Architectural and Design, Norway, in partnership with OCAD University, Toronto, Canada, and is organized by a standing committee of four co-organizers Birger Sevaldson, Peter Jones, Harold Nelson, and Alex Ryan. SDRN was 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 to 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.

There are significant societal forces and organizational demands impelling the requirement for "better means of change." As Fred Collopy (RSD2) wrote in Fast Company several years ago, the (2nd gen) systems movement may have failed us and we're not yet sure if design thinking will restore its promise.  As Jones (2009) replied, systems thinking never had a chance, the way it was presented in the last decade — so perhaps it might be redesigned as a discipline. 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.

Research Agenda & Practices

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 entail multiple subsystems.  By integrating systems thinking, theory and appropriate 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 services and systems.

Publications, Projects & Presentations

Publications that have contributed to locating systemic design as a human-centred systems-oriented design practice include:

  • Nelson and Stolterman, 2012; Sevaldson, 2011; Jones, 2014

Forthcoming & Recent:

Publications by the co-organizers can be considered seminal works in systemic design and systems thinking in design practice: