Systemic Design & Its Discontents: Designing with Emergence & Accountability by Van Alstyne, Skelton & Cheng

To support design process for positive 
change-making, leading to flourishing, how might we lead systemic design to more self-awareness, accountability, maturity? In this peer-reviewed paper we call for systemic design to 
acquire more psychology, sociology, ethics.

By Greg Van Alstyne, Carl Skelton & Sylvia Nan Cheng

Presented in RSD7: Relating Systems Thinking and Design Symposium 2018, Turin, Italy


Systemic design holds promise to address grand challenges such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Toward these ends, the authors argue that the systemic design mindset needs better awareness and norms for accountability. We recommend greater use of knowledge from psychology to bring insight about motivations and cognitive biases. We call on systemic designers to integrate principles of ethical practice, as new technological affordances, which amplify risk, increasingly impact social and economic life. To highlight wanted and unwanted emergent effects in complex techno-social systems, we introducing a schema with three layers of activity: regulating, building, and using. To illustrate the risks and benefits of designing in a data-intensive world, we unpack exemplary cases from history and contemporary society. We highlight emerging initiatives where systemic design thinkers introduce ethical accountability to a system by cross-pollinating and collaborating between the three layers of activity with respect to these complex systems.

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