2013/10/10 11:45 “A Theory of Systemic Design” | Alex Ryan | Relating Systems Thinking & Design 2013

Digest of presentation at #RSD2 by Alex Ryan @DrAlexRyan @playthink sketchnote on A Theory of Systemic Design at Relating Systems Thinking and Design 2 at AHO Oslo School of Design and Architecture

This digest was created in real-time during the meeting, based on the speaker’s presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship by David Ing.

Last year at RSD, Harold Nelson said:

  • Systemic design as inquiry for action
  • Shift from human-centered to “centered” design

Metaphor:  gyroscope

Goal of systemic design to create a learning system

Framing, formulating, framing and reflecting

1. Tasting your own tongue

  • This is what you do when entering an organization
  • Exteriority and interiority

2. Time traveling

  • Existing and becoming

3. Separating maps from territories

  • Epistemology and ontology

4. Leveraging powers of 10

  • Top-down and bottom-up

5. Teaching cats to catch mice

  • Tension between learning and transformation

The role of a designer as managing between the tensions

From perspective to action:  how to do systemic design

  • Mindset, methodology and methods are embedded in experience


  • Framing:  boundaries
  • Formulating: giving form
  • Generate:  make
  • Reflect:  as per Donald Schon

Inquiry to connect outside the design team


  • Be inquiring
  • Be open to new perspectives, unexpected paths
  • Integrative, not binary tradeoffs
  • Collaborative:  not something that individuals do in isolation

[Abstract of talk from http://www.systemic-design.net/]

Alex Ryan
A Theory of Systemic Design.
Abstract: Over the last two decades, concepts from complexity theory, systems thinking, design, strategy, and philosophy have been synthesized within the Israeli Defense Force, the Australian Army, and the U.S. Army and Joint Force to produce a theory and practice of systemic design. Although this conceptual evolution has taken place within a military context, the theory developed has general applicability to the challenges of designing at scale in complex environments. The purpose of this paper is to present the pure theory of systemic design as developed by Western militaries, but abstracted away from its military context, in order to facilitate applications to societal, governmental, and business design challenges. By making the theory accessible to civilian designers, it is hoped that they may benefit from the cross-pollination of ideas that have evolved in the highly competitive crucible of contemporary conflict.In part one, I provide a framework for systemic design consisting of three levels: methods, methodology, and, mindset. The uses and abuses of methods are discussed first. Next, the logic for a systemic design inquiry is outlined and developed as a flexible methodology for developing deeper understanding and constructing novel interventions. Then, the mindset of the systemic designer is characterized as a set of values and habits. Any systemic design inquiry proceeds at all three levels simultaneously, with the levels mutually reinforcing and reciprocally influencing one another.

In part two, I construct a model of systemic design as a learning system. This model shows how a cycle of iterative systemic design inquiry can function as an open system able to adapt to a changing environment. The learning system is comprised of six elements: inquiry, facilitating, framing, formulating, generating, and reflecting. All of these elements must be present and must work together to generate systemic improvement in a problematic situation.In part three, I discuss meta-concerns for systemic design. They include the rationale for systemic design, design of the design team, mediation of cognitive tensions, knowing when to depart from the systemic design methodology, and criteria for selecting and constructing methods that are both systemic and designerly.

[See presentation slides at http://prezi.com/bsnojkefanby/a-theory-of-systemic-design/]

xAlex Ryan, A Theory of Systemic Design (on prezi)

[Biography from http://www.systemic-design.net/]

alex_ryan_web    Alex Ryan

Dr. Alex Ryan is a systemic designer, researching through praxis at the intersection of systems thinking and design. Dr. Alex Ryan is co-founder of the boutique consultancy Design Systemics and has worked as both a management consultant and public servant for the past 15 years applying systemic design to regional, national, and global challenges. Dr. Alex Ryan has taught operational and strategic design at the U.S. School of Advanced Military Studies, and helped to institutionalize design within Western militaries, working with clients such as U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, Australian Special Operations Command, and the Canadian Forces College. Dr. Alex Ryan has led the application of systemic design within the Government of Alberta to address diverse issues such as environmental monitoring, energy diversification, and early childhood development. His dissertation in applied mathematics advanced a multidisciplinary approach to complex systems design.

[Photo of presentation by Manuela Aguirre]

RSD2 Symposium

#rsd2, #systemic-design