Since 2010, experts and academics eager to connect “systems thinking” and policy design have been meeting annually to share their research and insights. For the first three years, Oslo was the convener. For the second year in a row, Canada has been the meeting point. In October, they gathered in Toronto for the 5th “Relating Systems Thinking and Design” Conference (RSD). The event attracted upwards of 300 people.
The event was hosted by OCAD University and the MaRS Discovery District. It was chaired by the founders of the Systemic Design Research Network (SDRN), who had organized the conference last year at the Banff Centre for the Arts. The theme of RSD5 was “Systemic Design for Social Complexity.” It focused on complex societal concerns, such as design approaches for public policy and governance, sustainable business, agro-ecology, healthcare systems, and human-centred urbanism.
A Platform for Policy
Scholarship and Social Change Results
The annual RSD Symposium is the key event in the calendar of the Systemic Design community. If Systemic Design is not as well-known as a practice area as “interaction, industrial, and service design,” it is because of a lack of a major professional presence in the private sector. The focus on large-scale systemic problems is more relevant to public policy and NGO purposes, and not typically the concern of the corporate clients who hire design service providers.
Systemic Design has been taught for the last decade in various schools around the world (including OCADU) and is practiced by specialized firms in North America and Europe that typically work with large institutional clients in healthcare, food and agriculture, and government. As a discipline that integrates systems thinking and cybernetics with human-centered design, it deals with multi-stakeholder systems that have expansive boundaries. 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.
The world is catching up. The movement toward design thinking is capturing the attention of business and government organizations. Even though these practices may refer to “systemic change,” the tools of design thinking are based on user-centred design, which is insufficient to effectively respond to systemic, multi-stakeholder problems. Furthermore, many systems change approaches or theories of change are misleading guides to action. It’s typical for practitioners to gain support for solutions because everyone expects them to “scale.” It’s not that easy. They radically underestimate the resilience of existing institutions and their cultures, as well as enduring established power constellations.
The RSD Symposium was designed from its inception as an engaging (“lightweight”) conference model that aims to enhance the quality of participation and network/relationship building. The symposium is planned as a low-cost, modular event that encourages students as well as corporate professionals to attend either key sessions or the entire event. Content quality is maintained by the oversight of a continuing group of chairs that share knowledge over the course of the events, and maintain the direction of scholarship by assessing progress in the continuing literature streams (e.g. public value, urban ecology, healthcare, systemic methodology).
The values of “relating,” engagement, and open dialogue have led to a continuing tradition of high quality keynotes, progressively stronger workshops, and repeat presenters committed to a systemic design research agenda. RSD has created a new body of scholars and scholarship, applied practices and new voices in design studies, carrying an optimistic and rigorous response to the challenge of increasing complexity in areas such as these faced by policy makers, social scientists, designers, strategists, and social innovators.
RSD has evolved into an international community of inquiry with diverse involvement across design and science disciplines, across geographies and cultures. Presenters, cases and keynotes are selected to bring attention to the variety of practices across epistemic cultures, while meeting in a space that supports convivial and supportive dialogue across communities. RSD embraces design-led systems approaches across scientific and design knowledge practices (empirical, interpretive, evidence-based and constructivist) – the emerging field that has been called Systems Design.
The Toronto Event
The first day opened at OCAD University with fourteen half-day workshops ranging from food security to innovation processes. Cyberneticist Paul Pangaro gave the first keynote on “Designing Conversations for Socially-Conscious Design.” A gallery reception for delegates and presenters featured over thirty posters (Gigamaps and synthesis maps) most of which will be available in the online proceedings.
RSD5’s second day was held at the MaRS auditorium to showcase emerging research in Process Innovation, Design for Public Value, and Service Design for Care and Wellness. The opening keynote by systems thinkers Aleco Christakis and Maria Kakoulaki presented a proposal for Demoscopio, an emerging collaborative citizen engagement project established in Crete, Greece, supported by the municipality of Heraklion. It is essentially a dedicated citizen dialogue studio, an evolution of Harold Lasswell’s social planetarium proposal.
The presentation was followed by a panel discussion on new directions in public policy innovation. Matthew Mendelsohn, Deputy Secretary to the cabinet in the Privy Council Office, moderated a captivating exchange on the “Craft of Policy Design.” Panelists included Maureen O’Neil, President of the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement; RSD co-chair Alex Ryan, Manager of CoLab, Government of Alberta; and Joeri van den Steenhoven, Director of the MaRS Solutions Lab. (Videos of the keynotes and the panel sessions are available in the online proceedings, systemic-design.net/rsd-symposia/rsd5-2016/).
Two inspirational keynotes completed the day at MaRS. Ohio State’s Liz Sanders presented new horizons for human-centred design research and Indiana University’s Erik Stolterman focused on interaction design in the context of emerging Interactivity Fields and Systems.
The third day of RSD was hosted at OCADU. It was a busy day with 32 presentations, structured in three parallel tracks. Work was presented on innovations on Advanced Policy Design, (Systemic) Theory and Methods, Sustainability and Flourishing, Design of Future Systems, Process Innovation, Design for Complexity, System and Service Design, and Design for Human-Centred Settlements.
RSD5’s final keynote was a special video appearance from Santiago by renowned systems thinker Humberto Maturana on “Co-Designing for Society and Meta-Systems.” His talk raised fundamental questions that addressed the “meta-systems” across all societies. Dr. Maturana spoke to the planetary concerns for human futures, the necessity to mitigate systemic impacts of population, the complications of competitive cultures, and the call to designers to reimagine these meta-systems. Urging that people “do things together in mutual respect” he encouraged a practice of design that created “spaces for no competing” by inviting, seducing, and convincing people to value their participation as collaborators in government, society and the world. Recognizing technology as an instrument for human interaction and therefore change, Maturana encouraged a rethinking of design’s power to deal with complexity and guide effective transformations of social systems.
Since its inception, RSD has provided the primary venue for Systemic Design scholarship and practice. Within its first five years, RSD’s strong focus on applied research-for-impact has led to dozens of reported successful case studies from practitioners and university projects. Relevant papers in leading social science and design journals are getting published and cited. Systemic Design has become recognized in other scholarly conferences, and has found its way into research partnerships and other symposia, such as the DesignX symposium. With continued guidance from its leading researchers and a growing international community, we expect to see the expanding recognition of systems thinking modes and methods applied in complex social design applications.
The keynotes, presentations, and posters/system maps are available online now, before the full proceedings, and most of the live presentations have associated sketchnotes, a unique feature of the conference (see systemic-design.net). The full proceedings from RSD5 will be published in early 2017.
Peter Jones is associate professor at OCADU and lead chair of the RSD5 Symposium. Dr. Nenad Rava is in OCADU’s Strategic Foresight and Innovation Program and a public policy consultant based in Toronto.