Systemic design integrates systems thinking and human-centered design, with the intention of helping designers cope with complex design projects.
The recent challenges to design coming from the increased complexity caused by globalization, migration, sustainability render traditional design methods insufficient. Designers need better ways to design responsibly and to avoid unintended side-effects.
Systemic design intends to develop methodologies and approaches that help to integrate systems thinking with design towards sustainability at environmental, social and economic level. It is a pluralistic initiative where many different approaches are encouraged to thrive and where dialogue and organic development of new practices is central.
The systemic design dialogue is driven by the Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD) symposium series resulting in published proceedings and several special issues on systemic design in the scientific design research journal FORMakademisk.
Systemic design is being developed within the design practice and through the Systemic Design Research Network, focusing on different aspects of the issue. Different academic groups have been facing Systemic Design both in their teaching and researching activities:
The theories about complexity help the management of an entire system and the suggested design approaches help the planning of different divergent elements. The complexity theories evolved on the basis that living systems continually draw upon external sources of energy and maintain a stable state of low entropy, on the basis of the General Systems Theory by Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968). Some of the next rationales applied those theories also on artificial systems: complexity models of living systems address also productive models with their organizations and management, where the relationships between parts are more important than the parts themselves. Treating productive organizations as complex adaptive systems allows a new management model to emerge in economical, social and environmental benefits (Pisek and Wilson, 2001 ). In that field, Cluster Theory (Porter, 1990 ) evolved in more environmentally sensitive theories, like Industrial Ecology (Frosh and Gallopoulos, 1989 ) and Industrial Symbiosis (Chertow, 2000 ).
In 1994, Gunter Pauli and Heitor Gurgulino de Souza founded the research institute Zero Emission Research and Initiatives (ZERI), starting from the idea that progress should embed respect for the environment and natural techniques that will allow production processes to be part of the ecosystem.
The design thinking, as Buchanan (1992) said, means the way to creatively and strategically reconfigure a design concept on a situation with systemic integration. This needs a strong inter- and trans-disciplinarity during the design phase (Fuller, 1981 ), with the increasing involvement of different disciplines including urban planning, public policy, business management and environmental sciences (Chertow et al., 2004 ). Systems and complexity theories and design thinking redesign a pretty new discipline: the Systemic Design, which is located as a human-centred systems-oriented design practice (Bistagnino, 2011; Sevaldson, 2011; Nelson and Stolterman, 2012; Jones, 2014; Toso at al., 2012 ).
The contemporary debate on Systemic design started with the Relating Systems Thinking and Design Symposia series (RSD) on the initiative of Birger Sevaldson at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design in 2012. Amongst the invited participants were Harold Nelson, Peter H. Jones and Alex Ryan. An initial meeting was held in Oslo to consolidate the possibility of building a future network. Other participants were Michael Hensel, Colleen Ponto and others. The RSD seminars started in the context of Systems Oriented Design (SOD). In 2013-14 a discussion was initiated by Birger Sevaldson questioning the framework of the new emerging network. The network changed its name to Systemic Design allowing it to grow more pluralistically while SOD could develop more specially. The Systemic Design Research Network was founded shortly after on the initiative of Peter H. Jones and with Harold Nelson, Alex Ryan and Birger Sevaldson as co-founders.
Systems thinking in design has a long history with people like Christpher Alexander, Horst Rittel, Russl Ackoff, Bela Banathy, Ranulph Glanville, M.P.Ranjan, Harold Nelson and others. Also the main systems theories and models were known and applied in design since their beginning. Despite this Systems Thinking has never become mainstream in design. The reasons for this might be that the prescribed techniques and approaches were too technical and did not fit well to an organic design process.
The systemic design initiative is addressing this problem by seeking new connections and relations between systems thinking and designerly ways of working.