My notes and other stuff


Paper: Systemic Design Principles in Social Innovation

Digging into older notes, this week's paper is Systemic Design Principles in Social Innovation: A Study of Expert Practices and Design Rationales by Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer and Bridget Malcolm. This is a follow-up paper from a previous one they had written (and that I hadn't read) where they looked at 5 organizations doing design and had various interviews to understand how they tried to do systemic design to influence various parts of society. In this paper, they look at them to find commonalities in their approaches.

The 5 agencies included worked on projects like balancing time vs. quality investments in Danish schoolteachers following a reform, Netherlands cities and partnering organizations trying to make life better for younger people, a group of 3 Canadian non-profits trying to find ways to reduce social isolation in adults with cognitive disabilities, Australian child protective services helping to improve the rate of children moving from foster care to their original family, and a Canadian provincial government trying to have better open data policies and more valuable data.

So that's very varied stuff, and the paper has been written by people who didn't necessarily have a deep knowledge of systems theory, but were given a lot of literature recommendations, did a literature review, and iteratively went back to their systems theory experts to validate and re-deepen the research every time.

The paper starts with a neat opener where they cover high-level systems theory concepts, and tie them to design work. I'm quoting long sections of it because it's a really nice intro for people less familiar with the concepts:

The move of traditional design to the domain of social innovation means that traditional design practice needs to be adapted to this field. [...] One such adaptation is visible in design practices that have become increasingly systemic. This includes designers gaining a deep understanding of the complexity and wickedness of problems and societal systems, and developing new practices to design for these systems.

[G]rowing complexity and increasing strain on societal systems has reignited an interest in integrating systems thinking and design practices to build on the analytical strengths of systems thinking and the action-oriented strengths of design.15 This unified field of systemic design is emerging as a new area of practice and academic study.


Systems thinking is the understanding of a phenomenon within the context of the larger whole. This process is referred to as synthesis, which is opposed to, and complements, the reductionist process of analysis. Russell Ackoff explains that “in analytical thinking, the thing to be explained is treated as a whole to be taken apart. In synthetic thinking, the thing to be explained is treated as part of a containing whole.

Systems thinking emerged in response to the limitations of analytical and reductionist thinking as presented within the scientific viewpoint that has prevailed since the age initiated by the Renaissance. This viewpoint is based on the belief that the behavior of the whole can be understood entirely from the properties of its parts. This reductionist thinking and approach is core to many disciplines and professions—for example in Western medicine, which is organized into specializations based on parts of human bodies.

Although science and analysis have had an immense and positive impact on society, a limitation of reductionist thinking is [...] that “improvement in the performance of parts of a system taken separately may not, and usually does not, improve performance of the system as a whole.”


The domain of sociotechnical systems targeted by social innovation practitioners is characterized by high levels of complexity and unpredictability and cannot be sufficiently described or controlled through a pre-determined design solution. While we can design and engineer technical systems within a sociotechnical domain, we can only aim to influence or intervene in the broader complex systems they are part of.

This covers good bases, the paper explains a few broader currents in the rest of the intro, but they're not necessarily relevant to their main point about commonalities in approaches when designing with systems in mind so I'm eliding them here.

They identified a bunch of principles ("a rule or heuristic established through experience that guides a practitioner towards a successful solution") that were used over and over. They warn that these were found by qualitative analysis—which they don't mention rating the reliability for—and that different analysts would find different patterns, which was a bit of a methodological bummer when I read it. But let's look at the principles, because I found them interesting and still refer to them months later.

Opening Up and Acknowledging the Interrelatedness of Problems

This basically says that you can't necessarily identify a bunch of problems and solve them independently to end up with no problems. Sometimes problems are owned by multiple people, or solving a problem requires inconveniencing other people, so they're all connected. To address this, people had to adequately consider various perspectives to frame problems and which one they'd choose. By deliberately developing multiple perspectives, various solution pathways opened up. They refer to this as taking "an expansionist" view, often with the aid of mapping mechanism, visualization tools, etc.

Some of them were also careful in the choice of vocabulary: calling something a "problem" or a "solution" tends to force a narrowing of perspectives. Calling things "situations," "challenges," "systemic intervention" or "prototypes" tended to keep their visions more flexible.

Developing Empathy With the System

This is related to all the various perspectives they can have on systems they study. Acknowledging the various perspectives can reveal tensions between people and stakeholders of the system, and surfacing these tensions is key to be finding useful ways forwards:

We don’t just collect stories of [citizens] and hang them on the wall, but we engage with them politically. So we take these stories and go to the police, or to school, or to whoever is mentioned in these stories, and we collect the counter-stories, because also the system is trying its best when tackling societal challenges, and has its own stories about what does and does not work well.

Contrary to regular design (which is often about desires and goals of stakeholders), the systemic design approach tends to focus on the relationships between stakeholders.

Strengthening human relationships to enable learning and creativity

Continuing the trend of perspectives and relationships, they found that one of the best intervention courses was to focus on learning and creativity within these relationships. This focus means that you can't come up with a recipe book. You may have known intervention patterns, but they'll always need to be adjusted and adapted to current contexts. New behaviours, learnings, and experiences arose from improving the relationships, not as something you just told people to do.

To couch this in systems theory terms, they are aiming for self-organization of elements in a system such that new emergent behaviours and adaptation can take place to meet overall system objectives.

This means designers need to let go of the ambition to control the relationships, and instead must focus on creating conditions, infrastructure, or platforms that promote new behaviours and learnings of people evolving within the system.

Influencing Mental Models to Enable Change

People work from mental models:

All of the practitioners in our case studies identified dominant mental models either held by the client organization, or by users or other stakeholders that held the system back from enabling more positive outcomes. This included the belief that restoration of a child to their birth family is the best outcome in child protection in the TACSI case study, and that it is more important for adults with a disability to be safe than to learn in the InWithForward case study.

Because mental models are socially learned ways of perceiving and organizing information, they can be changed.

They can challenge people to see things differently by:

They generally consider mental models as one of the most effective lever points in a system since it's the basis of action from people in it. This isn't necessarily a common usage in regular design, but is worth a lot according to this study.

Adopting an evolutionary design approach

This resembles the evolutionary process of “vary, select, and amplify” described in living systems theory; what they do is that designers take an incremental approach where they prototype various interventions ("making a portfolio"), see which of these get traction, and then refine and improve them based on whatever shows most promise, while always keeping them aligned with overall goals.

Figure 1, A representation of how a portfolio of problem frames and accompanying designed interventions evolves over time. This shows a graph where a Frame (A) is divided in three other frames (X,Y,Z), each tied to an idea. The ideas point to prototypes (X.1, Y.1, Z.1) which are paired with new frames (X.1, Y.1, Z.1)

When coming up with a prototype, it's not even always known who will own it and implement it, but they show them to various stakeholders, see what gets traction, and react based on buy-in.

The idea is that in complex systems, people only have a better ability to understand what happened in retrospect, and so they push for a mindset of always being in an experimental mode. In no small part, this is because even the problem definition is often not well understood:

However, rather than only enabling evolution through execution, design practices also use the evolutionary process in the design of the prototype experiments themselves. Design practice reflects a co-evolutionary problem and solution process, which means that

“Creative design is not a matter of first fixing the problem, and then searching for a satisfactory solution concept. Creative design seems more to be a matter of developing and refining together both the formulation of a problem and ideas for a solution.”

Prototyping in design is therefore not just about testing ideas for interventions—it also helps reframe the problem. This integration of prototyping and framing practices in design offers opportunities for design to contribute to evolutionary practices.

You'll note that this brings us back to concepts of broadening frames and perspectives!

In general, complex system design mentions that problems don't get "solved"; instead they require an ongoing intervention, with experiments that are considered "safe to fail." A major shift from regular design for large systemic social design is to move away from user-centric approaches and towards one that focuses more on the relationships between stakeholders, with a long-term commitment to continuous intervention. In some cases, that also led to groups trying to embed design capability within the system so that continuous improvement can be driven from within.

The article concludes:

As each complex problem situation is different, there is not one way of doing things and we must rely on adaptive practice, where practices are adapted to the problem context at hand. Such adaptations require every actor concerned to engage in a continual and mutual learning process. We therefore stress the need for ongoing education together, through learning communities that include academics and practitioners across multiple disciplines.

What's interesting to me coming back to this paper (I think I originally read this around July 2022) is that at the time I initially read it, I think I mostly felt comfortable with the content and felt like I already knew it to a level that was almost intuitive. But now that I read myself again, I realize that their set of principles—and the whole portfolio approach—has put a lot of concepts in focus where they now represent a kind of mental playbook for me at work.