Systemic Design Toolkit by Kristel van Ael of Namahn

Systemic Design Toolkit: Design Thinking and Systems Thinking to face Complex Problems

Live notes from the webinar Keynote: Hands-on with Systemic Design by Kristel van Ael of Namahn during The Virtual Design Thinking BarCamp 2020 held on 25 April 2020. Read the article to discover how to download the toolkit to help you in facing Wicked Problems.

Kristel van Ael talked about Systemic Design, the differences and similarities to Design Thinking and she introduced the Systemic Design Toolkit, a tool to help using the methodology in business contexts.

Systemic Design Toolkit Virtual Design Thinking Barcamp
Systemic Design Toolkit Virtual Design Thinking Barcamp

Namahn is Humanc-centred design agency in Brussels, Belgium.

Systemic Design Definition

Systemic Design integrates systems thinking and human-centered design, with the intention of helping designers cope with complex design projects (also called Wicked Problems).

Traditional design methods are inadequate to face the recent global challenges stemming from increased complexity as globalization, migration, and sustainability.

Systemic Designers need improved tools and methods to design responsibly while avoiding uninterested consequences/side-effects.


Characteristics of Wicked Problems

Wicked Problems involve multiple aspects, multiple parties, multiple interests and perspectives. They show no clear link between cause and effects.

See how we failed with poverty reduction, waste management, migration, pollution and climate crisis.

Limits to Growth. Donella Meadows.

The problem with Reductionist Thinking

From a very early age, we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world. This apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price.”

—Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline.

Unintended consequences

The Cobra Effect. An example of unintended consequences.

Unintended consequences are outcomes of a purposeful action that are not intended or foreseen.

  • Unexpected benefit: A positive unexpected benefit (also referred to as luck, serendipity or a windfall).
  • Unexpected drawback: An unexpected detriment occurring in addition to the desired effect of the policy (e.g., while irrigation schemes provide people with water for agriculture, they can increase waterborne diseases that have devastating health effects, such as schistosomiasis).
  • Perverse result: A perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended (when an intended solution makes a problem worse).

How is COVID 19 an intended consequence?

What is Systemic Design?

What is Systemic Design?

Systemic Design lays at the intersection of Design Thinking and Systems Thinking and aims at helping designers to face complex problems.

  • By zooming out to understand how the parts of the system influence each other.
  • By zooming in, co-designing, with the stakeholders, the components that can leverage Systems Change.

Design Thinking has a focus on the parts, products and services, to create optimal User Experiences.

  • provides a structured problem-solving process
  • Puts people on the center
  • Hands-on, co-creative, cross-disciplinary
  • allows to learn and improve through prototyping, and testing

Systems Thinking has a focus on the whole, on the interaction of stakeholders, products and services aiming at influencing the emergent behavior of the system.

  • to identify non-linear relationships (see also Circular Design and Circular Economy)
  • Provides multiple levels and perspectives
  • thrives on dialogue and Collective Intelligence
  • Works with and on leverage points
  • It’s open ended, shaping the conditions for change. With the Systems Thinking approach you need to focus on creating an environment conducing to the emergence of the changes that you aim for.

The Systemic Design Toolkit

Built by Namah in collaboration with shiftN, MaRS and SDA, the Systemic Design Toolkit is a methodology and a library of tools based on academic research and human-centre design expertise.

It’s based on the principle that Systems Change should be co-designed and co-created within the system and with the actor of the system, preferably, with the stakeholders in the same room. And provides tools to foster dialogue between the parts without requiring participants to master its inner working and principles.

The structure of the Systemic Design Toolkit. Diagram.

The Systemic Design Toolkit is composed by seven steps and includes more than 30 tools.

  1. Framing the system (Systems Thinking)
  2. Listening to the system (Design Thinking)
  3. Understanding the system (Systems Thinking)
  4. Defining the desired future (Design Thinking)
  5. Exploring the possibility space (Systems Thinking)
  6. Designing the intervention model (Design Thinking)
  7. Fostering the transition

Framing the system

You cannot change what you don’t know: generate shared understanding of the current context and identify the stakeholder to involve.

Map the rich context of current practices, trends and innovative initiatives.

Listening to the system

Analyze the interactions between the actors by identifying hidden relationships.

It’s a way to communicate the essence of your field research.

Actants describe archetypical relationships.

Understanding the system

Develop a shared understanding about forces and interdependencies in the system to discover the leverage points.

Create a system map, “make the system visible” by visualizing its structure and the relations between its components.

Defining the desired future

Align the stakeholders on the Value Proposition. What do we want to change and how? What is the future we are imagining?

Co-Design an ideal desired future (better thinking about “futures”) by imagining how we want to improve the future context of individuals, organizations and society.

Related: see Speculative Design.

Exploring the possibility space

To give sense to the whole process designers need to explore different types of possible intervention by making sure they are covering the big picture emerged by the initial research activities.

A brainstorming activity to craft an intervention strategy in which you explore the leverage points in a system.

Designing the intervention model

Investigate how interventions connect and reinforce each other to envision an effective strategy for change.

The intervention model represents the DNA of change. Interventions are Design Concepts that will enable Systems Change.

Fostering the transition

Plan the transition towards the desired goal by moving from the Minimum Viable Product (maybe the Minimum Viable Solution in this case) to the full implementation of the intervention model.

The roadmap for transition is a tool to plan the implementation of the interventions, in a way that transformation happens step by step.

Get the Systemic Design Toolkit

Download the System Design Toolkit Guide.

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