Systemic design

Systemic design is an "interdiscipline"[1] that integrates systems thinking and design practices.[2] It is a pluralistic field,[3] with several "dialects"[4] including systems-oriented design. Influences have included critical systems thinking and second-order cybernetics. In 2021, the Uk Design Council began advocating for a systemic design approach and embedded it in a revision of their double diamond model.[5]

Systemic design's discourse has been developed through Relating Systems Thinking and Design - a series of symposia that has run annually since 2012.[6]


Systems thinking in design has a long history with origins in the design methods movement during the 1960s and 1970s, such as the idea of wicked problems developed by Horst Rittel.[7]

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).[8] 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 [9]). In that field, Cluster Theory (Porter, 1990 [10]) evolved in more environmentally sensitive theories, like Industrial Ecology (Frosh and Gallopoulos, 1989 [11]) and Industrial Symbiosis (Chertow, 2000[12]). In 1994, Gunter Pauli and Heitor Gurgulino de Souza founded the research institute Zero Emission Research and Initiatives (ZERI),[13] 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,[14] 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 [15]), with the increasing involvement of different disciplines including urban planning, public policy, business management and environmental sciences (Chertow et al., 2004 [16]). 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;[17] Sevaldson, 2011;[18] Nelson and Stolterman, 2012;[19] Jones, 2014;[20] Toso at al., 2012 [21]).

In recent years, numerous design projects have adopted a systemic approach. These focused on diverse topics including – but not limited to – food networks, industrial processes and water purification, revitalization of internal areas through art and tourism [22] and circular economy,[23] exhibition and fairs, social inclusion and marginalization.

Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD) SymposiumEdit

The contemporary debate on Systemic design started with the Relating Systems Thinking and Design Symposia series (RSD) [24] on the initiative of Birger Sevaldson at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design in 2012.

Systemic Design AssociationEdit

Systemic Design Association (SDA)
TypeScholarly society
FocusSystemic design
  • Norway
Area served
MethodConferences, Publications, Website.
Key people
Silvia Barbero (current president), Peter Jones (current vice chair), Cheryl May (current co-secretary), Ryan Murphy (current co-secretary), Birger Sevaldson (Adjuvant Board Advisor)

The Systemic Design Association (SDA) is a membership organisation for systemic design. Members include practitioners, academics, and students. The SDA is a non-profit registered with the Brønnøysund Register Centre in Norway, and a member society of the International Federation of Systems Research. The inaugural president of the SDA is Silvia Barbero.

The Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD) Symposium series led initially to the formation of the informal Systemic Design Research Network. In October 2018, in conjunction with RSD7, the Systemic Design Association was formed at its first general assembly at Politecnico di Torino and announced at the symposium.

In 2022 the Systemic Design Association launched its own journal called Contexts.

Research groups and innovation labsEdit

Academic research groups with a focus on systemic design include:

Academic programmesEdit

Academic programmes in systemic design include:


  1. ^ Sevaldson, B., & Jones, P. (2019). An interdiscipline emerges: Pathways to systemic design. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 5(2), 75-84.
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  3. ^ Bistagnino, Luigi; Peruccio, Pier Paolo (2014). Michalos, Alexander C. (ed.). Design, an overview. Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Springer. pp. 1582–1585. ISBN 978-94-007-0754-2.
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  16. ^ Chertow, M. R., Ashton, W. and Kuppali, R. (2004) The Industrial Symbiosis Research Symposium at Yale: Advancing the Study of Industry and Environment, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, New Haven.
  17. ^ Bistagnino, L. (2011) Systemic Design: Designing the productive and environmental sustainability, 2nd ed., Slow Food, Bra.
  18. ^ Sevaldson, B. (2011). Gigamapping: Visualization for complexity and systems thinking in design. Proceedings of the Nordic Design Research Conference. Aalto University, Helsinki.
  19. ^ Nelson, H.G. and Stolterman, E. (2012). The design way: Intentional change in an unpredictable world, 2nd ed., MIT Press, Cambridge.
  20. ^ Jones, P.H. (2014) ‘Systemic Design Principles for Complex Social Systems’, in Metcalf, G.S. (Eds.), Social Systems and Design, Springer Verlag, Berlin, pp.91-128.
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External linksEdit