In recent decades, design has expanded from a practice aimed at designing things to one that helps to address complex societal challenges. In this context, a field of practice called systemic design has emerged, which combines elements of systems thinking with elements of design. We use a case study approach to investigate how expert practitioners carry out systemic design work in the context of public and social innovation, and explore what we can learn from their practices and design rationales when we compare them to systems thinking theories and approaches.

Based on findings from five case studies, the authors present five systemic design principles:

  1. opening up and acknowledging the interrelatedness of problems;
  2. developing empathy with the system;
  3. strengthening human relationships to enable creativity and learning;
  4. influencing mental models to enable change;
  5. adopting an evolutionary design approach to desired systemic change.

One way that scholars can contribute to this field is by continuing to monitor and describe emerging systemic design principles developed and performed at the forefront of the field, strengthening these learnings by building on the body of knowledge about systems thinking and design.

While the authors argue in this paper that designerly practices contribute to addressing complex problem situations, the findings from this study highlight that practitioners at the forefront of social innovation are developing more diverse forms of systemic design to effect change.

In this paper it is shown how the interdiscipline of systemic design contributes to tackling complex societal challenges. Even though authors have homed in on one area of knowledge and practice that social innovation practitioners draw on, systemic design is part of a larger body of transdisciplinary approaches.

For example, in addition to systems thinking and design, social innovators may use academic knowledge from social sciences and humanities, or other types of knowledge such as indigenous ways of knowing or community involvement. Transdisciplinary innovation is about placing interactions between disciplines and other types of knowledge in an integrated system with a social purpose, resulting in a continuously evolving and adapting practice.

Key to such transdisciplinary approaches is learning. 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. Authors therefore stress the need for ongoing education together, through learning communities that include academics and practitioners across multiple disciplines. Learning engagements may include studies integrating multiple disciplines, such as the one presented in this paper, action research, and academic-practitioner collaborations.

The full article is available HERE or as a download below.

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To cite this article: Van der Bijl-Brouwer, M., & Malcolm, B. (2020). Systemic design principles in social innovation: A study of expert practices and design rationales. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation6(3), 386-407.
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This publication has been prepared within INDIGISE project. The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of the project coordinator and may not always reflect the views of the European Commission or the National Agency.