IDSE202 – Systems Thinking, Then and Now

Traditional systems thinking developed as an effect of World War II sense making, and was rationalized soon after by early computer programmers.  Systems thinking has come far, from the stuffy halls of academia and military planning into many contemporary spheres, including design.  Current systems thinking has evolved these tenets to apply to current trends in software, service, and sustainability design, as well as artificial intelligence.  In the next few paragraphs, I offer up my understanding how early systems thinking applies in current thinking.

The two traditional systems thinking reads, both from Thinking In Systems, offer up broad definitions of systems that are still useful today.  Systems are interconnected sets of elements and interconnections that have function or purpose.  The author cites the difficulty in identify the interconnections, which tend to be information flows, as well as identifying system purpose.

In today’s world, the interconnectedness of information flow is less obstructed from view than in times previous.  We are all connected virtually through the internet, and with better tracking of digital information, we can often see cause and effect much quicker than in times’ past.  The idea of feedback loops in systems is true and holds; the difference between then and now is their instantaneous nature.

We can now have discussions in real time across the world.  In Design in the Age of Biology, Dubberly cites this trend as a reason for the changing nature of design.  While not stated directly, I believe Dubberly is speaking to the democratization of design that this dialogue has created.  Users are no longer meant to be “designed for”; the real time connection and ubiquitous flow of information will have regular people demand more from the products and services that are created.  People, particularly empathetic designers, are also painfully aware of their effect on  culture and the environment.  Dubberly speaks to the idea of sustainable design’s inspiration in biological systems; I think it is more a side effect of this empathy.

Thinking in Systems also speaks to difficulty humans have in judging systems.  We tend to think in elements instead of connections, as they are more visceral or tangible.  The problem with understanding these connections (or flows), is their temporal nature and effects on a larger system.  This on the whole has not changed – ie  human tendencies towards understanding cause and effect has not changed.  This has led to the proliferation of problems in our society.  As the article states “if you have a sense of the rate of change of stocks, you don’t expect things to happen faster than they can happen.  You don’t give up too soon.”  Poverty, disease, lack of education – I believe these all have developed fundamentally due to a lack of awareness of these flows.  Sure, racism and ignorance have played their part; but many efforts to help resolve or remedy these issues have failed because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the systems, elements, stocks, and flows related to them.

As someone brought up in the digital age, as well as having traveled much in my early twenties, I feel the connections I have to the world in perhaps a clearer sense than from someone in previous generations would have.  The systems thinking articles to me seemed quite relatable to my existing knowledge, both tacit and learned from the last quarter.  Practically, I know that what I end up designing must fit sustainably and fairly into any system, whether it is in Austin or much larger.  I also know that the old way of creating – hand-craft – is not something that I can beat out other companies or skilled designers with.  Nor is that something I need.  Where I can, I hope to accelerate as an interaction “designer-facilitator” and as a systems thinker.


Systems Level Design is What We Need

This is what I learned today after an ideation session with Melissa and Dave.  And I mean learned, because you can read this stuff in papers, but when it stares you in the face after a semester of research, the point hits home.  Basically, it’s clear one can no longer design in a vacuum, particularly when dealing with complex problems (don’t worry Jon – if you’re out there reading, ye position diagram cometh later today).  We need to design ecosystems that facilitate communication and coordination among all stakeholders within a problem area.  Let me give you the example that stared at me.

In an area such as nutrition in schools – which is a fairly wicked problem – there are breakdowns between the major players that we researched.

Parents and children

Parents want the best for their children, there’s no question.  For moms who pack lunch, limited time exists in the day for shopping and food preparation.  They want ideas for how to make food more exciting.  Kids seem to lack involvement in the process, and may or may not be OK with it (we didn’t yet conduct research with children in schools). Parents don’t really know how they did until the end of the day when the remnants of that morning’s packed food returns.

Parents and schools

Parents simply don’t seem to trust the information that schools provide around lunch; whether or not lunch provided by schools has changed since we attended school, we’ve all been scarred by our own experiences.  It’s hard to get over that bias.  Unfortunately, public school lunch still isn’t all that, and there remains much to do.  Another stakeholder group to conduct research with is food services to understand their strategies and limitations around nutritional offerings.  Regardless, there doesn’t seem to be any dynamic communication happening between these groups, except the one way publishing of school lunch online, and the stale approach of voicing concerns through official channels.

Schools and children

Students are looking for leadership, empowerment, and education around nutrition.  Yes, they are also looking for pizza.  But public schools have abdicated much in this realm.  Through anecdotes speaking with parents, we know that Jimmy won’t eat extra sugar and does push-ups each day because “coach does.”  We know that students look up to the younger teachers – and when those teachers don’t eat in the cafeteria with their students, those same students get the message.  Drab educational materials, confusing slogans, and difficulty communicating with servers in the lunch line all add up.

So what can we do?  I’m convinced that system’s level design is the answer.  That is where the true power for change is.  If we co-design effectively with all appropriate stakeholders, we’ll be able to come to an understanding together about what exactly needs to change.  Reasonable folks will be able to put aside their biases, and work for those who we need: the children of this country.  Yes, there are constraints to any problem – time, money, relationships – but the beauty of design is that it encourages us to iterate, prototype, and test in a virtuous circle of failure followed by spectacular insight and success.  Through failure, we learn not only that we weren’t “right”, but that it’s OK to fail.


Design Snacks, #7

Jon Kolko describes how to manage and facilitate group creativity.

Design Snacks, #6

Here’s our next Design Snack, on Play and Creativity:

Design Snacks #5

Mmmm, delicious design snack: Jon Kolko discusses Design Synthesis.

Design Snacks

In case you missed it, here’s Design Snack #2, posted to Vimeo last week, on Social Entrepreneurship.

Design Snacks


I’m interested in sharing some of my thoughts about design in a more accessible format than my admittedly dense writing, and so I’m going to be publishing quick videos – Design Snacks – once a week on various designerly topics.

Here’s the first one; I hope you like it.