Why Design Thinking Needs Systems Thinking

I was a young student in my first year at the university. I had never heard of systems thinking or any other kind of thinking either. I had entered a program with focus on systems analysis and information systems, and I had no idea what it was all about. Pretty soon I had my first encounter with a real university professor. In the very first course the professor had us read “The Systems Approach” by C. West Churchman. The book was so different from anything else I had read. For the first time, I read something that was intellectually stimulating at the same time as it felt real and practical. I loved the book. 

Due to the same professor, throughout my undergraduate and doctoral years I was "forced" to read, think, reflect and discuss the works of Churchman. We had lectures, seminars and discussions around Churchman’s work. Churchman was as a visiting professor at our department. All this, of course, strongly influenced my intellectual development. My mind was devoted to systems thinking.

But it became too much! I actually came to a point were I had to free myself from the intellectual tradition I was trained in. I realized that systems thinking was not enough, at least not for me. I found that it was too much focused on analysis, on revealing the conditions of the already existing, while I became more and more interested in the not-yet-existing, and therefore moved towards ideas and traditions more focused on design inquiry and action. I tried to find out what creativity, innovation and design was all about. 

In recent year my thinking has changed again. All the ideas that were introduced to me by Churchman is slowly making a “comeback”. I believe this is not something that I am the only one to experience. We are entering a world that through new technology, changing cultures and markets rapidly becomes more complex. Design today is almost never about creating something closed and contained. Almost everything is systemic by design and part of other systems. This is especially true when it comes to digital products and systems. The infusion of computational and communication abilities into almost every new artifact radically changes our whole environment. Nothing is separated from anything else. There are no separable components. We find ourselves in a true world of systems.


In such a world of extreme complexity we need intellectual tools suited for that challenge. And it is obvious to me that popular forms of 'design thinking' are not equipped with such tools. It is as if the pendulum has swung too far on the side of 'creative' and 'innovative' aspects of designing while tools that can support serious investigations of the complexity of reality is neglected. 

I have realized that I am, in a way, back to where I started. In my attempts to handle this complexity I find support and guidance in the thoughts and ideas of Churchman and of systems thinking in general. In his books he reflects on the many aspects of systems and of complexity. He tries to makes these reflections go hand in hand with basic aspects of life itself by always pushing the questions of what systems thinking could and should be used for. These are all issues pertinent to design. Design thinking today is in need of systems thinking. The work of Churchman is relevant and useful in a way I think he would have liked, that is, not as an isolated theoretical lens without relevance outside academia, but as a pragmatic approach to reality with the focus on making a difference.

Comments

Thanks for a great post, Erik. I believe that an important point in Churchmans work is the discussion itself about what "system" means. The activity theoretical approach to systems have been useful by providing us with a focus on mediation in concrete situations of use, but understood as embedded in the larger systemic context of interacting activity systems. While it, in practical analysis, has been difficult to identify the level of activity, the notion that specific interaction is systemically embedded in such motivational structure has been helpful as a sort of open-ended systems approach.
Erik Stolterman said…
Hi Olav,
Thanks for your comments. And yes, your comment on the problem of what the system in question is, the "object of analysis", is really crucial. And I agree that this is where Churchman is valuable, at for asking these questions.

Thanks
Erik
Scott Davidoff said…
Erik, thanks for the thoughtful post. I'm excited to see you thinking about this topic. The confluence between these two disciplines is particularly salient to my work at NASA, where I work on highly complex systems. The corpus of knowledge in Human-Centered Design is essential but incomplete when it comes to projects at this scale.

I have been talking with Steve Harrison and Guy Boy about ways to unpack this problem into a coherent strategy for application at NASA, as well as a research agenda for bridging the two disciplines.

Following the Systems Engineering vernacular, Guy calls this problem "Human-Systems Integration" --
Boy G.A., Narkevicius J.M. (2014) Unifying Human Centered Design and Systems Engineering for Human Systems Integration. In: Aiguier M., Boulanger F., Krob D., Marchal C. (eds) Complex Systems Design & Management. Springer, Cham. Paper DOI

Guy chairs an INCOSE workshop on the topic on the systems side. Curiously, there's no corresponding caucus on the HCI research side. Let me know if you'd be interesting in talking more about it.

Scott
Erik Stolterman said…
Hi Scott
Thanks for the comments and the information. I am happy to see that more people are recognizing this and also are trying to do something! That is great. I have printed the paper and will take a look.

There is a conference called Symposium Relating Systems Thinking with Design. http://systemic-design.net/
I was there last year, some interesting work.

Erik
Erik Stolterman said…
Hi Scott (again)
I quickly read the paper and I agree with the overall ambition and approach. These two areas have to come together and recognize and inform each other. How to achieve that is however far from easy. I assume that NASA is constantly struggling with this. To me, the 'solution' is probably less a detailed combination of two approaches (both of which are diverse and rich in themselves), but a composition on a higher maybe more philosophical level that recognizes and respects the two perspectives. On the particular level, it is always a question of designing a suitable approach to the ultimate particular circumstances.
Erk
Anonymous said…
Thank you for posting this. This has triggered lots of reading up on systems thinking, and from there on communities of practice.

"Design thinking today is in need of systems thinking." Particularly this statement, what do you see as the gap for DT? Offhand, it feels like design thinking is very useful the small case, purposely limited frame study. In DT, designers intentionally frame problems, in order to limit complexity and enable decision making toward step-wise change. Whereas, when I think about creating and changing systems, it seems almost unwise to limit complexity. Nevertheless, when thinking of designing systems, I feel crippled by the number of decisions that are interdependent.

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