Systemic Design and Writable Policy


Machina Speculatrix

It is most likely a case of selective attention—CENTRO has just launched a new course in Systems Thinking for the Master of Arts in Design Studies program—but lately I have noticed all kinds of signals pointing to a general reappraisal of the systemic perspective in the field of design. This very publication (not to mention the project of Laboratorio para la Ciudad as a whole) serves as one more.

A few weeks ago, IDEO—arguably the most important design and innovation firm in the world—announced their integration with Kyu Collective. Presumably, the intention (beyond financial considerations) is to bring their human-centered perspective “to tackle today’s toughest systems challenges… education, government, healthcare.”¹ Alex Ryan, a Canadian practitioner in charge of Alberta CoLab, “the world’s first standing systemic design team in government,” is known to be writing what may become the first monograph focused on the theory and practice of the emerging field of systemic design.² Perhaps more symbolically, a new wave of appreciation for the ideas and work of R. Buckminster Fuller, including his call for a “comprehensive anticipatory design science,” seems to be sweeping the art and design world once more. There may be a twofold motivation behind this trend: On one hand, individuals and organizations could be realizing that in order to tackle the world’s most complex problems we require sensibilities that transcend the standard responses of politicians and technologists; on the other hand, designers themselves seem to be equipped with a newfound confidence to tackle more ambitious challenges after successful strides into the design of behaviors, experiences, services and organizations.

Be that as it may, the invitation to participate in this bi-national collaboration came as a timely opportunity to assume the systemic-designerly mindset. After all, urban policies and interventions may be the paradigmatic example of the type of problems that systemic design is claiming for itself: large-scale, complex, unbounded, contested, socio-technical and ecological at once. Roberto Ascencio, from Laboratorio para la Ciudad, did an excellent work in his introduction to the workshop, presenting us with these challenges as they appear in mobility programs recently implemented in Mexico City: ecoParq, ECOBICI, Hoy No Circula, the new traffic law, etc. The tensions between short and long term objectives, micro and macro scales, interior and exterior perspectives, may prove to be tractable only by means of the aforementioned mindset.

Systemic design is emerging (or, perhaps more precisely, re-emerging) at the intersection of systemics and design—both of which enjoy a convoluted history that exceeds by far the scope of this text. The former refers to a family of theories, frameworks and practices related by at least some of the following principles: a notion of system as a whole composed of interacting things, the idea that the universe is a system of systems all the way down, and the conviction that certain abstract models are useful for understanding the structures and dynamics of a wide variety of concrete systems. Design, on the other hand, following Herbert Simon’s definition, refers to those courses of action (formalized in methods and practices) “aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”³ In this way, as Ryan argues, “systemic design is a mash-up of two dangerous ideas”: the idea of interdependence and the idea of intentionality.4

Given the comprehensive ambitions of systemics, all design, strictly speaking, should be considered a systemic endeavour. And yet, the label “systemic design” is currently being applied not simply to design that incorporates systems thinking but, more precisely, to design practices tasked with challenges in which a systemic framework is non-trivial. “Systemic design as we define it here,” Ryan writes elsewhere, “is intended for situations characterised by complexity, uniqueness, value conflict, and ambiguity over objectives.”5 In a similar vein, Don Norman launched the kindred project DesignX arguing that “the major problems facing humanity today involve complex systems of stakeholders and issues. These challenges often involve large numbers of people and institutions intermingled with technologies, especially those of communication, computation, and transportation.”6 For some authors, the fact that the design profession has unlocked this new set of challenges represents nothing short of a new stage in its development, namely Design 4.0 or “design for social transformation… design for complex societal situations, social systems, policy-making, and community design.”7

Mobility in the Mexican megalopolis is a systemic, DesignX or Design 4.0 challenge if there ever was one. To talk about large scale, Mexico City is one of the largest agglomerations in the world with 8.6 million inhabitants (or 18.3 if we consider the whole metropolitan area) and growing at 1.7% annually.8 The STC Metro transports around 4.2 million passengers, the bus RTP network carries 750 thousand people and the taxi system undertakes 1.1 million trips—all of those on a daily basis. The unbounded nature of the problem can be exemplified by the 4.2 million trips that cross the political limits of the city on a daily basis (a number which would grow exponentially if we were to consider the trips connecting the metropolitan area with the surrounding states). As for complexity, consider that the recent Mapatón organized by Laboratorio para la Ciudad had to deal with more than 1,500 informal routes which the network of pesero buses employ to criss-cross the city and its vicinities.9 As a thoroughly socio-technical system, mobility in the city depends on more than ten thousand kilometers of streets, 302 Metro trains, and more than one thousand buses of the publicly owned RTP system matched by the same number of buses concessioned to more than nine private companies, among other infrastructures. Finally, from an ecological perspective, the city is constantly on the critical edge in terms of air, water and noise pollution, to mention only the most salient problems.


And yet, despite all these impressive and even alarming figures, the most relevant aspect of the problem of mobility in Mexico City, from a systemic design perspective, is its contested nature. The struggles and oppositions between government and citizens, and, perhaps most importantly, between diverse groups of citizens, around the programs mentioned above, such as ecoParq, ECOBICI and Hoy No Circula, defy attempts to frame the problem even in the multiple variations of the concept of NIMBYism.

To illuminate this dimension, systemic design would benefit greatly from that strand of its genealogy that places great emphasis on the unique, if somewhat obvious, challenge that characterises what Peter Checkland called ‘soft systems’. “The complexity of problematical situations in real life,” he wrote,

stems from the fact that not only are they never static, they also contain multiple interacting perceptions of ‘reality’. This comes about because different people have different taken-as-given (and often unexamined) assumptions about the world … different worldviews. Tackling problematical situations has to accept this, and has to pitch analysis at a level that allows worldviews to be surfaced and examined.10

From this perspective, the design of social systems is less a question of problems and solutions than it is, correspondingly, about issues and accommodations. “It is a process of finding versions of the to-be-changed situation which different people with conflicting worldviews could nevertheless live with.”11 This is the point at which an irreducibly political, in fact, agonistic perspective on urban policy emerges—agonistic in the sense that it downplays the hope for consensus and accepts the inevitability of conflict.12

The topic of this project has been legible policy, which has roughly come to mean accessible with regards to its contents and transparent with regards to its goals and intentions. In this way, the idea of legibility has arguably played the role of a container for our hopes of consensus. It is as if, in stressing the importance of legible policy, we were lamenting: “If only we could make people understand what’s best for them in the long run!” Yet, from the soft-systemic, agonistic perspective that I’ve arrived at in this text, that may not be a realistic objective after all. The development of policies, as an instance of systemic design, may irremediably operate in a horizon of conflict. If this is the case, legibility qua accessibility and transparency may play the equally (if not more) important role of a minimal requirement for an accommodation of conflicting worldviews. And given that these accommodations are always local and temporary, an interesting idea pops up: Shouldn’t we be also considering the conditions in which policy ought to be writable? That is, readable and writable like a computer file.


Transparency should be a property of the process and not only of the policy itself. Governments should be transparent, from the outset, about the fact that a political process will begin to transform an existing system. Such initial, procedural transparency may serve, first and foremost, to surface and examine all the worldviews exposed to the situation. Attempts must be made to reconcile conflicting worldviews using wider, shared frames of reference. In this point, design futures, understood as the production of collective and tangible imaginations of the future (involving possible, plausible, probable and preferable scenarios), will play an essential role. Policies, and the regulations and interventions in which they are embedded, should be treated as local and temporary accommodations rather than definitive solutions. The conditions (who, what, when, why and where) in which policy is writable should be part of the design process.


1 Brown, Tim. (2016). The Next Big Thing in Design. Available at: https://medium.com/ideo-stories/the-nextbig-thing-in-design-513522543a6f#.z2l1y173p

2 Ryan, Alex. (2016). What is Systemic Design? Available from: https://medium.com/the-overlap/what-is-systemic-design-f1cb07d3d837#.hfttz3lfy

3 Simon, Herbet A. (1969) The Sciences of the Artificial. Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press., p. 130.

4 Ryan, Ibid.

5 Ryan, Alex J. A Framework for Systemic Design. FORMakademisk – Research Journal for Design and Design Education. Vol.7, Nr.4, 2014, Art. 4, 1-14. Available from: https://journals.hioa.no/index.php/formakademisk/article/ view/787

6 The Design Collaborative (2014), DesignX: A Future Path for Design. Available from: http://www.jnd.org/ dn.mss/designx_a_future_pa.html

7 This stage is predeced by Design 1.0: artifacts and communications; Design 2.0: products and services; and Design 3.0: organizational transformation. See Jones, Peter H. (2014). Systemic Design Principles for Complex Social Systems, in Metcalf, Gary S. (2014). Social Systems and Design. Springer Japan. Available from: http://www.academia. edu/5063638/Systemic_Design_Principles_for_Complex_Social_Systems See also: Jones, P.H., & van Patter, G.K. (2009). Design 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0: The rise of visual sensemaking. New York, NextDesign Leadership Institute. Available from: http://humantific.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/NextD_Design_4.0.pdf

8 All figures, unless otherwise noted, are from Secretaría de Transportes y Vialidad. Source: http://www7. df.gob.mx/wb/stv/estadisticas

9 Mendelson, Zoe. In Pursuit of Big Data, Mexico City Mapathon Gamifies Crowdsourcing. Next City. February10 Checkland, Peter and John Poulter. (2010). Soft Systems Methodology, in M. Reynolds and S. Holwell (eds.) Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A Practical Guide. The Open University. Available from: https://devpolicy.crawford.anu.edu.au/public_policy_community/content/doc/2010_Checkland_Soft_systems_methodology.pdf

10 Checkland, Peter and John Poulter. (2010). Soft Systems Methodology, in M. Reynolds and S. Holwell (eds.) Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A Practical Guide. The Open University. Available from: https://devpolicy.crawford.anu.edu.au/public_policy_community/content/doc/2010_Checkland_Soft_systems_methodology.pdf

11 Ibid.

12 See Mouffe, Chantal. (2000). The Democratic Paradox. London, New York: Verso.