The film Mindwalk and the book The Turning Point by Fritjof Capra switched me onto systems thinking. When I studied it formally I was surprised by the overlaps between the theoretical concepts of systems thinking and the practical methods that I was using in my work as a user experience designer. When a colleague asked me to explain systems thinking I realised that I didn’t have a simple explanation. Here are a few systems thinking concepts (as I understand them) that I find helpful in my design work.
What is the difference between a human rights system and a transportation system? When thinking about a transportation system it is easy to name what is part of the system and what is not. When thinking about a human rights system the boundary of the system is not that clear. But what is similar for both systems is that we make decisions about what to include and what to exclude in our understanding of the system. These are called boundary decisions, it is a key concept in systems thinking.
Systems are models
Systems only come into view when we make boundary decisions (implying personal responsibility), they do not exist ‘readymade’ out there. We make decisions based on a range of emotions, values, and prejudices shaped by our individual backgrounds and contexts, hence no system can be thought of as objective. This explains why there are more than one ‘system’ for understanding and improving climate change and other wicked problems. Systems are models created by people to understand situations better, to either exploit or improve them.
Systems thinking is design
Systems thinking is a method of arranging named phenomena to learn, understand, and plan action to improve something – it’s an opportunity to design better systems (models).
A response to the question: What is Design? could be:
“Oh, so design isn’t about this pixels thing. It’s about systems thinking.” I’m a systems thinker. “Oh, so it isn’t just about the appearance.”
There are many schools of thought in systems thinking. Understanding and experimenting with systems thinking is not easy, it’s the reason why it has failed to get traction outside academia. I do think that systems thinking provides useful conceptual frameworks for designers. Maybe systems thinking should take its place in the Design toolbox, alongside design thinking and user centred design – methods that are successful because they make it easy to experiment with, and test your models (systems) in the real world.
For a short introduction to systems thinking read the How-To Guide by Daniel Kim.