Welcome to Systemic Design Labs

Designing Resilient Regenerative Systems: Hybridizing science, design and transformative praxis

About Systemic Design Labs

For dealing with our environmental and social crises, we need a cultural and mental transformation.

Systemic Design Labs (SDL) of ETH Zurich is a new type of synergistic science-design-praxis activities between research, design, and practice. We open up mental space to reframe crises through different worldviews. We enact complex sustainability challenges by integrating science disciplines, design, and transformational praxis in the real world. We advance the field of Systemic Design toward challenge-guided, context-specific navigation with scientific, designerly, and place-specific embodied methods.

As an organism of flexible, fluid arrangements of research-design-transformation activities, ETHZ SDL is hovering between, within and beyond a disciplinary organized institutional setting. SDL is hybridizing (synergistically interweaving) science for and of sustainability, research by design, and transdisciplinary, real-world collaborative action.

Tobias Luthe, PhD.
Program director

SDL leverages research and learning opportunities in real life, in real time, with the inherent complexities and surprises of transformations and systemic innovation – to stimulate and practice mental and cultural transformation.

Systemic design regeneration resilience sustainability circularity regenerative systems
Tobias Luthe, PhD. Program director

Key concepts

Systemic design integrates systems thinking and design, with the intention to better cope with complexity. Systemic design intends to develop methodologies and approaches that help to integrate systems thinking (e.g. causality, interconnectedness, circularity, synthesis) with design (e.g. ideation, prototyping, iteration) at ecological, social, technical and economic levels. It is a pluralistic initiative where many different approaches are encouraged to thrive and where dialogue and organic development of new practices are central.

Explore Systemic Design

Neither the analytical and descriptive tools of science, nor the iterative doing of design alone are adequate for addressing complex challenges. Combining both cultures of reasoning and methods as a fluid, solution oriented and synergistic process, is hybrid.

A social-ecological or socio-technical system with the capacity to continuously regain its needed energies and resources to vitalize and sustain. Regenerative design actively restores degraded systems. It creates regenerative cultures, which are rooted in cooperation, not in competition.

Design for resilience is the conscious act of creating a system with the adaptive, innovative and transformative capacities to withstand undesirable change, and to deliberately transform in a desired direction towards regeneration.

The science for and of sustainability. Iterative, evidence-based inquiry with a normative aim to balance social and economic wellbeing through technology and participation, balanced by cultural values and based on the carrying capacity of ecosystem services, of nature.

Actionable practices that lead to desired systems changes.

Circularity is creation with the intention of building mutual social benefits while closing resource loops. Resource flows can be of various kinds – material, energy, water, financial, and social. Flows have quantifiable or qualitative currencies.

Complex systems are inherently dynamic and unpredictable, their properties are emergent. An organic way to deal with emergence is the art to trust in having the right tools and techniques to adaptively cope with sudden surprises and challenges, if accepted as such.


Designing Resilient Regenerative Systems

Systemic Design Labs is about navigating complex challenges with scientific, designerly and embodied methods and practices. Part of it is the inner and cultural reframing of how to deal with nested crises. We synthesize transformative design research, transdisciplinary real-world weaving, experiential teaching and dialogic events.

Here are some highlights of our current work:

Complex socio-technical-ecological systems require simultaneous activation at multiple entry points to move towards a desired direction.

As Systemic Designers, we learn to dance with systems, to befriend uncertainty and develop inner and outer practices for real-world transformative impact.

Why Systemic Design Labs

We need to fundamentally change our ways of enacting with complexity and uncertainty in nested crises.

Climate change, biodiversity loss and pan-syndemics are some of today’s most pressing complex challenges. Much of our economies and societies prove to be not resilient and regenerative, but exhaustive, vulnerable, and unfair. Instead, we need to actively restore, to regenerate ecosystems and their services, while transforming our economies to become more circular and more just. We need new knowledge systems and cultures leading to transformative action since “the human impact on earth needs to be fundamentally redesigned”.

Scientific knowledge and reasoning are the fundamental tools to base policy and management decisions on, especially in times of crises. But we experience the limits of science when it comes to dealing with highly complex systems that are self-emergent, unpredictable, span across nested scales, depend on societal behavioral transitions, and lack data. There are limits of design as well, when for example ego-centric angles are employed to direct entryways to deal with such systems whereas science could identify relational leverage based on quantitative data, as one example.

Transformative action is what we need to foster more and faster than at current, since the pressing problems require more urgency in delivering positive impact for regeneration. For helping to deal with such urgency and complexity, Systemic Design (SD) as relating systems thinking with design contains cultures and tools of hybridizing science, design and praxis.

Illustrative experiences

Lessons learned from enacting with real-world situations

Here are some illustrative ETH students’ learning experiences from participating in SDL courses

“Transforming through Interbeing.”

The experience of SDL PhD school “alpine-urban resilience” in the small Italian mountain community changed my perspective on making a difference: the fact that we PhD’s were asking questions and indicating real interest to the locals, adding some visual dialogic tools to informed conversations, made me aware of Interbeing. Being part of transformation processes by respectfully listening and curiously asking questions.”

ETH PhD student, SDL PhD summer school, real-world lab MonViso Institute

“What is the essence?”

The design task was to build a “circular skateboard” from regenerative materials. I first thought into bio-based composites, CAD and vacuum lamination. The SDL course made me rethink my approach: what is the essence and purpose should my board deliver? How simplistic, in terms of low input and sufficient output, can I design? I came up with a stick board from the hazelnut bush in the garden, mounted on a recycled wheelbase, totally fine to long-board to the bakery.”

ETH Master student, Engineering Design

“The data doesn’t hold…”

“After submitting my SDL semester thesis, at first I felt not very comfortable to see my passive house energy modeling data being used for engaging building authorities in a local community to argue for permission for a solar facade. Until I saw that not the accuracy of my model, but the fact that I developed a proxy for an informed, visual dialogue was the actual powerful driver to engage with praxis.”

ETH Master student, Integrated Building Systems

Design has the leverage to address complex challenges of global scale with place-based inclusive responses at the intersection of ecology, anthropology, and systemic innovation.


Voices from our network

SDL is bridging different worldviews and ways of reasoning to foster collaborative engagement for transformational change. Here are some of our collaborators as well featured in the upcoming MOOC.

“Systems thinking is largely about conceptual relationships.

We can better deal with complexity if we create learning communities to share experiences, enriching conceptual with emotional relationships to nurture collective action. “

Fritjof Capra, PhD, Center for Ecoliteracy, Berkeley CA. Author of “The Systems View of Life”.

“This MOOC for me is a way to teach and learn at the same time

about how we can work together as scientists, designers, practitioners. And how others can venture out into those fields in order to have a compounding effect of saving the planet, together.”

Justyna Swat, École Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle ENSCI–Les Ateliers Paris. Founder of TinyLabs.

“The quality of the intervention is determined by the quality of Being of the intervenor.”

If we are not becoming conscious of the worldviews and cultural dimension, we miss the glasses we are wearing as we are dealing with potential solutions to complex problems. “

Daniel C. Wahl, PhD, bioregional weaver, Mallorca. Author of “Designing Regenerative Cultures”.

Partners and supporters

Systemic Design within an evolving network

SDL has been supported through various pioneering educational projects, funded by ETH Innovedum. We are partnering within dynamically evolving communities of universities, associations and real-world laboratories.

If you are interested in joining our community reach out!