Systemic Design Labs (SDL)

The purpose of Systemic Design Labs is to better tackle the complexity of today’s sustainability challenges through experimentation and learning in a real-world context. In current education, we often learn to disassemble design challenges into their bits and parts for individual optimization. While being useful for developing topical expertise, this reductionism to parts with less emphasis on their interaction does not match with the growing complexity of today’s challenges. In contrast, systemic design approaches a task from a holistic perspective, zooming out of a system to reveal its structure and connections between its parts – to zoom in on the hub of influence that matters most.

Systemic design (SD) optimizes an entire system as a whole, rather than its parts in isolation. It is iterative, recursive and circular, but not linear, and within each stage reveals new insights informing previous ideas, leading to loops in approaching a solution. SD requires creative, curious, informed and critical systems thinking and doing, yielding radical resource efficiency. SD can solve many problems at once, create multiple benefits from single expenditures, and yield more diverse and widely distributed benefits that help attract broader support for implementation.

Real-World Laboratories (RWL)

SDL take place in RWL settings, which are experimental hubs or centers at the interface of science, society and action. RWL provide learning and research opportunities in real life, in real time, with all the inherent complexities and surprises of transformations and systemic innovation.

SDL project page by Innovedum fair

Teaching motivation and didactic approach

Systemic Design Labs are integrated modular block courses “research oriented teaching” for interdisciplinary MSc and PhD students. Established planning, design and engineering methods are combined with ecological design thinking, nature-inspired creativity and service understanding to better cope with the increasing complexity of current and future sustainability challenges.
Students are being empowered to proactively design processes, products and services from a systemic perspective, where ecological life cycle design is integrated with technical planning and engineering skillsets, in relation to socio-economic factors, user needs and spatial development.

Learning skills/competencies and goals (bubbles) related with didactic methods and general course settings (Luthe 2017)

The Systemic Design Lab (SDL) initiative builds on established teaching in engineering, planning and design while introducing systemic design thinking and doing in an innovative format based on experiential didactics and outdoor creativity.
We use bio-inspired design or biomimicry, fabrication and prototyping with sustainable materials, urban and landscape test planning, and systems- or supply chain mapping of product/process/services to spur creativity, holistic thinking and critical reflection within a sustainability context. Students learn to inhabit the “view from above” – zooming out of the direct problem focus to see the underlaying structure and identify leverage hubs with systemic impact – and zooming in again with the needed focus on details that matter most.
Explicitly, students acquire life cycle analysis, supply chain mapping and circular design skills, to both quantify and minimize the undesirable negative environmental footprint while increasing the regenerative, net-positive contribution of their design solutions. Fabrication and material science are taught by actually designing and prototyping while engaging in transdisciplinary partnerships for societal impact and real-world experience. Students gain a whole-systems understanding of the relation between products, processes, services, economies, land use and lifestyles to up- and downstream flows of matter, energy and people mobility, within a spatial framing.

Objectives        The growing necessity to consider eco-social aspects makes design, planning and engineering practices more complex. Systemic design combines systems thinking skills with design thinking to address such complexity. The objectives of the course are to introduce students to the most important topics in systemic design methods, models, theory and methodology that form the basis for engineering, design and planning practices, and research for sustainability. A main goal is to develop whole systems thinking, life cycle and cradle to cradle thinking, to build knowledge on environmental impacts of materials and processes, and to stimulate overall reflective eco-social thinking in design, planning and engineering disciplines.

Contents           The courses are organized in four units with a theoretical and a practical part: Unit 1) Create a self-reflective, in-depth understanding of sustainability in general and in specific regenerative systems, Unit 2) Develop whole systems thinking and learn systemic design tools such as life cycle design, cradle to cradle design, upcycling, biomimicry, Unit 3) Understand the human behavioral factors within systemic design and sustainability impact assessment. Unit 4) Apply theory to practice and build your own skis, kite boards, snowshoes toolkits or alike, or test plan and layout an integrated community economy-landscape model, according to the systemic design skills acquired during this course. Students will finish a sustainability impact study for ecological, social, technical and economic peformance indicators of the systems they design, plan and build.