Systemic Design 101

Intervening in complexity

Currently 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 is approaching 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 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.

Our current societal challenges lead to increased complexity and uncertainty. Neither the analytical and descriptive tools of science, nor the iterative doing of design alone are adequate for addressing complex challenges to implement and guide transformative action. Combining both cultures of reasoning and methods as a fluid, solution oriented and synergistic process, is hybrid, and this is how we understand systemic design.

Through our basic research, we develop SD methods, practices and cultures.

A heuristic for describing systemic design as hybrid set of science-design praxis tools. Design and systems thinking form the guiding frame (shore) for the fluid process (river) of activating different methods of science (white currents) where helpful and needed, navigating obstacles and changing directions in order to nudge transformative action as dynamic process (orange elements). Work in progress (Luthe, Swat, Fitzpatrick et al. 2021, RSD10 Delft)

Systemic Design entails hybrid competencies from science, design and trans-disciplinary transfer that synergize each other. SDL sets such competencies in relation with specific didactics and teaching methods, such as Systemic Cycles.


Background reading

Here is a lose collection of relevant readings and background resources related with this Systemic Design Labs program – the list is non-exhaustive and just a selection to start with.

Learning for Sustainability – Systemic Design

Systemic Design in simple words

A field guide to Systemic Design by CoLab

Systemic Design Association

Battistoni, C., Nohra, C. G. and S. Barbero. 2019. A Systemic Design Method to Approach Future Complex Scenarios and Research Towards Sustainability: A Holistic Diagnosis Tool. Sustainability 11(16), 4458;

Fazey I., Schäpke N., (…) Luthe T. (…) et al. 2020. Transforming knowledge systems for life on Earth: Visions of future systems and how to get there. Energy Research & Social Science 70 (2020) 101724. A short summarizing movie was released at the Transformations 2021 conference.

Holtz G, Alkemade F, de Haan F, Koehler J, Trutnevyte E, Chappin E, Halbe J, Kwakkel J, Luthe T, Ruutu S, Papachristos G, Yucel G. 2015. Prospects of modelling societal transitions – Position paper of an emerging community. Environmental Innovations and Societal Transitions 17:41-58. DOI: 10.1016/j.eist.2015.05.006(>with a chapter on structural network modeling)

Luthe, T., Lumpe, T., Schwarz, J., Schuetz, M. and K. Shea. 2017. Teaching Systemic Design For Sustainability In Engineering By Building Eco-Skis. Proceedings of the 21st International Conference on Engineering Design (ICED 17) Vol 9: Design Education, Vancouver, Canada, 21-25.08.2017.ISBN: 978-1-904670-97-1, ISSN: 2220-4342.

Luthe, T., Kaegi, T. and J. Reger. 2013. A Systems Approach to Sustainable Technical Product Design. Combining life cycle assessment and virtual development in the case of skis. Journal of Industrial Ecology 17(4), 605-617. DOI: 10.1111/jiec.12000

Ryan, A. 2014. A Framework for Systemic Design. 7(4) Art. 4,1-14. DOI: 10.7577/formakademisk.787.

Swat, J., Luthe, T. and B. Sevaldson. 2019. When Is Systemic Design Regenerative? Values, direction and currencies in systemic design methodology. In: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD8) 2019 Symposium. IIT Institute of Design, Chicago, October 13-15, 2019. Systemic Design Association. ISSN 2371-8404.  Link to a movie summarizing the fishbowl method.

Trevisan, L., Peruccio, P. P. and S. Barbero. 2018. From engineering to industrial design: issues of educating future engineers to systemic design. Procedia CIRP 70 (2018) 319–324. DOI: 10.1016/j.procir.2018.02.014

Akademisk – a Norwegian research journal on design and design education, with special issues on SD articles of the RSD (Relating Systems Thinking and Design) conferences.

Heymann, D. 2017. The Ugly Pet. Sustainability should be revolutionary to architectural form. But it hasn’t been, at least not yet.

Jones, P. and Kojima. K. (Eds.) 2018. Systemic Design. Theory, Methods, and Practice. Springer.

Luthe, T. 2020. Designing for Circularity in a Real-world context: Understanding Cooperative Benefits to Foster Individual Action for a Regenerative Economy. Newsletter “Network City and Landscape“, ETH Zurich.

Luthe, T. 2020. Ski Systems Design – Building Fjell skis as part of a broader mountain tourism system. In: Systems Oriented Design. The designerly way to work with systems.

Luthe, T. 2019. Hemp as incubator of a circular economy. Hanf Magazin 06-2019.

Luthe, T. 2018. Systemic Design Labs: Incubating systemic design skills by experiential didactics and nature-based creativity Vol 1 No 1 (2018): Proceedings of the ETH Learning and Teaching Fair 2018. ETH Zurich.

Wahl, D.C. 2016. Designing Regenerative Cultures. Triarchy Press. ISBN: 978-1-909470-77-4.

Politecnico Torino, Italy. Bachelor, Master and PhD in Systemic Design

The Oslo School of Architecture and Design AHO. Master and PhD program in Design with a focus on Systems Oriented Design

KTH Royal Institute of Technology Stockholm, various Master programs related with design, systems thinking and sustainability

University of Bolzano, Italy. Master in Eco-Social Design

OCAD University Toronto, Canada. Master in Strategic Foresight and Innovation (MDes)

University of Virginia, USA. Behavioral Science for Sustainable Systems PhD program

Annual “Relating Systems Thinking and Design” (RSD) conference: RSD7 2018 TurinRSD8 2019 Chicago

Systems Innovation

MonViso Institute – a real-world mountain laboratory for sustainability transitions and regenerative systemic design

SYDERE Systemic Design Research and Education Center by ECAM Lyon Engineering School and Politecnico Torino

Green Leap center of KTH Royal Institute of Technology Stockholm

University of Virginia’s Convergent Behavioral Science Initiative

Systemic Design Toolkit

Politecnico Torino Systemic Design Youtube channel

AHO Oslo Systems Oriented Design studio blog

The journal nature Sustainability has a new expert panel on design for sustainability

Systemic Design is a hybrid set of methods and interventions that integrate systems thinking with design, allowing to navigate and intervene in complex systems.