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This year’s RSD12 Systemic Design Symposium showcased the diversity of the field, prompting me to ask myself, “What kind of Systems Thinking Designer Am I?” 

I am bridging two fields that I believe would both benefit from closer interaction: User Centered Design and Systemic Constellations. Here is what my current approach to Systems Thinking Design looks like.

Consciousness of the System

As a Systems Thinking Designer I approach design challenges holistically, recognizing their interconnectedness within multiple webs of meaning and influence, whether it’s a product, service, business, or organization.

We look at the current system and how it is operating with not only our analytical mind (“systems thinking”) but with all of our senses (“systems sensing”). This requires a reflective, awareness based approach in order to uncover underlying dynamics at play.

Change the System through Design

We have been able to achieve so much through design — creating new forms of technology that fit seamlessly with behavior and transform culture. It’s time to redesign for more equity, justice, and improve the wellbeing of our human and non-human world.

In my work I am looking to identify leverage points in the system, as Donella Meadows suggested, where making one small adjustment can bring about a big change in the system.

However as a Designer I am careful not to over-promise on this. When there are shifts in wider systems — the educational system, systems of government, racial injustice, social injustices — we do not know yet make those big tides finally shift.

The organizations I am working with often have an ultimate goal of “systemic change” that I can support by developing products, services, and positioning towards that mission. But most often the leverage points I am looking for as a Designer will focus on what we can change within the organizational system of the team, their approach, and product strategy.

This is about know what you can change most immediately and what is a good use of your efforts and creativity.

Map the System

In terms of design activities, the first step is to Map the System.

Even very early stage ideas are already a systems with an origin, a direction of flow, and a destination it is trying to reach. They also have a founder, a team, partners, an audience, and a flow of money and resources.

If the product, service, or business we are creating is very nascent, and certain aspects of the system are still fuzzy, I use a Systemic Constellations process to clarify and bring some of the key parts of the system into sharper focus.

Designing for Self-Organization

I view products, services, and, and organizations as dynamic entities with information and resources constantly flowing in and out. By identifying blockages and applying interventions, systems can self-organize to regain momentum.

In my work, I draw on Donella Meadows’ view that a small shift can profoundly transform a system, even when all of the other elements remain the same.

When we find the right intervention, because systems are Self-Organizing, we can then stand back as the other elements in the system readjust around the intervention, getting things flowing more easily again.

"A change in purpose changes a system profoundly, even if every element and interconnection remains the same.”
Donella Meadows

Real World Applications

In the real world, my role as a Systems Thinking Designer aligns with Design and Leadership, for example:

User Experience Strategy: Crafting strategies to elevate user experiences.

Business Design: Aligning design with broader business goals.

Visioning: Shaping the long-term vision for products and services.

Brainstorming: Facilitating creative idea generation within teams.

Leadership Training: Mentoring and guiding teams towards effective leadership.

 

The tangible outcomes of these activities include:

Evaluation and Insights: Providing insights on current state experiences.

Articulating an Organization’s Essence: Defining an organization’s core identity and brand principles.

Defining Product Offerings: Clearly outlining core products and services.

Understanding the Audience: Gaining in-depth knowledge of target audiences, their motivations, and behaviors.

Optimal Team Positioning: Determining the ideal team positioning in relation to the audience and offerings.

Leveraging Team Roles: Recognizing the team’s role within the evolving system and enabling them to implement interventions for change.

In essence, being a Systems Thinking Designer for me is about getting to foundational insights needed to develop positioning, branding, messaging, mission statements, and product positioning. It is humanistic, holistic, and often reflective. It is a generative approach to problem solving and creating new offerings in a way that is targeted, effective, and generative for all involved.

What kind of Systems Thinking Designer are you? What positive change can you inspire in the systems you encounter?

For over 30 years Dr Ruby Gibson and her Freedom Lodge organization have been working in Native American communities on the recovery from historical trauma. Following the method she developed “Somatic Archaeology” you begin with listening and bringing awareness to the great library of information and story each person is walking around with. As she says, recovering from trauma is not very hard when you have the right tools; trauma is just like a speed bump that is part of life. 

What intrigued me is that her conversation with Thomas Hubl, when asked where she wanted to take the work next , she said that she dreamed of doing healing sessions with the Earth herself, similarly to how you would with a person. 

To paraphrase: 

“It is like there is a fragility right now to nature, because humans have been careless in our relationship with her. So go to the places of hurt and listen to her. Offer your love and awareness, as a kind of repair. Go to the places that have been mined and drilled and bear witness to those scars in the earth. Go to the burial grounds, the places where there were battles, the places where there has been a lot of pain and wounding, and offer prayers and blessings so that we can come back into relationship with the earth.” 

Going on pilgrimage to the places of historical harms, to bring awareness and witnessing, is a practice I have been part of from the peace walks with the NE Peace Pagoda, and am curious to keep learning from. My understanding from systemic work is that for human beings to “find their place” again in relationship to the earth, we have to realize how young and new we are as a species, compared to the ancientness of the Earth. And that when we know our place, we see that is is absurd for us to attempt to “heal” the planet. What we can reconcile though is the relationship between humans and the earth, which is something different. This is where ritual and ceremony come in.

You may have heard the story of the four children who survived a plane crash in the Amazonian jungle in Columbia and were found after 40 days. 

When the story first filtered through the news it was hailed as a triumph of the Columbian armed forces and the indigenous people working together. If you read more closely you can hear it as a story about the differences between an indigenous and western way of solving an almost impossible problem. 

There were seven people onboard the plane and when it had engine failure and went down in the jungle. The adults — the children’s mother and two pilots were found perished in the wreckage and there were signs that the four children from the indigenous Huitoto tribe, aged 13, nine, five, and one, had survived. But they were in such a deep part of the jungle it was nearly impossible for search crews to find them. The Columbian government deployed more than 100 soldiers but it was so dense and the conditions so difficult that many of them dropped out of the search. 

Meanwhile the eldest girl was taking care of her two younger sisters and younger brother. At 13 years old she had already been given the knowledge of how to live in the jungle. She had taken the baby and built a hammock in the trees for her where she was safe and happy. They knew which fruits could be eaten and they were eating cassava flour saved from the plane. 

After many days of searching one of the indigenous elders did a ceremony to dialogue with the spirit of the jungle about their predicament. They were in such a deep place where “no human was ever meant to go,” that the elder offered to the jungle his own life in exchange for the children. After a deal was made, he gave the Indigenous guard on the search team specific instructions on what to do when the children would be found the very next day, as they were. 

In his account of the search, Columbian activist Manual Rozental emphasizes that it was not technology or the armed forces that found them, but the indigenous knowledge and in particular women’s knowledge. 

Christopher Alexander and the quest for balance in architecture, systemic constellations and human-centered design

We all know what it’s like to step into a space that on first impression feels good, uplifting, harmonious in some way. As we look around at our spaces we can take a moment of pause, feel a sense of ease from the beauty in a landscape, the view from a window, the layout of a room, the posture of a building.

Christopher Alexander was an architect and visionary theorist who wondered about the beauty of a village, a building, a built environment, and asked, What makes it so? And how might this quality of “rightness” be repeated? How might it scale? He thought there was a timeless way of building and that places of beauty were made by people who are close to this way. Alexander set out to find the common patterns that generate the most aliveness in a structure, with the goal of helping more people to be able to create beautiful environments and ultimately a more beautiful world.

He analyzed which buildings and spaces people had resonance with and derived 253 unique patterns described in his book “A Pattern Language.” With this book he wanted to provide a practical glossary that people could reference and reverse engineer for beauty. In the beginning of his quest he called the quality he was searching for “the quality without a name.” Later he named it “wholeness” in Nature of Order which relates to human relationships the feelings of belonging to the place and structure.

In Alexander’s inquiry there are many parallels with Systemic Constellations. In the language of Constellations we would say that Alexander was looking to define the place of balance, where systems come into equilibrium. Systemic Constellation shares in Christopher Alexander’s goal of propagating for beauty, balance, and looks at the relationship between diverse parts of an environment in order to architect for harmony.

The constellations approach is different in that instead of giving people a glossary of patterns to reference, we help people to develop their own capacities for perception. Once they get a felt sense for this senses of balance and harmony they can apply it, not only to building, and environments, but to anything humans “make,” including social systems. We include how things are today and often include a representative for the full vision of what the work could be.

The design process that Christopher Alexander used in building his first client home in Albany, California began with Alexander asking the owner Andre Sala to close his eyes and describe “the most beautiful and comfortable room you can remember.” What he envisioned was a memory of the farmhouse he had visited as a boy in the south of France. This became the center of the home.

While the overall form of the house was planned in advance, it was not driven from behind a desk. Many design decisions were made as building progressed. For example, the placement of windows and the height of ceilings was determined on site by first creating mockups in cardboard. Christopher Alexander said the mockups were considered not by a standard of “Do I like it?” but by considering “In all the variations I can think of, which is the one that makes me feel most wholesome, most whole in myself?”

The act of design and construction is recast into an inquiry about wholeness and balance. This was a departure from the typical process at the time, where an edifice was conceived on a drafting table, with building plans and requirements ruling the process, and then imposed onto a site.  Instead for Alexander the guiding questions were about balance, comfort and harmony. Every detail was finalized on site and in relationship to what was already there. There was a strong awareness of pre-existing patterns, conditions, and history. 

As a human centered designer, I recognize the transition to an iterative process that I have seen over the course of my career in the technology. In the packaged software era, we would create a monolith of code, test it based on our best in-house knowledge, and then release it to the marketplace. If there were errors or lapses in functionality, these would be fixed when the next monolith of code was released. In the late 90s it was apparent to all that the approach needed to be more dynamic for the web environment. I became interested in the human interaction with the system, and found a home in user research where we started testing early prototypes with different audiences. Bringing end users into the design process brought more aliveness and balance into these systems, not to mention making the products functional and wildly successful. 

Before the boom of user-centered design, technology was being driven by “What does the business want?” and “What do the technologists know how to build?” Today we now regularly include “What do our audiences want” as part of the process, but there is mounting un-ease that we are still out of balance. We are now being asked to look for who or what has been excluded from our process. For example, is a vast number of human populations who have been left out, and we are rarely asking how to include nature or the earth in the design process. Systemic constellations gives us a way to grow in our capacities to diagnose these imbalances and exclusions. We can learn to design for wholeness, balance, and aliveness. 

Alexander cautioned us to not lose sight of the fact that systems are embedded and in relationship with other systems. 

“This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole, and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.” -Christopher Alexander

There was recently a conversation about Christopher Alexander in the Pop-Up School with Bonnitta Roy. and the metaphysical tones that were present in his first book: 

Roy: “calling the book a ‘first step in the society-wide process by which people will gradually become conscious of their own pattern languages and work to improve them.’ Alexander thought that the languages which govern people today are brutal and fragmented, and that most people have lost any true language to speak with at all. It was his goal to penetrate deep into the nature of things, to the core of all possible pattern languages, which can make people feel alive and human.

Christopher Alexander describes the balance he is looking for: 

“I first feel existence shimmering in reality, and I then feel it deep enough in the thing I am looking at and trying to make, to know it is worth capturing in concrete and wood and tile and paint. … This thing, this something, is not God, it is not nature, it is not feeling. It is some ultimate, beyond experience. When I reach for it, I try to find— I can partly feel— the illumination of existence, a glimpse of that ultimate. It is always the same thing at root. Yet, of course, it takes an infinite variety of different forms.”

Roy goes on to say that Alexander noticed that, when in the presence buildings or structures that have the quality of aliveness, whether natural or man-made, something was released in him— his true voice — or he was released into something — his natural state. At first he experienced this as getting closer and closer to his true self, but then he realized he was touching “something vast, existing outside of myself and inside myself, as if it were a contact with the eternal, something everlasting existing before me, in me, and around me.”

Alexander describes how he knows what he’s looking for in an embodied way:

“This is what I have felt on the beach on the north shore of Point Reyes, near San Francisco, when the sea comes crashing in with enormous force, when the water and wind are too loud for me to hear my voice, the waves too strong for me to think of swimming, the force of the water and the wind, the white foam of the waves, the blackish green moving water, the huge, loud grinding swells, the beach sand that goes on forever, the seaweeds strewn on the beach that have been hurled by a force greater than they are— as I am, also, when I walk among them.”

“Yet, even though I am next to nothing in the presence of all this forces, I am free there. In such a place, at such a moment, I am crushed to understand my own smallness, and then understand the immensity of what exists. But this immensity of what exists— and my connection to it— is not only something in my heart. It is a vastness which is outside me and beyond me and inside of me.”

This speaks to how we develop our ability to design for balance in a system. In systemic constellations if there is a stakeholder from they system we are designing for, we can architect a living map of the system and use our embodied felt sense to see how the creative impulse moves of its own accord. This can be done for all acts of creation — setting up a room, drawing, painting, programming.

The mind is too coarse an instrument to gather deeper signals from the world This is the role of the body as the sensorium. — Bonnita Roy

There was a lot of resonance when I came across Bonnie’s work. Not only for mind-expanding perspectives on consciousness and ways of knowing — but because she stewards a 10-acre farm in New England and connects many of her findings to what she knows about training horses. 🐎

Sandy Neck, by Don Fleet

“There are 405 creation stories in Australia. 

They are all different. 

And they are all true.”

“How so Uncle?” 

“They’re true for the people who tell them in the place where they are told.” 

— As told by Lewis Mehl-Madrona in conversation with Uncle Albert, an elder from East Gippsland, Australia