Systemic design course launched at the University of Antwerp

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Kristel Van Ael, teacher at the University of Antwerp and partner at Namahn, launched the first Systemic Design course at the University of Antwerp. The course involved around 40 students attending the Master in Product Development.

The students worked on the challenge of diversity in higher education. Flanders is currently losing its leading position in terms of percentage of people with a higher education in the population. As a matter of fact, the University of Antwerp does not currently reflect the superdiversity of the city, as disadvantaged migrant streams do not understand the value of higher studies, or simply cannot afford them. Moreover, those who do start in higher education are generally more at risk of dropping out.

Hence the challenge: how can we improve the social and academic integration of the students, consequently increasing their success at school?

The course, spread over four weeks, was structured into four modules:

1. Framing
2. Reframing
3. Concept
4. Synthesis

Day 1 - Framing

The students were introduced to the challenge and worked together with expert stakeholders to frame the issue.

They focused on gaining a deeper understanding of the key issues and tried to identify not just the “boundaries” of their analysis, but also their potential influence on the system. To verify their assumptions, they prepared interview questions that would guide their field research.

Gigamap by Daphne Baan, Brecht Vermeersch, Catho Van Den Bosch, Désiree Chambon, Michel De Vicq and Nicolas Daemen

Day 2 – Reframing

The students elaborated their stakeholders’ insights to get a much clearer and structured view on the challenge.

Actor mapping and system mapping, core activities of the day, guided the exploration of the dynamics in the system. Each team visualised the network of actors – parents, friends, teachers and so on - that mostly influence the student. As a further step, the teams drew different typologies of maps to visualise the key factors influencing the access and success of disadvantaged students at school.

This allowed each group to reframe the initial challenge by identifying the factors playing the role of “leverages” in the system. Role models in the family and at school, too much communication and lacking social support are just three of the multiple leverage points identified.
Before building strategies to intervene, the teams converged on the benefits that their future solutions would bring to the students and, on a broader level, to the community.

Gigamap by Ben Michielsen, An-Sofie Rombouts, Justine Hoppenbrouwers, Toon Broothaerts, Eva Van Emelen and Fabio Morales

Day 3 – Concept

The teams worked on their solution concepts or, better, the model of their future interventions in the system.

As a first step, the students looked back at their expected benefits, then sketched a drawing of the ideal future state they wanted to achieve.
Designing for systems implies preparing the conditions to reach such future scenario. Though, it is difficult to predict how current situations will evolve, and in what measure trends will contribute to shape their evolution. That is why interventions need to be designed in a way they can be as adaptive as possible.

Exploring extreme future scenarios revealed itself a fruitful, eyes-opening activity, as the students realized they were supposed to design for multiple, possible futures.
After the exercise the teams dived into the ideation phase: paradoxical thinking guided them in the generation of solution concepts. Such concept ideas would become components of their mix of interventions.

Intervention model by students

Day 4 – Synthesis

Day 4 closed the course with the presentation of the whole process and intervention models. The teams synthesised the process with synthesis maps, while the intervention models were displayed in the form of interactive, physical prototypes. The prototypes highlighted how different interventions - buddy initiatives, peer-to-peer support and student matching platforms, open evaluations, communication campaigns, … - would be enacted by different actors in different moments of the timeline. Moreover, the interventions were conceived considering the capacity of the actors involved in the design process, namely students and teachers.

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