Systemic design workshop at RSD5

Saturday, October 1, 2016

In 2015, Namahn (human centred designers) and Shiftn (systems thinkers) started to develop a systemic design toolkit. They presented the first version of the toolkit in a workshop at the RSD5 – Relating Systems Thinking and Design - conference in Toronto. The event brought together practitioners in the fields of design thinking and systems thinking, and the workshop gave the possibility to receive the first feedback.

The session included theoretical and practical moments, where participants could try some of tools covering the three main phases of the design process: understanding, exploring, defining.

Participants worked on the case of child obesity. First, they were asked to examine the quality of the core relationships in the system. Child obesity offers many possibilities to do so, as you might want to study how kids relate to their peers, their parents, doctors or teachers. To this aim, the groups worked on the “Actants” tool.

The session included theoretical and practical moments, where participants could try some of tools covering the three main phases of the design process: understanding, exploring, defining.

As a first step, they identified the activities and exchanges occurring between couples of actors. After, they went a step further to understand the actors’ drives, a set of triggers which push the actors to interact with each other. Human drives play an essential role: by triggering people to act, they work as engines in the system.  
That is why the list of variables identified in the Actants tool was then used to sketch a system map.

To build a map of the system, the teams started with the relationship between the primary actors identified in the previous exercise. They retrieved the objects exchanged between the actors, their drives, and transcribed them on the system map poster.

They drew connections between different variables to understand how they would reinforce or weaken each other. Once this “engine” was visualized, they also examined how the community and, in the broader picture, society, would affect the core relationship.

Through the system map, participants could see “leverages” in the system, namely key variables influencing multiple variables in the map. These were the basis for the next exercise, guiding towards the “exploration” phase.

In this step, participants worked on the “intervention strategy” tool. Inspired by the “leverage points” of Donella Meadows, the tool consists in a brainstorming canvas structured into the different “areas” where interventions are possible.

Participants looked at their leverages as “umbrellas” of needed actions. Those actions would target information flows, digital and physical infrastructures, rules and regulations, mindset, as well as other possible domains.

After the brainstorm, the groups selected the most relevant ideas according to parameters of capacity and feasibility. To better define such ideas of interventions and come up with more detailed concepts, the groups used the “paradox matrix” canvas.

The “paradox matrix” is an ideation tool stimulating paradoxical thinking: working with paradoxes means creating reinforcing by acting on opposing forces, and that is exactly what you need to consider when intervening in a system.
The canvas helped participants generate more focused ideas, as they gathered their concepts within specific opposing quadrants in the poster.

The concepts spread in the quadrants were then combined to build a “solution mix” tackling the leverage areas identified in the previous exercises.

The positive feedback of the participants encouraged Namahn to develop the toolkit further. Today the toolkit is ready for official launch at the RSD7 conference in Torino.

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