The increase in complex problems necessitates a shift away from the exclusively reductionist approach that predominates our Western worldview. In design, this realization has led to the rise of systemic design, a relatively new field that bridges design practices and systems thinking. In this new approach, designers collaborate with stakeholders in a complex problem space to cultivate a deeper systemic understanding and create a more holistic perspective on the problem and system dynamics. Examples of complex problems are social inequality or the transition to the circular economy. Employing tools like system maps and outcome maps, they establish a shared reference, creating a solution space for meaningful interventions within the system. Following an iterative approach, an interconnected network of interventions (solution network) is designed, which is translated to specific design practices to enable systemic change and shift practices, mindset and even underlying values.
What do we mean by systems?
Systems are any whole consisting of elements and the way they are related. That means you can describe a teapot as a system, or a human body: a whole of organs, bones, blood vessels, conciousness … of which all elements are deeply interrelated and work together to create more than the sum of their parts: a living, thinking being. To understand a system, you cannot only look at the different elements it consists of, you have to include the relations between the parts and look at the system as a whole. In systemic design, we are interested in complex social systems: cities, communities, organisations, institutions, ecosystems. We try to get an idea of the system and its dynamics as a whole, by analysing what the elements are that these systems consist of and how they are related to each other. When we intervene in the system, we choose those specific parts that are meaningful and have the most impact on the system when changed: the leverage points.
Why should designers be involved?
Systemic design builds on systems thinking and tries to intervene in those complex social systems with design interventions. Those interventions can be products, services and more, but the way they are related becomes important: systemic designers create solution networks. As systemic designers, we use tools to embrace complexity and work in a systemic way both in our analysis and synthesis.
For more information about systems thinking, watch this youtube video of Russel Ackoff:
For more information about the tools and methodology we use in the systemic design lab:
Jones, P. and Van Ael, K. (2022), Design Journeys through Complex Systems: Practice Tools for Systemic Design, Bis Publishers, Amsterdam.
The Antwerp Systemic Design Lab
The Antwerp Systemic Design Lab aims to expand, activate, and translate knowledge for design to be more effective in creating positive impact.
Why are we doing this?
We live in a world where complex problems are emerging exponentially, the health of living systems is declining, and a lack of systemic action is present.
At the Antwerp Systemic Design Lab, we believe in the agency of design and a systemic mindset as the current best option to transition towards flourishing, regenerative futures.
By expanding the current possibilities of design, we (i) redefine and open up the problem space, (ii) lay a strong foundation for systemic action, and (iii) create a space for solution networks to enable change by design towards a positive impact.
What do we do, and how do we work?
We develop new knowledge and new approaches in the field of systemic design. As a university lab, we take responsibility for an ethical attitude and for defining the quality of knowledge in this expanding field.
- We frame the problematics and detect the relevant knowledge gaps
- We develop new knowledge
- We develop boundary objects
- We perform short-term and long-term research projects
- Research in design-context
- Design-inclusive research
- Operative design research
We apply the created knowledge and the new approaches in projects. We create a network of allies that strive for a flourishing, regenerative future by applying systemic design.
- We apply boundary objects and other design artefacts to build bridges, networks and a community for systemic design
- We participate and facilitate in multi- and transdisciplinary projects to enable systemic change by design
We translate this knowledge, both towards design education and to a larger community (both in design and in other fields) that strives for impact, by using our design and visioning skills to create a narrative that embraces complexity.
- We organise workshops for students and practitioners
- We teach courses for students and masterclasses for practitioners
- We publish in academic journals and books and popularized scientific communication channels
- We organise events
Research to increase confidence in maternal vaccination by digital communication interventions
Since pregnant women, fetuses and neonates are highly vulnerable to infectious diseases related morbidity and mortality, it of utmost important to understand barriers in the uptake of maternal vaccines to decrease vaccine hesitancy and increase vaccination coverage in fertile, pregnant and lactating women. Therefore a multidisciplinary team of experts at the University Antwerp is created, to investigate the different aspects of social media communication and its impact on vaccine confidence, acceptance and coverage in fertile, pregnant and lactating women. To study this, five research objectives are formulated: - Study the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and increased social media communication and search behavior on attitude toward and confidence in maternal vaccines. - Develop a social listening and monitoring tool, specifically for maternal vaccination, that contributes to the systems map with social media data by identifying influential factors and that can monitor trends in vaccine hesitancy over time. - Identify interlinkage between influencing factors by using systemic thinking which may detect the dynamics among the factors that may lead to increase in vaccine confidence. - Experimental evaluation of the impact of potential social media communication strategies on behavior towards maternal vaccination. - Comparison of influential factors in different countries.
- Promoter: Maertens Kirsten
- Co-promoter: Daelemans Walter
- Co-promoter: Alexis Jacoby
- Co-promoter: Karolien Poels
- Centre for the Evaluation of Vaccination (CEV)
Enriched nature: A systemic design project to make leisure time in nature more accessible to disadvantaged groups
With its leisure offer, the province of Antwerp strongly focuses on experiencing greenery and nature, but notes that disadvantaged groups do not make optimal use of this. Research has shown that contact with nature has a positive effect on people's well-being. Using methods of human-centred and systemic design, the project maps the barriers to participation. Possible intervention models are defined on the basis of system maps, in co-creation with the target group and other stakeholders.
- Promoter: Ingrid Moons
- Co-promoter: Alexis Jacoby
Corporate transition to the Circular Economy: a systemic design approach.
The production of goods in companies mostly follows a linear approach in which raw materials and resources are converted into products and, after use, into waste flows that will be partially recycled. On both the international level and the local level the awareness grows that this linear production process is not sustainable on the long term and that a transition towards a more Circular Economy is essential. This transition will have a major impact on the way companies innovate and the way products and services are designed and developed. The starting point for this research is the fact that a transition into a Circular Economy cannot be realized only on the level of product and service design but that innovation is also necessary on the level of the socio-technical system. A broad range of multidisciplinary factors, such as stakeholders' behaviour and motivation, business modelling, regulations, the learning curve for change, etc., have to be taken into account. The broadness and the complexity of the context in which sustainable innovation originates asks for an approach in which systems thinking takes a central role. This research project addresses the research question how a systemic design process in a firm's context can contribute to a transition into a Circular Economy and which design approach is necessary to grasp the complexity of this transition. The research focuses on the implementation of systemic solutions and the way the strengths of the existing system can contribute to the transition. The research project will result in new knowledge on the systemic design process and in a new design methodology that can support design consultants or in-company design departments to support the process of sustainable innovation for the transition into a Circular Economy. The research combines qualitative research with design-inclusive research. Firstly, a theoretical framework is constructed that will provide the foundation for the development of a systemic design approach, customized for innovating companies. Secondly, a systemic design methodology is developed applying design-inclusive participatory research in the context of two company-related cases. The research builds on a cyclical and iterative process that leads to both theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge on the way it can be applied in the firm's context.
- Researcher: Stine Moons
- Supervisor: Alexis Jacoby