How should designers approach the task of designing for complex high-risk contexts, like the bridge of an offshore service vessel?

What do we need to make sense of to make good design judgements?

In what ways can systems thinking be of help when designing for such environments?

This PhD blog addresses these and other questions and is about my search for and research on design for sensemaking.

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    RSD3: A call for action to the systemic design community?

    I haven’t updated this blog for a while because I have been on maternity leave, but now I am back working on my PhD again. Last week I attended this year’s Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD) symposium1, which was a great way to get back into work. At the first two RSD symposia I was a speaker (read my summary of RSD1 here, and see my presentation and working paper from RSD2 here), while this year I was in the audience listening to insightful presentations given by others interested in the crossing point between systems thinking and design.

    One of the things that caught my attention at the RSD3 was what seemed like a call for action to the systemic design community to consciously design systemic design. This was more or less touched upon in several presentations, but I found the last two speakers of the symposium, Hugh Dubberly and Dr Harold Nelson, to be the most explicit in their calls.

    The symposium started off by Dr Ranulph Glanville setting the scene with his insightful presentation on the relationship between design and cybernetics and the importance of considering the observer as part of the system2. The relationship between an observer and a system is important in my further interpretation of a call to consciously design systemic design.

    Dr Harold Nelson, as I understood him, suggested that we see systemic design as a system in itself. I believe we have several relations to the ‘systemic design system’. We are part of the system, as members of the social system of the systemic design community. We are shaping the system (consciously or unconsciously) through our work and through the way we talk about systemic design within the systemic design community and with people outside of our community. We can also consider ourselves observers of the system, as an ‘observer being inside the system, looking outwards’3. This implies that we are ‘steermen’ and involved in ‘choosing the goals of the system’.

    When we are aware that systemic design is in fact designed by the systemic design community itself, we can acknowledge that we are in a position where we may consciously define what we want systemic design to be. A quote by Heinz von Foerster (referring to the cybernetician Gordon Pask) brought up in Hugh Dubberly’s talk comes to mind:

    Pask… distinguishes two orders of analysis. The one in which the observer enters the system by stipulating the system’s purpose… [the other] by stipulating his own purpose… [and because he can stipulate his own purpose] he is autonomous… [responsible for] his own actions…

    (von Foerster, 1979)4

    When we are aware that we are parts of this system, we can acknowledge that we should be attentive to our own intents for being part of the system. Further von Foerster's quote urges observers (designers) to be aware of their ethical responsibilities, another important issue discussed at the symposium, which also can be viewed as a call to action.

    Hugh Dubberly presented ‘a systems literacy manifesto’5. I interpret his presentation as recognising that we are shaping systemic design, and with such an apprehension responsibility follows. Dubberly urged us to consciously grow our competencies in systems thinking, and in particularly develop our literacy in systemic concepts. His main proposal was to start with design education and he suggested three courses which should be part of any university’s design programme. He even presented curricula for such courses. As Dubberly said, developing systems literacy requires time and immersion into the world of systems. It is not something one learns quickly.

    I agree with Dubberly and believe I could have benefited greatly from such courses while I was a student. During my studies in Industrial Design Engineering in the early 2000s I was introduced to some systemic concepts in courses on product-service systems and ecodesign, but we did not learn about systems thinking systematically or in a way which gave deep insight. In my two years of being an undergraduate student of Engineering Cybernetics, prior to studying Industrial Design, I learned the basic concepts of 1st order cybernetics and how to set up a cybernetic system as solvable differential equations, but I was not introduced to the broader picture of cybernetics outside the realm of technical systems. (Please note that I only studied the first two years of the 5-year study programme in Engineering Cybernetics, so this might have been covered at a later stage of the programme. Note also that this was 16 years ago and the curricula might have changed since then). Thus I have had to develop my literacy in systems thinking through my practice and these last three years as a PhD research fellow at AHO.

    Most practitioners and design researchers can't go back to university to develop good systems literacy skills. Therefor the systemic design community and the RSD symposia are tremendously important for practicing designers and design researchers. This year’s symposium, as an example, has given many designers a better understanding of cybernetics and the concept of circularity through the keynotes by Ranulph Glanville and Hugh Dubberly. But what happened in other presentations, in the workshops, during breaks and through socialising is just as important. I am really excited about what the future will bring and hope to be able to attend RSD4 in Canada next year to see how systemic design has evolved over the next year.


    1 As stated on the RSD website: ‘RSD is a symposium series exploring the interdisciplinary development of design thinking as a progressive practice informed by systems theory and systems thinking.’

    2 For those who weren't there, I recommend reading Glanville's article ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better: the cybernetics in design and the design in cybernetics’. This article includes many of the arguments for why there is a close connection between design and cybernetics, as proposed at the symposium, with the main claim being that design is cybernetics in practice and cybernetics is the theory of design. Reference: Glanville, R. (2007). Try again. Fail again. Fail better: the cybernetics in design and the design in cybernetics. Kybernetes, 36(9/10), 1173–1206. Update: Seems like it is available online after all.

    3 Glanville, R. (1997). A ship without a rudder. In R. Glanville & G. de Zeeuw (Eds.), Problems of Excavating Cybernetics and Systems. Southsea: BKS+. Available online.

    4 von Foerster, H. (1979). Cybernetics of Cybernetics. In K. Krippendorff (Ed.), Communication and Control in Society. New York: Gordon and Breach.

    5 Hugh Dubberly’s presentation is available online.

    Reader Comments (2)

    Kapplinin and Barnon also have a similar discussion about system design in Human computer interaction field. They discussed human beings should be considered as a part of system rather than separately consider system itself. I will get back to write down the reference.

    In information systems field, Orlikowiski(2007) also introduces a way to rethink the relationships between human beings and systems. She points that both humans and systems are fundamental elements in sociomaterial practice. Humans shape systems by their practice, in turn, they also are shaped by system's practice. This is what she called sociomaterial practice. Both humans and systems are material. The design can be conducted well only in the conditions of great understanding of such materiality' practice and their intertwined relationships.

    November 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterYo

    Thanks for the references! They seem relevant and I will definitely look into those.

    Within the field of cognitive systems engineering they also discuss seeing the human as part of the system, i.e. view the human and the computer as one system. Maybe it is the same as you think of? They refer to this as 'joint cognitive systems'. Worth looking into, especially for designers of interaction design for complex contexts. A good reference on joint cognitive systems is:
    Hollnagel, E., & Woods, D. D. (2005). Joint cognitive systems: foundations of cognitive systems engineering. Boca Raton, Fla.: Taylor & Francis.

    November 3, 2014 | Registered CommenterSigrun Lurås

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