Systems Design Position Paper




From the design of our first-hand tools to the creation of today's smart cities, design is one of the oldest and most basic of human activities. Being so broad and all-pervasive how can we begin to define it? Herbert Simon once said, "everyone designs who devises a course of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones."


Design is an intention to create order in the world; the purposeful organization of elements to achieve a desired outcome. Designing is the process we go through in conceiving an original or improved solution to achieve a desired state, identifying the set of factors and constraints within the given environment, and developing a model for the arrangement of a set of elements to achieve this desired end state.


The output of this process is the design, a model for how the parts in a system are interrelated to deliver the overall functionality of the entire system. The parts to a chair are arranged in such a way as to deliver the overall functionality of an object of support; a space rocket is designed for the propulsion required to deliver transportation of people and objects to outer space.


Design is an intelligent process, thus how we approach design and what we create is dependent upon our understanding of the world and what we consider to be desirable outcomes. Our capacity to design things depends fully on our awareness of how the world around us works. What we once accepted as immutable and simply given by "nature" we now can design at will - from the structure of basic materials to whole landscapes.


Beyond being contingent upon our understanding of the world, design is also relative to what humans desire and value. We design for the things we value; as our values change, how and what we design also changes.


A design paradigm is an overarching approach that is composed of our basic assumptions and theories about how the world works, what we value and want to achieve, as well as a complementary set of principles and methods with which to approach the design process.


Evolution of Design

As our understanding of the world evolves and what we value changes, so too does what we design and how we design - our design paradigm.


For much of human history, our capacity to design systems was very much limited due to our limited scientific knowledge; hand tools, buildings, and bridges.


The explosion of scientific knowledge that started in the early modern ear eventually worked its way through to industry to create radical changes in our designed environment. The development of modern engineering gave rise to the age of machines of an ever-larger scale; but more than this, new chemicals, new foods, fuels, and technologies of communications.


With the rise of mass production, the expansion of commerce and the market system came the need to design mass-produced goods; what we now call industrial design. Design became applied to shaping the form and features of products that were to be manufactured through techniques of mass production for a mass market.


As the Industrial Age with its focus on basic goods gave way to consumerism during the mid-20th century, product designers were employed to create endless products with endless features to delight consumers.


As marketing and sales became ever more important in the enterprise it was now all about pleasing the customer and design started to become more focused on the end-user.


The Industrial Age paradigm of designing the right standardized mass-producible thing shifted to ergonomics, interactive design, and eventually user-centered design.


With a focus on customers came the realization that the end product was not enough but what was needed were instead processes; what we call services. Now it was not so much about things and their lovely features but more about the value delivered to the end-user within some overall service.


In the services economy, a new design methodology emerged, design thinking. An approach that is more user-centered, experience-focused, more agile and iterative, more holistic in considerations of stakeholders, more collaborative as it cuts across traditional domains.


Under the services paradigm design was no longer just about products, now everything that people did was starting to become open to design - healthcare services, education, organizations.


By this stage, we now find ourselves no longer living in the rural natural environment but increasingly in technology-saturated urban environments; design is starting to become all-pervasive.


Complex Engineered Systems

Today with the rise of information technology the scale, scope, and complexity of the systems we are challenged to design is on a new level.


Information technology connects; it connects across silos and domains to create ever-larger complex systems. The challenge for design today is how do we build for this new world of connectivity and networks rather than the previous silos of a disconnected world.


Where once the challenge was largely for designers and engineers to focus on technical challenges within a specific domain, today as things become connected the challenge shifts to one of designing for whole complex adaptive systems of people, objects, devices, information, money, natural resources. A world of the Internet of Things, smart systems, and decentralized networks where all sorts of things are talking to each other, acting, reacting, and adapting to each other peer to peer.


The smart city is but one example of a complex engineered system that requires us to design for adaptive networks holistically. How does the transport system work with the energy and water network? How do we get the city's lighting adapting to people's needs while conserving energy? How do we create a seamless multimodal urban transport network? How do we design healthcare systems that integrate with the urban environment - to design for all relevant factors from food and exercise to air quality? This is the job of designers in the 21st century.


Beyond information technology, the complexity of the systems we develop is being hugely increased by having to factor in many more environmental considerations. We are no longer just building for people but now have to consider impacts on the environment; designing systems that take account of Co2 emissions, pollutants, health factors, and quality of life. Designing linear systems is no longer sufficed, we now have to think about material and energy flows and how they can be reused to flow in circles.


Our design world is now one; a simple product may activate supply chains around the world in its creation and after its usage may once again be dispersed back to the far corners of the planet to influence ecosystems far and wide. The scale of what we are designing is shifting from things to companies, to whole supply chains and economic systems. Who we’re designing for has expanded from a single user to vast connected webs of people spanning the globe.


The complexity has increased hugely; when we ignore this elephant in the room we get unintended consequences. We create systems that by focusing on the end-user may make life lovely and convenient for a few people, while at the other end of those very same networks we make life arduous for the many and destructive for ecosystems. In this context, we need not just a new approach but also a new paradigm that helps us to understand and design complex systems.



When things become highly interconnected, interdependent, and dynamic we need to change our thinking to a systems paradigm to be successful. Systems thinking is a way of responding to complexity as it shifts our focus from looking at separate parts to looking more at patterns of connections and the whole context. The same is true for systems design, it is a way of designing that should help us respond to the complexity of the systems we have to deal with today, to create simplicity on the other side of complexity.


Systems Design


Systems design is a holistic approach to design that starts with a consideration of how the parts interrelate to form a functioning whole. It is holistic in its attempt to consider all relevant factors and different dimensions of a system; social, technical, environmental, economic, cultural, etc.


As the systems thinker, Dr. Russell Ackoff put it "a part is never modified unless it makes the whole better... you don't change the part because it makes the part better without considering its impact on the whole, that is systemic thinking."


"The architect is the profession that I think understands systems best... what he does is produce an overall design of the house, now he produces designs of the rooms to fit into the design of the house... but he will never modify the house to improve the quality of the rooms unless the quality of the house is simultaneously improved and that is fundamentally the principle.”


Systems design is not designing the right product, nor is it designing the right service or user experience, beyond this, it is about designing the right system within the whole context. It requires a greater awareness of interaction, a greater degree of intentionality as the designer must see shaping the wider environment as part of their responsibility.


To master complexity we have to embrace it, let go of the orderly predictable, bounded, and controllable and embrace the open, dynamic, unpredictable. Implicit in our understanding of design is the idea that we can control the system we wish to design and that we are going to impose order on it.


As designers and engineers, we love to specify detailed outcomes. This was possible by focusing on relatively simple systems that one organization could control and own, but complex systems are not like this; they are open where anyone can join or leave, like the internet, like cities, like transport networks, social networks, financial markets, etc. Our job is not to control and specify everything, but to more create the conditions for the desired outcomes to emerge; to learn to work with context, with connectivity and protocols.


The key design pattern for dealing with complexity is decentralization, we unbundle monolithic systems and convert them into module units that can be aggregated on-demand via networks. Whereas our traditional approach is very much focused on designing things, complex systems design is about connecting these things through intelligent networks that are adaptive through their use of distributed data and analytics.


Here the challenge is no longer making things bigger and faster but how to design the protocols and interactions so that diverse components can work together towards delivering the right functionality while accounting for social, economic, and environmental impact. We do not seek to design the system in all its detail, but focus instead on configuring the context, the local interactions that may lead to effective global coordination. Like birds flying in a flock creating a complex formation out of only their local interactions.


Rather than designing for more things we design for adaptive networks. Rather than optimize for the end-user we optimize for the whole. Rather than seek perfection we seek resilience. Rather than designing things that decay we build systems that evolve. Rather than lines we build circles.


78 views

Systems Innovation

  • LinkedIn
  • YouTube
  • Twitter
  • Facebook