How to shift a system through design

To change a system is a long term effort. It can only happen gradually, over time. With our research for What Design Can Do design challenges, we contribute to system change. As for all WDCD design challenges, STBY plays a key role in taking a systemic approach to system change. We are the global research partner of WDCD, and provide a solid academic background as well as extensive global experience in doing design research for system change. For the No Waste Challenge we were responsible for building on existing knowledge and creating new knowledge, all to support the design field to move forwards to sustainability. 

Based on our experiences with the foundational research and the co-creation of design briefs for four challenges (among them are three climate action challenges), it is time to share some thoughts on how to work on system change through design: 

Towards systems that benefit both people and the planet 

First, let’s assess what we mean when we talk about systems. The work of WDCD primarily focuses on climate action and social justice. These are so-called ‘wicked problems’ in design, as first defined by Horst Rittel and further developed by Richard Buchanan*. Problems like climate change and social (in)justice require the change of systems, in order to achieve lasting change that benefits many people and the planet. Systems, from energy systems to justice systems, from waste product and service systems to waste management systems, are interconnected to other systems. This interconnectedness with other systems, influences them as much as they influence other systems too. There are always all kinds of knock-on effects, and that’s why designers talk about wicked problems that have no clear definition and start or end. As a consequence it is also difficult to say when exactly a wicked problem is solved, and certainly no single solution will solve a wicked problem. 

To change a system is a long term effort

Systems involved in wicked problems can clearly not be changed overnight, nor in a year. Change has to happen gradually, over time. This requires stamina – to keep up the effort we put into changing. We need to keep working on solutions year in year out, and slowly chip away at the problem. You do not design a new, parallel system that replaces the old. That is why it is important that WDCD is a movement and a charity, rather than a one-off event or challenge. By continuing to put in effort, enthusiasm and energy over the years we can make a difference, and build more and more connections with others to grow the movement for change.

Image: WDCD, No Waste Challenge 

Shifting the system to change the system

Many small efforts together will make the difference in the end, over time. That’s why designers have started to talk about shifting the system, rather than changing the system. This also acknowledges that we must look at what parts of the system perhaps work well already; the parts we should keep and build on. Since it is impossible anyway to replace an entire system as already mentioned, we should look for what parts need changing, and what parts of the system can help achieve that change. For the Clean Energy Challenge we researched the energy system: we have a big distribution system that originally was built to distribute energy from a few large energy plants. Now however, we are still using that system to also distribute energy from many small producers who have solar panels on their roofs. What was once the end point of distribution became the starting point. This is a system shift since many parts stayed the same. 

We see this also with many WDCD projects that come out of the challenges. They build on existing elements of systems, to create new ways of using elements of those systems, ranging from food systems (Power Plant in the Netherlands and the Nairobi Food nexus in Kenya) to waste systems (Ecolana in Mexico) to education systems (Vertical University in Nepal) to ecosystems (Dronecoria in Brazil) to building systems (Beehive cooling and air purifier, and Agrocrete building blocks both in India).  

A systemic approach to change

Designers are keen to change systems, but they know they cannot do this alone. More disciplines than design are needed to achieve change. Strong collaboration is needed between these disciplines. Designers can play a key role here as has become more and more clear over the past two decades. Innovation and change theories describe designers as connectors, cross-pollinators, and orchestrators. It has been studied well by now how designers do that, e.g. by reframing problems** to find new opportunities to address them. A general term that is often used to describe this approach is design thinking, and it has become clear that there is a much wider use than in the design community and discipline alone for this approach***.

Notes and references:

*Horst Rittel entertainingly describes design problems as “wicked” problems, a “class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.” (Rittel in Buchanan, 1990, p. 13) A design brief aims often to take the wickedness out of the design problem to create a determinate or analytic problem, he adds. Richard Buchanan, wondering why design problems are wicked, considers that “design problems are ‘indeterminate’ and ‘wicked,’ because design has no special subject matter of its own, apart from what a designer conceives it to be. The subject matter of design is potentially universal in scope, because design thinking may be applied to any area of human experience.” (Buchanan, 1990, p. 15)

Buchanan, R. (1990) Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. In Margolin, V. & Buchanan, R. (Eds.) The Idea of Design. Cambridge, MA and London, The MIT Press (2002).Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155-169. doi: citeulike-article-id:460032

** Prof. Kees Dorst has written extensively about this, based on hundreds of design projects he worked on and studied over the years. The two most referenced books on Frame Innovation are:

Dorst, CH, Kaldor, L, Klippan, L & Watson, R 2016, Designing for the common good, BIS Publishers, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Dorst, C 2015, Frame Innovation: Create New Thinking by Design, 1, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England. 

***  A good example is the DIY toolkit (Development Impact and You), that presents design and innovation tools to international development workers with great success. Funded by the Rockefeller Fdt and created by STBY and Quicksand for Nesta and Rockefeller Foundation, this toolkit has made proven design and innovation tools accessible for the masses who did not do design education.

Images: WDCD, No Waste Challenge