Designing Systems Thinking (Pt. 1)

What if?

What if you could have a glimpse of the future just by looking around?

We love numbers. They look so concrete, so easy to understand. But they only tell one part of the story, and not necessarily the story we’ll see in our life. Truth is, when we speak about trends, we are talking of large-scale motions, like the plates drifting under the Earth, and how these motions will affect life on the surface will depend on which plates are interacting, and in which specific places. The trend is one, but its translations are many.

After all, trend researchers talk of futures thinking. They know that multiple possibilities can coexist at the same time, especially when they are just seeds. We can’t predict with absolute certainty which ones will grow and how. But what we can do is spot the sprouts near us and understand how they could interact with our life.

Look outside. How do people dress? What do they do in their free time? What do you see emerge in technology, health, values? What kind of futures are popping up in your life now – and how is your life already changing because of them?

A look into the future

As the world’s complexity grows, being able to understand systems is quickly becoming one of the key skills to thrive, both at work and in life. In a recent report on lead learners and the new work-learn paths, for example, the Institute for the Future identified sense-making as one of the five performance zones where workers will have to hone their skills. Specifically, sense-making will take different approaches: creating stories from complex data, building frameworks for activities and visualizing whole systems to coordinate, guide and support our work.

The focus moves from the elements of a system to their relationships. We already saw a glimpse of it in the rise of transdisciplinarity and new kinds of knowledge-building. In the mental health field, where I work, systemic and narrative therapy consider the context and relationships of each client as fundamental factors to address to solve the client’s issue. In the social field, activists are raising awareness of intersectionality as a better way to address social issues. As they are pointing out, classical models of oppression (based on ethnicity, gender, religion etc.) don’t act independently of each other, but interact and create systems of oppression that are different for each individual. (For example, women of color experience both race- and gender-based oppression and thus their experiences will differ from those of white women.)

Social-ecological model of community development

In natural sciences, an ecosystem always include living and non-living organisms and considers how they interact with each other. Similarly, we have to consider both physical and non-physical factors in analyzing a system. A big, growing trend such as longevity can play quite differently in a country where the average age is 30, or in a country where culture considers older people valuable experts and members of their community. Humans act not only on what they see, but also what they feel, think, believe.

Discovering environments

Elements of a system may take different shapes, but we have to look under the surface to discover what actually connects them. For example, trend researcher Els Dragt talks of “spots” – sparkles of futures, popping up in fields far from each other – that apparently are unrelated, but subtly connected by the invisible threads of the values and needs they express.

Similarly, in design thinking we take the environment (social, professional, financial etc.) into account at each step of the process. When we speak with users, we go deeper to see how other people and things may be contributing to the problems we want to solve – influences that the user themselves may not be aware of.

Even in the end, upon implementing the final result of the design process, we still have to consider the system. To put something innovative in an already stable environment is a delicate move, a play of constant adjustments and analysis of how people and environment alike are reacting to innovation. Sometimes, the original idea may not survive. But when the system is motivated from within to change, innovation can infuse new vitality and dynamic energy into everyone.

The dimensions of systems thinking

To sum up, if we want to work with a system, we have to remember that we are dealing with a living entity – living, because it’s constantly changing. This can be particularly upsetting. Why? Because it means that, whatever idea or solution we introduce into the system, it won’t last forever. Our own interventation will kickstart a change, and as a result new questions will arise.

And yet, this can be freeing. It means that there is no “one right way” to solve a challenge. It means that we don’t have to get it right the first time, or else we will have failed. Unfortunately, this is exactly what many of us learnt in school – that there is one answer, one way, one path. But the world doesn’t work with this same clarity. Again, this can prove challenging – but design thinking teaches us that adapting is essential to good design. More than skills, it’s the attitude, the mindset that counts.

For educators, youth workers, teachers – for those who want to help young people get ready for the path –, this means staying attuned to both the local community and the global context, because how changes will affect us will depend on where we live. To adapt means to keep our eyes and ears to the ground, where the seeds of the future are popping up, and find ways to nurture them, together – as it happened with an innovative school in South America.

P.S. For a complete list of the articles in this series, please read here.

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