Addressing Complex Adaptive Problems with Design and Systems Thinking

In this post I briefly outline the evolution of design into how it is now being applied to address complex problems. I discuss how systems and design thinking are being combined in this space and consider some implications for skill requirements. I also reflect on my own background and what I may have to offer.

The shift in design from a process mostly focused on the aesthetics and functionality of products towards one that also includes services is now firmly established.  This shift is sometimes described as a move away from the first generation of design where a designer might have been employed primarily based on their design expertise. As economies around the world have moved away from a focus on selling products to more service orientated structures, this shift was perhaps inevitable.  Even when companies are mostly focused on selling products, there is now almost always a service component.  This can include services such as installation and care plans sold with products such as dishwashers and washing machines.  It can, however, also include the sometimes complex journey that a potential customer can engage with before and after purchase.  As illustrated in the diagram below this may start with awareness gained from media outlets about purchasing decisions. If a positive relationship is developed, sometimes it can continue into customers becoming advocates of the company.


As is illustrated in the next diagram, within this process, the relationship between organisations and their customers has increasingly shifted from one where there is one way communication from the company to potential customers to a multi-directional communication process between many different people and organisations.  Using communication channels including social media, customers now communicate with each other and to people within companies that they are considering purchasing from.  Customers are no longer just people to sell to but part of the ecosystem that services exist within.  The media that a potential customer engages with is as likely to be created and shared by a former customer as from the company selling the product or service.  In this environment that we live in, managing relationships has become both more complex and more important.  In this earlier blog post, I outlined an example of where such a relationship was managed badly.

Alongside this shift, the role of design and designers has also shifted into becoming a collaborative process. This shift to collaboration is sometimes refered to as the second generation of design. Here designers for the most part are not confined to simply applying their expertise to meet a brief produced by their client.  They are more frequently part of an Agile project where they work alongside developers, researchers, managers and a range of other actors depending on the scope of the project.  Within an Agile project they are likely to be working with user researchers to engage with existing or potential users of a product or service to gain insight to inform an iterative process of improvement.  By doing so, they are likely to be aiming to apply human centered design principles.  Within this context design is a collaborative process aimed at understanding problems and finding solutions.  There are many ways of conceptualising this process, one of the most famous is the UK design councils double diamond method where designers collaborate with other stakeholders through a combination of divergent and convergent processes. 

Over recent years, design has started to engage with more complex problems.  In his famous 2009 Ted Talk Tim Brown urges designers to think big.  In this talk and in his book Change by Design he argues that design has the potential to address some of the most complex problems of our time such as improving healthcare and tackling climate change. These are complex adaptive systems.  They are adaptive as well as complex, because they are not static, they are constantly changing, so what works in one part of the system at one point in time won’t necessarily work in a different part of the system at a different point in time. In this context a problem can never be considered solved, only improved.  

Tim Brown Think Big Ted Talk TED

Don Norman another of the godfathers of design, takes a similar line in his talk, 21st century design.  He argues that whilst collaborative design processes have the potential to help address some of these complex issues, design education rarely prepares designers for such challenges.  He argues that designers need to take a multidisciplinary approach, bringing together stakeholders with a wide range of different perspectives.  Both Don and Tim argue that the stakeholder groups engaged in attempting to find solutions to complex problems should include people impacted by the problems such as the users of services or people in communities that are being affected. 

Don Norman 21st Centuary Design NN Group

To deal with complex adaptive problems (such as those mentioned earlier) Don Norman argues that designers need to apply systems thinking.  Having studied and applied systems thinking in my PhD (where I was addressing the complex adaptive challenge of improving healthcare efficiency through advanced digital technologies) I have to agree.  Don argues that to find effective solutions it is first necessary to spend sufficient time in the problem space to get to the root cause and ensure that the real problem (or problems) are being addressed. This reduces the risk that solutions will make things worse. To help mitigate this risk he argues that it is also important to consider the context in which problems exist in and the indirect impacts that might occur.  To do this he suggests, we need to get beyond linear thinking and consider relationships. 

Pretty much everything that Tim Brown and Don Norman say about how to apply design to tackle complex adaptive systems had already been said by systems thinkers years earlier. I am struck, for example, between the similarities between what Gerald Midgely says in this talk on applying systems thinking to tackle wicked problems and arguments made by Don Norman and Tim Brown.  Like Don and Tim, Gerald argues for the need to bring together different stakeholders and argues that people impacted by the problem /users should be involved.  It also occurs to me that Gerald is in effect describing a design process to address problems in complex adaptive systems. 

Whilst it would be possible to get caught up in micro debates about the differences between systems thinking and design thinking, such as why one might be better than the other, I prefer to take a pragmatic and practical approach by instead looking at what they have in common and where learning can be shared between the two communities.  I argue that if you are a designer including systems thinking in your approach or if you are a systems thinker applying what is effectively a design process then you are doing the same thing. 

My suggestion that systems thinkers are in effect designers should not be considered controversial or revolutionary, one of the most well respected early systems thinkers Russel Ackoff considered himself a designer.

If you are from a systems thinking background you are likely to apply different methods to the process of understanding problems / finding solutions than someone trained in design.  I am not, however, convinced that the specific methods used should by themselves be considered a clear differentiator.  Any good practitioner (systems thinker or designer) should be able to consider the problem they are engaging with to find the right combination of methods to apply.  As indicated in this video, the systems thinking community, much like the design community recognises that there is a skills gap that needs addressing.  Systems thinkers and designers might both be able to expand their potential toolkit for addressing complex challenges by sharing techniques between the two communities.

I suggest that much could be gained from the sharing of knowledge and skills between systems thinkers and designers and acknowledge that such sharing is already starting to happen. Exciting developments include a special issue of the service design magazine touchpoint focussed on systems thinking for service design.  Another development is the work of Cat Drew at The UK Design Council who has been involved in developing a systemic design framework that brings systems thinking elements into the design process.

(Drew C 2021,

These ideas are discussed in a design council report earlier this year titled systems shift design.  Like Don Norman, its authors argue that, current design approaches are not appropriate when dealing with complex systems. Whilst acknowledging that designers have skills to help the world transform, including creativity to help imagine something different, design must change to allow designers to work in new ways.  Incorporating established systems thinking techniques I suggest might be useful.

Similar arguments are being made in the systems thinking community. John Pourdehnad advocates the idea of a third generation of design where the stakeholders are the designers. In this space he argues that creative energy can be unleashed by bringing together the collective of differing perspectives. Paralells between this position and the approach advocated by Tim Brown and Don Norman should be clear. In their 2011 paper Systems & Design Thinking: A Conceptual Framework for their Integration Pourdehnad et al state that:

“A designer applying Systems Thinking principles can help participants recognize the assumptions the organization and the individual participants hold. In this way a designer can provide them with the means to develop a new framework and shared world view”

Whilst there seem to be a lot of interest and value in bringing together design and systems thinking to tackle complex problems, there are still a lot of unanswered questions.  Both designers and systems thinkers acknowledge the need for skill development. Thinking about where I might fit into this emerging area, I am not yet clear about what that means exactly. Does it mean that new job roles are needed or that systemic specialisms should be created in existing ones.  Perhaps systemic designers could sit alongside service and interaction designers. Maybe a user research specialism focussed on conducting research for design projects focussed on complex problems should emerge. If we acknowledge that there is a need for people with systemic design skills, such as those I suggest, then what specific skills do we think are needed and how do we convince organisational leaders that this is expertise that they need? 

With the rapid acceleration of digital transformation, there are certainly no shortage of complex problems that would benefit from a systemic design approach. Questions spring to mind such as:

  • how do we design smart cities for the benefit of their citizens
  • how can public sector organisations apply information technologies to deliver services collaboratively with citizens not just for them
  • how do we harness the potential of artificial intelligence and the internet of things to benefit patients and improve healthcare efficiency?
  • how to we maintain economic growth and tackle climate change

These are all questions that could be explored by looking at them in different contexts. Systems thinking does not mean that it is necessary to consider every possible consequences of every action, doing so would clearly be impossible as it would require complete understanding. As the renowned systems thinker, Mike Jackson, states, complete understanding is reserved for a god. Instead boundaries do need to be applied. This could for example mean exploring one of these grand challenges in a particular locality or organisation. Consideration does however need to be given to where boundaries are placed, as where they are put will inevitably favor some stakeholders and disadvantage others.

I have outlined some of the similarities between systems thinking and design when applied to complex adaptive problems.  These include acknowledgement of the need to bring together a diverse range of stakeholders including those impacted by the problem / problems being addressed in order to understand and address complex problems.  Both systems thinking and design communities, however, acknowledge that there is work needed to help people develop the skills needed to make a significant impact in addressing complex adaptive problems.  I have reflected on my own background and believe that I have much to offer, but don’t yet have clarity about how to get involved. 

Feel free to contact me to discuss possible collaborations in this space or work / consulting contracts where I can apply my systems thinking, design, research and community sector expertise.

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