Systems and design: mutually influencing disciplines and practices?

Ison, R. L. (2014). Systems and design: mutually influencing disciplines and practices? In: Proceedings of the 58th Meeting of ISSS ‘Learning Across Boundaries: Exploring the Variety of Systemic Theory and Practice’, Jul 2014, Washington, D.C.



When the Open University (UK) established a Technology Faculty in 1970 the founding Dean created a structure comprising disciplines of analysis and disciplines of synthesis, the latter being design and systems (based largely on general systems theory or GST). Newly appointed academics had to create what has become known as ‘supported open learning’ as well as establishing curricula in this mode for design and systems. In this paper, following Schön and Rein, I will argue that policy positions rest on underlying structures of belief, perception and appreciation which they call ‘frames’ and that framing choices apply as much to course/module developers as they do to researchers and/or policy makers. Framing choices create initial starting conditions that become conserved as lineages (pathway dependencies). I firstly examine the framing choices made by design and systems academics as they developed new supported open learning curricula in the 1970s and ask: what has been conserved with what implications? Manners of explaining, epistemological commitments and tribal (academic) controversies are touched upon.
In the first design course the claim was made that: “‘design problems’ are not like scientific, mathematical or logical problems, ..not like crosswords or guessing games, ..not like the problems of an artist or composer …they contain aspects of all these whilst remaining distinct”. Further, that in design: “..goals change, problem finding (not solving) …values pertain (i.e. what is meaningful to whom?), conscious and subconscious effort (i.e. not just rational), requires a strategy (or purposefulness) and spontaneity.” Thus “these aspects of design problems make them akin to what Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber called ‘wicked problems’. ‘There are only satisfactory solutions …not correct solutions’…. satisficing.” In contrast the first systems course, ‘Systems Behaviour’ was framed or designed around a set of ‘systems’ in the world, (giving systems an ontological status: e.g., deep sea container ports; air traffic control; local government; structure and management of ecosystems etc. In 1980 a second course, T243 (Systems Organization: the management of complexity) adopted the work of Ackoff and Checkland, and unlike the design courses focused on Ackoffian messes and difficulties rather than Rittel and Webber’s wicked and tame problem distinctions used in the design courses.
Examining this history, and the interplay of cybersystemic thinking and practice with design thinking and practice, suggests a need to recapture some of the ethos of the 1970s so as to address contemporary imperatives. The following questions are addressed: (i) What does contemporary systems and design course and student praxis look like? (ii) What research and scholarship – synergies exist between systems and design? (iii) What could a praxis of innovating and social transformation look like in the next decade based on systems and design understandings? and (iv) what does it mean for a systems practitioner to ‘take a design turn’?

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