Why designers need systems thinking

Design thinking is big in the corporate world. Ever since Tim Brown wrote his seminal book ‘The Art of Innovation‘ in 2001, the role of design thinking in innovation has grown – and for good reason. The author of this article uses Tim Brown’s (one of IDEOs founders) definition:

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Systems thinking on the other hand, even though it has been around much longer, has not caught on as much in the corporate world.  Peter Senge popularized systems thinking in his 1990 book ‘The Fifth Discipline‘ where he defined the discipline as follows:

“Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots.”

One can argue the reasons for systems thinking not catching on the way that design thinking has (e.g. it is a more difficult discipline, its results are more difficult to measure etc.) but the fact remains that, despite its proven track record, very few innovation initiatives undertaken by companies use the tools and techniques of systems thinking or system dynamics modeling.

The author of this article argues for the integration of the two disciplines – design thinking and systems thinking – into a new practice he calls ‘systemic design’. In making his case, he states the following

  • Ordinary tools and techniques common to design thinking practice are not always enough to tackle problems like poverty, social integration, responsible food production and urban safety.
  • Projects are rarely linear: evolving dynamics in technology and society mean we need to look at the bigger picture outside our project, and understand entire “systems”.
  • We, as designers, (are not) prepared to look at the whole … That is why we need to borrow tools from systems thinking … a way of looking at the whole, rather than just individual pieces.

As big believers in, and users of, both design thinking and systems thinking methods and tools, we could not agree more with this conclusion. It remains to be seen however, if this approach will catch on and the discipline of systems thinking becomes more widespread in the practice of innovation.

Original Article »



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