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This is my contribution to the unpacking of “System-Shifting Design, An Emergent Practice Explored”, authored by Cat Drew, Cassie Robinson and Jennie Winhall in collaboration with 40+ design experts was published by the Design Council in the United Kingdom in 2021, for the Next-D Journal.

System-Shifting Design, An Emergent Practice Explored

With an intro making bold promises about a system approach that transcends design, I was first quite puzzled. Is this taking us back to the golden days of design thinking promotion? When magical narratives were making promises to change everything wrong with design and business? I was wondering if systems were becoming the new empathy.

But after some reading and figuring out the document structure, this publication started to nicely resonate with me. It first rightfully calls for expanding both design knowledge and practice, as the authors understand the need for working at different scales and stepping away from traditional outputs of design production. And as well, they focus on the fundamental aspect of crafting the supporting conditions and transitional activities required for systems to shift.

But my favourite part is how the authors recognise how much intelligence and intangible design assets are lost, falling off the edges of briefs and scopes, uncaptured, unrecognised and uninvested. As a design researcher, this reality I call design waste has always fascinated me. 

We also definitely need to talk about ethics and how it often lingers as an optional nice to have in commissioned design work, making it difficult for designers to challenge and reframe briefs. The invitations for exploration and the speculative ideas to collectively reimagine the design system are interesting prompts to shift our practices. Especially about power.

As the publication correctly notes, we need to invite designers to focus on managing tensions. Most commissioned work may come from actors that are deeply part of the problems they attempt to address, halfway between wicked problems and the Shirky principle.

“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

—Clay Shirky

Indeed, systems regularly present themselves as fuzzy shapeshifting monsters that can bite back really hard. The systems we work both with and from within, are networks of invisible hybrid alliances and interdependences below our immediate radars, requiring careful system tactics, attention to system diplomacy and system patience.

Despite the most noble and purpose-driven intentions, key stakeholders regularly protect the current systems states and ensure designers remain limited on the surface of their usual isolated design outputs.

This emerging practice exploration from the Design Council is a clear sign of design practice maturity and is a valuable effort to support this growth. In this direction, we need to be more attentive to the reality of designers commissioned to step into the system space to design and engineer deep system shifts. My experience shows that designers must be equipped to face and absorb system frictions, system pushbacks and system power games.

To conclude, I will answer a question from the document: “What can you design that creates properties, relationships or values that allow other interventions to emerge?”

The most important aspect of provisioning the system shift is to work on reward mechanisms. Because no amount of good intentions and relevant intervention will survive if the old reward structure remains in place, pulling the system back into its current state, cannibalizing efforts and reinforcing power dynamics.