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When social sciences researchers talk about reaching beyond the surface of problems to uncover deeper structural issues, they emphasize the need to go beyond the visible symptoms or immediate manifestations of a problem. Instead of focusing solely on the surface-level effects, researchers aim to understand the underlying causes and systemic factors that shape and perpetuate these problems.

This involves delving into an inquiry, transcending the immediate symptoms, and exploring the complex web of interrelated elements surrounding the problem. They scrutinize the interaction patterns, the relationship dynamics, and the power distribution that shapes the problem’s context. By comprehending this complex tapestry of interconnected factors, researchers can glean insights into the system’s inner workings that engender and sustain problems.

This exploration helps uncover the deeper structural issues that underpin the problem, including systemic inequalities, power imbalances, cultural norms, historical legacies and policy frameworks. By going beyond surface-level observations, researchers can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the problem and identify leverage points for effective intervention and social change. This approach allows them to propose more relevant and transformative solutions that address the systems of root causes rather than just treating the symptoms.

Design levels

A spectrum of design practice and sensemaking ranges from immediate, tangible solutions to deeply systemic approaches. These practices can be categorized into three broad levels:

  1. Surface-level design methods (symptom-oriented): These practices focus primarily on addressing the immediate, observable manifestations of problems. Designers working at this level aim to create tangible, readily implementable solutions to specific issues while prioritizing speed and visibility. Examples include a user interface redesign to improve website usability or developing a new product or service. The solutions at this level are usually short-term and linear technical fixes, treating the symptoms rather than addressing the systemic root causes of problems.
  2. Structural-level design methods (system-oriented): These practices go beyond immediate symptoms to address the underlying systemic causes of a problem. Designers at this level are concerned with the social, economic, political, and cultural systems that shape and perpetuate the issues at hand. They aim to identify and work with leverage points within these systems to encourage emergent change. These solutions are often more complex, requiring a deep understanding of the system dynamics and the ability to work collaboratively across disciplines and sectors.
  3. Meta-level design methods (paradigm-oriented): These practices further question and challenge the fundamental beliefs, values, and paradigms that shape our systems and structures. Designers working at this level strive to reframe the problem space, challenging prevailing assumptions and exploring new ways of seeing, thinking and doing. They aim to provoke radical shifts in mindset and behavior that can lead to transformational change. This level of design is not about tweaking the existing system but about reimagining and transforming it.

Each level has its own strengths and limitations and is not mutually exclusive. Instead, they represent different facets of a holistic design approach, each level informing and enhancing the others. The key is to recognize which level is most appropriate for the problem at hand and to navigate fluidly across these levels as needed.

The social body

Central to the understanding of how structures work is the concept of the “social body.” The social body is the collective entity formed by individuals within a society, and the social, cultural and political structures shaping it. This concept embodies the shared physical experiences, norms, values and practices that unify individuals, and in turn, shape social identity. It incorporates the collective practices and belief systems embedded in the social fabric.

The social body is not a passive recipient of norms and values but actively participates in their reproduction and evolution. Its collective actions, responses, and adaptations to changing circumstances influence the evolution of societal structures. Thus, the social body becomes a powerful metaphor for understanding how societal structures and individuals mutually shape and influence each other.

How structures work

From a socio-psychological perspective, the influence of structures on people’s ideas and actions can be explained through several key concepts:

  1. Socialization: Individuals are socialized into existing structures and systems from a young age. Through socialization processes, individuals internalize societal norms, values and beliefs, which shape their perceptions, attitudes and behaviors. These structures include family, education, media and other social institutions that significantly shape individuals’ worldviews.
  2. Social identity: Social structures contribute to forming social identity, which includes group memberships based on factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and more. These group identities influence how individuals perceive themselves and others and the expectations and behaviors associated with those identities. Social identity theory highlights the role of social structures in shaping individuals’ sense of self and their interactions with others.
  3. Social influence: Social structures exert influence through social influence processes, such as conformity, compliance and obedience. Individuals may conform to social norms and expectations to gain acceptance and avoid social disapproval. Social structures provide a framework within which individuals operate, and the pressure to conform can shape their ideas and behaviors.
  4. Power and inequality: Social structures are often characterized by power dynamics and inequalities. Power structures, such as those based on social class, gender or race, shape people’s access to resources, opportunities and social privileges. These power dynamics can influence individuals’ perceptions of themselves and others and their societal aspirations and actions.
  5. Cognitive and perceptual biases: Social structures can also shape individuals’ cognitive and perceptual processes. Through processes such as selective attention, individuals may be more likely to notice and interpret information that aligns with existing social structures. This can reinforce and perpetuate existing beliefs and attitudes, limiting alternative perspectives or challenging dominant narratives.
  6. Market influence: The capitalist market plays a significant role in shaping individuals’ behaviors and choices. People are embedded within these structures, subjected to the forces of supply and demand, consumerism and market-driven ideologies. Participation in the market is necessary for meeting basic needs and societal expectations, making it extremely difficult to evade the influence of market structures.

The role of designers

In the realm of design, transitioning from addressing the superficial aspects of issues to the underlying structures is not only a necessity but an ethical necessity. This stance comes from recognizing that design isn’t simply about fabricating aesthetically pleasing or functional objects—it’s about resolving complex problems and promoting desirable outcomes within existing systems. A superficial understanding that neglects the deeper structural issues reduces design to merely addressing symptoms rather than root causes, leading to short-lived solutions or even creating unintended negative consequences.

The risks of this superficial approach are particularly acute in socio-technical systems where issues such as inequity, exclusion, and environmental degradation are often deeply embedded in the existing structures and practices. Design interventions focusing solely on the surface level may inadvertently sustain or exacerbate these entrenched structural problems.

The importance of co-creation in system design

Historically, the design industry has been driven mainly by top-down solutions. Experts and consultants would sweep in with their methodologies and toolkits, apply their problem-solving prowess and leave behind their solutions – often with minimal input from those most affected by the problem. This has often led to solutions that, while elegantly designed, lack the practical applicability and context-sensitive relevance that can only come from a deep, grounded understanding of the lived realities of those affected.

Indeed, there is an increasing recognition that this approach needs to be more ethically questionable and pragmatically insufficient. This shift in perspective is not just about empathy or equity, as critical as those are. It is about the efficacy of solutions. Top-down, outsider-driven solutions can never match the innovative potential of solutions carefully co-created with those who will use and maintain them.

As we delve into the complexities of systemic exploration, it is crucial to center on those directly affected by the issues at hand. The people with firsthand experience dealing with the complications and occasionally overcoming the challenges of systemic issues possess unique, invaluable insights. These people, often overlooked, are the real experts, living and breathing the impacts of the systems researchers and designers are trying to understand and improve.

Design for system change

In moving from surface-level issues to addressing underlying structures, the role of designers becomes increasingly pivotal. This expanded role can be broken down into several key aspects:

  1. Collective sense-making: Design researchers engaged in co-creation foster a space for collective sensemaking. This involves facilitating dialogue among diverse stakeholders to share their experiences, knowledge and perspectives. Through this explorative process, design researchers can help the group develop a shared understanding of the system’s complexity, which is critical when addressing systemic issues.
  2. Unearthing structural insights: Design researchers are responsible for uncovering the deep structural issues that underpin design problems. They delve deeply into the unique, context-specific realities that shape people’s experiences. Within these, needs and preferences arise and are shaped. This involves rigorous investigation, often employing various methodologies borrowed from social sciences such as ethnography, sociology and anthropology.
  3. Contextual sensitivity: Design researchers underscore the importance of local context in a co-creative process. This understanding can help uncover insights and nuances that a top-down approach might miss, resulting in more contextually relevant and effective interventions.
  4. Systems orientation: Recognizing the interconnectedness of elements and stakeholders within a system, design researchers embrace a systems perspective in co-creation. This approach can help uncover systemic leverage points, leading to more holistic interventions.
  5. Bridge building: Design researchers often act as the critical bridge between the abstract world of systemic structures and the practical world of design solutions. They translate systemic insights into actionable design implications, helping designers and other stakeholders understand the bigger picture and its relevance to their work.

System-oriented design methods

For designers, incorporating system-oriented methods signifies a radical shift, a reorientation from singular problem-solving towards an intricate, adaptive and comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand. This is not merely about engaging with a design challenge as a separate entity but as part of a dynamic and more extensive system.

In this transformative space, the insights of Donella Meadows become particularly valuable and relevant. Her systems thinking approach compels designers to immerse themselves into the labyrinth of complexities, to recognize and accept uncertainties, and to grasp the interconnectedness that is so intrinsic to the systems we operate within.

The focus of the design process then becomes not just about addressing symptoms or devising isolated solutions but an exploration to understand and intervene in the interacting system of root causes and structural conditions that breed the observable phenomena. Designers, employing Meadows’ perspectives, identify points of leverage within the system for impactful change and apply iterative, learning-centered approaches.

Paradigm-oriented design methods

When designers engage with paradigm-oriented design methods, they delve into the philosophical foundations that inform a particular problem space. This requires a shift from solely tackling tangible manifestations or symptoms of an issue towards scrutinizing the underpinning worldviews, mental models and belief systems – the paradigms – that contribute to the shaping of these issues.

In this space, the work of Edgar Morin provides valuable insights, particularly his concept of ‘Complex Thought’ or “La Pensée Complexe.” Morin’s thought emphasizes the necessity to understand and address the complexity of real-world problems, resisting the oversimplification often caused by traditional reductionist thinking. He advocates for ‘transdisciplinarity,’ where knowledge is integrated across different disciplines to capture the multifaceted nature of complex problems.

Paradigm-oriented design methods informed by Morin’s complex thought encourage designers to question the inherent assumptions, norms and values embedded within a system. They require a constant interplay between the parts and the whole, the individual elements, and their collective emergent behavior. This iterative process of zooming in and out helps to reveal the complex, often non-linear, relationships and interactions that characterize a system.

Paradigms and power

Relying on a paradigm-oriented approach necessitates a deeply critical stance toward complex issues, requiring designers to grapple with the system’s entrenched sociocultural, economic and political relations. This is not merely an examination of superficial manifestations but a deep dive into the archetypal pillars and power relations that construct, support and perpetuate the current reality.

It calls for an interrogation of who holds power, how it is exerted and how power affects the decision-making processes and overall dynamics of the system. By recognizing and unpacking these power structures, designers are better equipped to comprehend the challenges and conflicts within the system. This approach urges us to identify the dominant narratives and question them, uncovering biases, assumptions and disparities inherent in the system.

5 Recommendations for system design

  1. Adopt a holistic perspective: Instead of focusing solely on individual components or symptoms, take a systemic view that considers the interconnections and relationships between different elements.
  2. Embrace complexity and interdependence: Recognize that systems are inherently complex and interconnected and that addressing root causes requires understanding the broader context and interdependencies within the system.
  3. Seek leverage points: Identify high leverage points within the system where small interventions can lead to significant systemic changes. Look for opportunities to create positive feedback loops and amplify desired outcomes.
  4. Engage in co-creation and collaboration: Involve diverse stakeholders in the design process, including those directly affected by the problem. Value their unique knowledge and perspectives, and co-create solutions that address their needs and realities.
  5. Challenge assumptions and paradigms: Question underlying assumptions, dominant narratives, and existing paradigms that may perpetuate systemic issues. Explore alternative perspectives and paradigms to uncover transformative possibilities for systemic change.

To sum up, the scope of design extends far beyond simply attractive aesthetics. It requires a pragmatic and systemic approach to unearth the invisible structures and paradigms perpetuated by the capitalist and conservative system. As a critical and transformative practice, design must delve beneath the surface to reveal, challenge and reshape these hidden realities. This systemic perspective is not a luxury but a necessity in our increasingly complex world. It empowers designers to untangle intricate problems, anticipate ripple effects and craft sustainable, equitable solutions.

In doing so, as designers, we can move beyond simply reacting to the visible towards actively engaging with and transforming the unseen. By understanding and challenging the systemic roots of our problems, we can pave the way for a more inclusive, equitable, sustainable and preferable future.