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Designing the future

The study of systems thinking and complexity is motivated by the desire to understand and design a world as it ought to be.

The study of systems thinking and complexity is motivated by the desire to understand and design a better world. This can mean designing better products, but it also includes designing better social systems. We call this Policy Design or Designing the Future. [1]

The Design Process

The diagram above shows the design process. It is a remarkable tried and tested way of establishing requirements and constraints, and generating systems that satisfy those requirements and constraints. It begins by the designers and stakeholders establishing what is required and what constraints there are. They then generate possible solutions to the problem of designing a system that satisfices the requirements and constraints, i.e. finding a design that is acceptably good on all the competing dimensions, rather than trying to find a non-existent optimum [2].

Often it happens that a design cannot be found that satisfices the requirements and constraints, and they have to be revisited and modified. Thus, in design, the problem and the solution coevolve until an acceptable problem-solution pair is found.

Design is very different to algorithmic problem solving. Designers usually start by sketching broad-brush, possible solutions. This is an holistic approach, exactly as Ackoff recommended. Given the overview, the design moves up and down the levels of components, subsystems and whole, all the while ‘working up the design’ by adding more detail.

Systems thinking is essential in the generate-evaluate phase of design, when the designer is trying to understand how the system might work and what might be its good and bad characteristics.


[1] Jeffrey Johnson, Matthew Cook, Policy Design: A New Area of Design Research and Practice Complex Systems Design & Management 2013, M Aguier et al (eds), Springer Verlag (Berlin) 2013

[2] Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, MIT Press (Cambridge Mass), 1965.

What do you think?

Do you think design works this way? Do you think it makes sense to talk of policy as designing the future? Do you have experience of design? Would systems thinking have helped? Give your views and any first hand experience in the comments below.

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Systems Thinking and Complexity

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