Resources for applying a systems lens to your work

Mapping cash aid delivery in an emergency response

When was the last time someone asked you ‘what are the unintended consequences of releasing this feature?’ Or ‘who else may be directly or indirectly affected by these product decisions?’ These questions are generally not considered or often hidden away in backlogs, as the briefs we are answering are asking us to innovate, disrupt and create the next big thing.

When everything is telling us to speed up, make faster decisions and release new iterations, we leave ourselves with less time to consider the potential negative effects our design choices may have. This product centric focus approach can be extremely detrimental. As designers and creators of new products and services, we need to be conscious of the decisions we make and be aware of the wider systems our products fit within.

By zooming in and out between the micro and macro, we can start to analyse the connections and relationships with a systems lens. This allows us to unpack the root problems within a human-designed system, like healthcare or education. We often design products and services in response to the ‘events’ and ‘patterns’ (the visible behaviours and trends), rather than the ‘structures’ and ‘mental models’ (the institutions and beliefs) that underpin our society.

Based on my experience, I’ve collected a number of resources to help interdisciplinary teams use design-led methods, such as systems mapping, speculative scenarios and critical reflection, to challenge the ethical, cultural and social implications of the technology we design. This is not an exhaustive list but these are the resources that have had an influence on my work as a practitioner.

Books

  • Dark Matter and Trojan Horses by Dan Hill
  • Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows
  • Systems Thinking for Social Change by David Peter Stroh
  • Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble
  • How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert
  • In The Bubble by John Thackara
  • Future Ethics by Cennydd Bowles
  • Emergence by Steven Johnson
  • Speculative Everything by Dunne and Raby
  • Designing the Invisible by Lara Penin
  • Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  • Transformation Design by Wolfgang Jonas, Sarah Zerwas, Kristof von Anshelm
  • The Good Ancestor by Roman Krznaric
  • Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by Buckminster Fuller
  • How to Thrive in The Next Economy by John Thackara

Articles

Videos

Influential systems thinkers

I hope these introductory resources to systems thinking, speculative design and critical reflection have been helpful for you to broaden your approach to designing products and services.

At the end of the day, we are all responsible for what we put into the world. My hope is that rather than creating environments that value speed and innovation, we start designing towards more collective ends. Creating a design culture that values critical reflection and systems thinking, to create more meaningful and impactful design choices.

If you want to learn more about these methods, you can watch a talk that I gave at Let’s Sketch Tech earlier this year, called the unintended consequences of our design choices.

I was introduced to Systems Thinking when I was doing my master’s in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons, in New York. Certainly worth checking out if you are interested taking an interdisciplinary approach to addressing complex problems.

Please let me know if I have missed anything, I’m always looking to update my list of resources.

Happy reading!

Aly Blenkin

Interested in the intersection between design, technology, and social impact.