David Ing


Designers have recently been rediscovering the body of knowledge in systems thinking. Much of the tradition in systems thinking was developed through the 1960s to 1980s. In the 21st century, a new science of service systems has emerged as the industrial society has seen the rise of Internet technologies and globalization. Concurrently, the development of knowledge within the systems thinking community has deepened with the systems sciences building upon the work of the luminaries recognized in our heritage.

The value of systems thinking to designers largely comes from reframing the way a situation is perceived, framed or portrayed. This value may increase in the face of challenges in the redesign of large scale service systems such as healthcare, education, cities and other complexes of social and infrastructural elements. As a secondary or critical lens, systems thinking may aid designers by surfacing flaws either in services that are currently judged as dysfunctional, and/or in new service features that are to be added or transformed.

Flaws in the design of service systems may be informed by recurring conditions familiar to systems thinkers. Breakdowns in the service system might have been foreseeable at the inception of the design, or have emerged as the environment has changed over time. As a entry point into discussion, seven conditions are characterized as a starter set in the engagement between systems thinkers and designers. These conditions are based on the research by leading systems thinkers who are probably unfamiliar to designers.

  • 1. Activity package mismatch: Theory of the offering (Normann and Ramirez)
  • 2. Coordination fumble: Language action perspective (Winograd and Flores)
  • 3. Change target discord: Reactivism, inactivism, preactivism, interactivism (Ackoff)
  • 4. Resource scaling collapse: Supply side sustainability (Allen, Hoekstra, Tainter)
  • 5. Environmental context shift: Causal texture theory (Emery and Trist)
  • 6. Pacing layers trap: Coevolution and learning (Brand, Bateson)
  • 7. Regeneration failure: Panarchy (Holling and Gunderson)

These seven conditions are presented as neither rigourously defined not exhaustive. We should look forward for opportunities where the design community and systems thinking community may mutually engage to jointly enrich our bodies of knowledge and practices.


David Ing, "Design Flaws and Service System Breakdowns: Learning from Systems Thinking", RSD2 Relating Systems Thinking and Design 2013 , AHO (The Oslo School of Architecture and Design).

  • These slides were also presented at:
    • Master's Programme in Creative Sustainability, Aalto University
    • University of Hull Business School
    • Said Business School, Oxford University
    • Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management, University College London


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2013/10 Design Flaws and Service System Breakdowns: Learning from Systems Thinking