Introduction to Social Systems Design
The intentional and participative design of humans systems is a theme that runs through most of ISI’s work. Although the roots of systems design stretch back through conversations about systems dynamics, systems thinking, viable systems design, soft systems methodology, and others, the principle interest of ISI is in social systems design. The foundational text for this approach is Dr. Bela H. Banathy’s Designing Social Systems in a Changing World.
Social systems design is briefly described below. This description is drawn from Dr. Banathy’s book as well as from the experience of design conversations both in the ISI context and in community contexts. Keep in mind that this is only a partial representation of the ideas and principles of design, which is an on-going and diverse domain of inquiry.
Design, in the context of social systems, can be formally defined as a disciplined, creative, decision-oriented inquiry by which means the stakeholders of a system (everyone who serves, is served by, and is affected by the system) create that system which exhibits “goodness of fit” with their aspirations and the needs of the environment in which it is embedded.
More informally, design as it is referred to in the ISI context means an act of continuous creation which is based on the reaching for ideals, in which the designers are the stakeholders, and where we begin by painting the largest possible picture on the largest possible canvas.
This design view maintains that the human activity systems of our society - be they our systems of education, our systems of governance, our systems of justice, or any other - can only be designed by the users of those systems. Experts can assist lay persons in reaching for their ideals, but they can not do the designing for them. However, before stakeholders will engage in the critical examination and design or redesign of their social systems, they must have a sense of responsibility to and with each other, and to future generations. Thus there is an ethics of involvement that is a prerequisite for design.
Design has three key stages: transcend, envision, and transform. Transcending, which is the most difficult part of design, involves letting go of a current “image” or set of assumptions, values, and ideas. To envision is to imagine an ideal situation and to articulate a set of core values and core ideas that embody that ideal. It also involves developing creative solutions that represent a reaching for those core values and core ideas. To transform means to change a system from its current form to the idealizing form.
Design proceeds in a spiral that takes us from the general to the specific and in which we revisit our idealized image, our resources, and our solutions to ensure consistency and a truly creative and powerful process. However, even when a system has been designed or re-designed, the process is never “finished”. A system that has been created through idealized design becomes an idealizing system. Since ideals may shift, conditions may change, new ideas may be generated, new opportunities may arise, and new stakeholders may appear, design must become a way of life for a community that takes it on.
Design is seen as a critical capacity for today’s world because the advancement of our collective wisdom, or socio-cultural intelligence, has not kept pace with our technological intelligence. While there has been much liberation in our lives through technology and industrialization, a severe toll has been taken on our communities and families, on our sense of connection and meaning, and on the health of our planet. More than 100 million people died in wars in the 20th century, we continue to face major inequities in society, and the environment that we depend upon has been damaged. When we learn to design the social systems that make up the fabric of our lives together, we will help empower ourselves for the sake of our own lives and those of future generations.