Relating Systems and Design

The SDA was formed to convene educators, practitioners, and researchers to co-evolve an interdisciplinary field over the long term. With a thriving research community contributing to the annual RSD Symposia, a growing base of research, articles and methods has grown from the RSD proceedings, informing research methods, graduate-level pedagogy and design practices. Systemic design is an open field, that has deliberately held the space between disciplines to allow rigorous and dedicated exploration without the constraints of a prior corpus, preferred methodologies, or even a common research agenda.

The field emerging as systemic design has jumped ahead to engage societal issues now recognised as ever more important for designers to address, ranging from design for health and well-being, quality of life, socioeconomics, urbanization, policy design, and cultural development. These are what Latour (2008) presents in A Cautious Prometheus as entangled matters of concern:

How can we draw together matters of concern so as to offer to political disputes an overview, or at least a view, of the difficulties that will entangle us every time we must modify the practical details of our material existence?

These continuous, complex, societal challenges represent the common fields of design attention, in research, practice and education.


Systemic design thrives as a pluralistic field that embraces many (some might say all) systems perspectives in design contexts but has a particular culture that has evolved from its unique history as an academic vision. Methodology and theories have been developed in a co-creative way, both designerly and deeply reasoned, through graduate-level teaching and research through design. The demand side for systemic design practice emerged at first with governments and public sector applications, unlike the development of commercially-focused design disciplines. Although systemic design is not research-driven, has been formed through research support and active experimentation with methods and models.

Systemic design has developed from the discipline and practices emerging between systems theory and design practice. It embraces sociotechnical, ecological and socioeconomic systems, and is distinguished as a design-led discipline, as distinct from system design (as termed in systems engineering). The literature development shows three trends of knowledge production that converged during the RSD meetings. These include systems-oriented design (Sevaldson, Oslo School of Architecture and Design), the Torino school of ecological systems design (Bistagnino, Barbero, Politecnico Torino) and the Toronto school of social systemic design (Jones, OCAD University).  The research base has been actively developed through the annual Relating Systems Thinking and Design symposium, bringing into the fold emerging communities of practice.

SDA Research >


Following the RSD Symposia, after nearly a decade of research and active publishing, over a dozen universities have developed systems thinking or integrated systemic design courses. Several schools have started or are planning undergraduate systems thinking courses within product, industrial or environmental design programs. Faculty across programs are actively seeking relevant readings, materials, and methods from the resources developed within the RSD community.

The SDA plans to build on the academic community of practice, to contribute leading resources, new media, rich lessons, and advanced practice applications. Exemplary university programs with a decade or more of systemic design training and study include:

SDA members and RSD speakers have authored numerous articles on design education with integrated systems approaches. Members’ books and resources such as the Systemic Design Toolkit have been used around the world in training and curricula.

SDA Education >


The SDA supports and sponsors the development of design resources for training, practice and research based on the products from the academic programs and the RSD Symposium. The SDA membership includes access to member versions of methodology references, toolkits, and knowledge products from partners and the broader systems and transformation networks. Notable resources include:

SDA Resources >

Towards the Whole: A tribute to Charles L. Owen

Towards the Whole: A tribute to Charles L. Owen

RSD8 Keynote. Charles Bezerra: A tribute to Charles L. Owen, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Design where he conducted research and taught until 2010 in the MDes, MDM, and PhD Design graduate programs.

Advanced Design Cultures: A learning system perspective

Advanced Design Cultures: A learning system perspective

RSD7 Keynote. Roberto Iniquez Flores: In order to address the complexity of these new approaches design is evolving into a new cultures that are very diverse and emergent, these design cultures require a new characterization for its understanding.

RSD 10 Call for Papers

RSD10 offers a platform for discussing ongoing work with peers and presents the state-of-the-art in the systemic design field. This year there are two paper tracks: short papers for ongoing work, and long papers for finished work.

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