Skip to main content

Center for Systemic Design draft prospectus



Center for Advanced Systemic Designing


Our futures can be approached in four ways: 1) drifting—adapting to whatever happens,  2) colliding—reacting and enduring,  3) retreating—backing away from undesirable states or conditions, or   4) advancing—navigating into desirable states-of-affairs. The norm nowadays is to drift, collide or retreat into the future. The fourth approach, the proactive approach, is the more apt response given the complex challenges and rising expectations that are the new norm for the foreseeable future. 

The fourth approach depends on the agency of individuals who have the capacity to handle the challenge of securing desired outcomes in indeterminate situations on behalf of concomitant stakeholders and clients. They achieve this by serving—design agency—as members of design teams and design cohorts. These systemic designers are skilled polymaths who have the ability to create assemblies of essential elements into coherent whole systems that serve and enhance human activity. 

Systemic design polymaths are quite distinct from specialists and generalists. They are not disciplinary, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary in their thinking. However they are highly knowledgeable and competent experts in what they do. For them, thinking and action are integral. They are scholar-practitioners.

People who have design agency, who can help lay a course and steer social systems into their desired futures, are responsible for making good choices, informed judgments and taking prudent actions on behalf and in service of others. The challenge of acquiring the ability to ensure that the right outcomes, for the right people, for the right reasons, at the right place and time occurs is immense to say the least. People who have been accorded agency to provide such service have responsibilities to serve the best interests of present day individuals, societies, and environments as well as future generations and environments. 

These design agents are social systems designers—designers who work within complex, dynamic environments while navigating towards indeterminate desirable outcomes. These designers have skills and abilities matched to the challenges of guiding, forming, transforming and reforming complex social systems.

To become such a designer requires a new type of formal preparation—capacitation—for professional practice. One that differs significantly from traditional educational offerings in professional training and academic learning. What is needed is a new educational resource located in a supportive context and environment—a resource centered on meeting the demands and expectations for developing high level competencies in nascent systemic designers.

The center is intended to be a coherent, systemic composite of people and essential resources. It will be effectuated as a Center for Advanced Systemic Design. It will be the catalyst for the establishment of a new capacity building enterprise, which is composed of an Academy for Systemic Design—a membership space for supporters and caretakers of the vision and mission of the Center. In addition to being a catalystthe Center is the crucible for holding and sustaining the activities of  a School of Systemic Design (an environment for systemic learning) and a Systemic Design Institute (a context for scholar-practitioner’s professional development).


Creating a Center for Systemic Design— Approach and Stance

The world is understood to be a more complex and dynamic whole system than previously thought. Every design is a system or part of a system. Every designer is a system and a part of other systems. Systemics is inclusive of all the many forms of approaches and stances towards systems understanding. Systemics are the logics of design

Design is understood to be a deeper mystery than previously assumed. Design creates reality and augments human being. Design disrupts and maintains the human world. Humans have engaged in design activities – designing – from the beginning of their history, but little is known of design’s true nature or full potential and what is desired for it to be. 

Contemporary approaches to designing and design education no longer match the necessities and expectations of modern societies. People in the world are connected to, or influenced by, other people and their things that are in constant flux. It is difficult, or seemingly impossible, to determine what course of intentional response is prudent when designing within such complexities. A new form of scholarship—systemic design scholarship—is needed to prepare systemic design professionals for successful praxis in such complex and rapidly changing environments: 

Systemic design is the preeminent choice for securing desired outcomes in environments of uncertainty and complexity because systemic designing necessarily takes broader stances and deeper approaches to designing  than has been the norm. Formal systemic design learning and training lays the groundwork for the development of professional competencies in advanced systemic designing. Creating educational experiences that prepare incipient designers—social systems designers—for competent professional practice in the world today requires an advanced approach to learning and training in systemic designing—systemic design capacitation.

Designing social systems in complex, dynamic situations requires a level of competence that is as demanding as piloting high performance aircraft—navigating highly complex social systems within turbulent systemic contexts and environments successfully. Any systemic design activity demands high skill levels and high intellectual competencies among members of collaborating design cohorts. It is not a facility that can be picked up quickly or without effort. It is not merely creative problem solving, nor is it just creativity or simply innovation. It is an ability that develops over a period of time. It is the conjunction of thinking-for-action followed by prudent action—the constitution of a wise hand.


design-brief—approach and stance

approach ­—a Center for Systemic Designing


The proposed Systemic Design Center’s organizational form is exemplary of the principles of systemic designing in practice. The Center is conceived as a composition of interrelated and mutually supportive individuals, teams, cohorts and alliences sharing the same mission and  objectives – to facilitate the successful development of emergent systemic designers.



The Center consists of three interrelated and interconnected systems:

• A School for the development of nascent systemic designers.

• An Institute for supporting the development of scholar-practitioners who are the mentors, instructors and intellectual guides for the School.

• An Academy for safeguarding and maintaining the School’s stakeholder cohort alliance. 


Center’s Organizational Structure and Form 

The Center for Advanced Systemic Designing is a resource for facilitating the innovation of systemic designing in all sectors of life. It is a resource for championing and fueling the development of professional practitioners in systemic design — scholar-practitioners.

The purpose of the Center is to help realize the aspirations of clients, decision makers, stakeholders, champions and potential beneficiaries who are the constituents of the Center’s vision (purpose) for the School—creating scholar-practitioners in advanced systemic designing. The Academy and Institute are designed to be necessary and essential in support of the mission (direction) of the School.

• intensions – directions and aim

            - develop nascent systemic designers into scholar-practitioners 

                        - develop and advance systemic design scholarship and praxis

                        - create desired resources for systemic design education and praxis

• intentions – purpose, outcomes and milestones in progression of aims

• order of inception:

1st        institute - context

2nd       school – system

3rd        academy – environment


High performance educational systems, in addition to needing to be viable and functional, need to be operationally contained in supportive contexts. They need to be embedded in protective and sustaining environments as well. The system, context and environment form a holistic systemic triad. Success depends on the integrated interaction of all three constituencies.

            • systemic triad 

• design School – formal and experiential learning system

            serve: incipient and nascent systemic designers

• design Institute – context and agency

            serve: scholar-practitioners as instructors & mentors for School 

• design Academy – environment and culture

            serve: stakeholder champions and cohort  alliances             supporting the Center


Systemic Design School—a Design Flight School

The School’s approach to integrative learning—both formal and experiential—and training is influenced by the general pedagogical principles found in the traditional strategy of flight schools—a case study of bringing training and learning into a coherent conjunction. This approach’s successful integration of formal and experiential learning with training is an exemplary conceptual—not literal­—example of how to prepare professionals for practice. 


As a reminder, the aim and purpose of the School’s pedagogy is to effectuate competencies and abilities for advanced systemic designing in nascent designers. Such a pedagogy is designed to facilitate access to the world of professional practice in systemic designing. In this context, formal learning and experiential learning move in tandem, forming the foundations for successful practice and life-long learning in advanced systemic designing. 



Systemic designing is both a profession and a practice—both scholarly and practical. Systemic designers are ideally scholar-practitioners—thinkers and doers.

systemic designer’s education and praxis

The purpose of the new school is to help new designers learn how to think rather than just what to think and to continue to further develop that competence over time. The new school as a learning resource is designed to facilitate entry into the world of professional systemic designing. In this context, academic capacitation and structured learning experiences move in tandem, forming the foundations for life-long professional development.


Design Flight School’s Structure and Form—a Learning/Training System


design flight school pedagogy


The pedagogical structure of flight schools are an apt template for combining theoretical knowledge acquisition with training. The three general phases of learning and training activities of flight schools can be transformed into a pedagogical structure for the development of professional systemic designers. Systemic design inquiry is inquiry for action followed by action which maps closely onto the intention of flight training programs: 



            Flight Training Pedagogy                   Systemic Design Pedagogy    

• ground school                                  • foundational and fundamental learning

• flight simulation                              • constituent experiential learning

• catching air                                      • Integrated experiential learning


design stance

The design of the Systemic Design Center and concomitant Design Flight School is grounded on a set of assumptions, postulates, values, beliefs, and ascertions to be further developed and refined by the Design Team. Initial examples to be further developed and refined:


‘bottom turtles’ for designing Systemic Design Center  

assumptions — designer’s freedoms

            free will

• choose to be intentional

• choose a course of action—direction

            epistemic freedom

• choose to make an inquiry for action

• choose approach and stance to inquiry

            ontological freedom

• choose to be intentional

• choose purpose and outcomes



• design creates reality & steers evolution

• design is the 1st tradition & 3rd culture of inquiry

• design will is free will

• systemic design is the reconstitution of sophia — the wise hand.

• systemic designing is inquiry for action followed by action

• design is change by intention.

• design aims desiderata.

• systemics are the logics of design.

• design is service & agency

• design scholarship is the systemic integration of thinking & action

• systemic design inquiry discerns what is true, real, ideal & prudent

• designing requires courage



core values

            Ethics are the foundational guarantors of design;

Ethics is as central to competency in design as is skill and creativity. In the crease between infinity and eternity that humans occupy each person counts. Scale does not dictate value. 

So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end, and never as only a means. (Immanuel Kant).


            seminal beliefs

                        Character counts in designers;

Designers are agents acting on behalf of others who count and have value in the face of the indeterminacy of direction and purpose in design.  Therefore design judgments are moral or ethical judgments on behalf of others. 

design requires connection;

Designers are agents of change and are in service relationships with those on whose behalf they design. It is a relationship between equals. Designers act as surrogate clients representing future generations and social interests.

design requires courage;

Designers work with indeterminate situations that can be dangerous, even when approached competently. There is no certitude in the approaches used nor in the stances taken.



            Abilities required for professional systemic designers include:


• the ability to take a design stance - intension.

• the ability to make sense of complexity - schematize.

• the ability to make a holistic assessment and evaluation of design 

   situations - systemics.

• ability to see and select essential elements - systemics.

• the ability to see, protect and repair essential relationships and 

   connections - sustainability.

• the ability to prepare, initiate and carry out design action - intention.

• the ability to create and form essential relationships and connections 

 - design.

• the ability to design on behalf of others - design competence.

• the ability to create and manage projects – 

            project management.

• the ability to be an essential member of design teams and cohorts -        collaboration.


Context for Implementation

            constraints and challenges

•  maintain service to stake holders through responsibility, accountability, agency

• navigate complex, unpredictable, indeterminate, dynamic change 

• maintain systemic entanglements—interconnections, interrelationships, interlinks

• maintain viability in an environment of uncertainty, indeterminacy and rising expectations


                        • enable development of scholarship and praxis in systemic designing

                        • enable development of personal and professional competencies

                        • enable development of responsibility and accountability

                        • provide foundation for life-long formal and experiential learning

Environment for Innovation

There are substantial challenges to establishing a new school of design focused on social systems designing. There is an ongoing trend of  anti-intellectualism, short attention spans and the attraction of vocational job preparation. Despite this there is a growing desire for alternative ways of dealing with the disruptive changes and challenges that are becoming the norm in today’s volatile and complex world. There are rising expectations for equity,  expressions of diversity, personal freedom, environmental sustainability, social justice, professional responsibility and accountability as well as a desire for greater protection from technologies designed to manipulate and provoke behaviors not in the best interests of end users, the general public and future generations.

The sunk costs in normative professional education and training is considerable. Asking anyone to engage in a significant redirection and upgrade to their competencies is a big ask. Changing habits of thought and action is challenging. People have managed successful careers, gained influence and prestige despite their lack of systemic design competencies. But social systems have been forgiving and resilient to limited human ability so far. Environmental systems not so much. Tipping points are being reached in all cases however and there is a critical need for competent systemic designers to become actively engaged in systemic designing.


Traditional academic and professional domains have made claims on design competence and systems thinking. Design and systemic skills are purported to be obtainable via webinars, seminars, workshops, crash courses, boot camps and other facile encounters despite the consequential challenge of engaging with the substance of design scholarship and praxis necessary for navigating in today’s environments. The same holds true for systems thinking with the exception that systems science, which is fundamental to many systems approaches and scientific thinking, is well established in schools and to a degree in professional practices.



A new school of Advanced Systemic Designing is needed because the newly emergent era needs professionals who are able to work within the context of constantly changing norms and expectations. The emerging new era is identified by increasing complexity, unpredictability, indeterminism, wicked problems, and systemic webs of interconnections. Systemic design is an apposite response to the challenges and expectations of the new era:

• Systemic designers, as agents of intentional change, are expected to be more responsible and accountable in an era of rising expectations. 

• Systemic designers are expected to serve the interests of stakeholders—including clients, decision makers, societies, environments and future generations. 

• Systemic designs are expected to be the outcome of prudent judgments and actions / interactions. 

• Systemic designing is expected to move towards desired futures rather than away from undesired pasts and presents or merely survive through adaptability.

A school for systemic designing is the requisite response to contemporary challenges.  The purpose of the school is to serve people learning how to think and take action rather than just training them on what to think and what action to take. Such a resource is designed to facilitate entry into the world of professional systemic designing in the role of scholar-practitioners. In the context of the new school, formal learning and experiential learning move in tandem, forming the foundations for successful practice and life-long learning in advanced systemic designing.


The organization and pedagogy for the new school borrows conceptual strategies and tactics from formal design flight schools. The mix of learning and training is an appropriate analog for systemic design learning and practice.

innovation steps

Stages in the establishment of a Design Flight School


Stage I

• obtain resources for the design and assembly of constituent elements of the Center

• identify colleagues for initial population of the Systemic Design Institute of


• form systemic design team for constituent components of the Systemic Design Center

• develop design briefs (School, Institute, Academy)


Stage II

• Design the form and functioning of the Design Flight School.

            - develop infrastructure

            - develop resource base

            - design operational policies

            - develop master syllabus

            - develop time frames and schedules  for learning activities

            - develop individual syllabi for learning activities


Stage III

• Operationalize advanced systemic design school—Design Flight School

            - initiate staffing and operations

            - develop and deliver stand-alone masterclasses as foundational learning activities

            - launch class cohorts



Nelson, H. (2021). Systemic Design Inquiry: The Reconstitution of Sophia—The Wise Hand. Academia Letters, Article 503.

Nelson H.G. (2019) The Promise of Systemic Designing: Giving Form to Water. In: Spector M., Lockee B., Childress M. (eds) Learning, Design, and Technology. Springer, Cham.


Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman. (2014). The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World (second edition). Cambridge MA: The MIT Press

Nelson, Harold G (2005) The Design of Design Learning: The Graduate Programs in Whole Systems Design — A Reflective Case Study. Doctoral Education in Design Conference, Tempe, Arizona


UC Berkeley Ad Hoc PhD; The Design of Social Systems


Carnegie Foundation; Scholarship for the 21st Century




Popular posts from this blog

Design, Wicked Problems & Throwness

Horst Rittel is one of the seminal residents in my 'Berkeley Bubble'. Recently a friend and colleague sent me an article about ‘double-wickedproblems’ . I have become ever more aware of the increasing number of references to ‘wicked problems’ in all forms of media that seem to have missed Rittel’s deeper insights . This brought up the concern I have about the use and miss-use of the term ‘wicked problem’.  The term ‘wicked problem’, first introduced by Rittel in West Churchman’s seminars at Berkeley, was in reference to his conceptualization of the impossible challenge of dealing with significant social issues using traditional, rational, ‘problem solving’ methods. In most cases what are miss-diangnosed as ‘wicked problems’ are actually complex or complicated problems that can be simplified or broken into smaller 'tame' problems allowing for a straight forward 'problem solving' approach to be taken. This approach is believed by many to be capable

Ethics and Design

A recent article in Fast Company, titled “ Stanford’s Most Popular Class ...”, dealt with a class titled ‘Designing Your Life’.   The first time I was introduced to the idea that one could 'design' their life was when I was a graduate student at Berkeley. Over the years, My friend and mentor C. West Churchman —a polymath Professor at UC Berkeley—had written and lectured on the concept of the ‘Design of a Life’ with a focus on questions of ethics in whole systems. He was very concerned with the ethical behavior of individuals within business, governmental and institutional organizations as they ‘designed’ or planned interventions in complex social systems. Ethics was at the center of designing behavior from West’s perspective. West Churchman and Harold Nelson, Mill Valley, CA (1990's) Reading further in the Fast Company article on Stanford’s class, Bill Burnett—the Executive Director of Stanford’s design program—is quoted as saying: … "Design doesn’t s