Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

For the “Understanding Systems & Systemic Design” course in the program for the Master of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation at OCAD University, the lecture slides were the same for both the full-time cohort on March 8 and part-time cohort on March 9, while the oral presentation varied.  The target, in about 90 minutes, was to cover at least 4 of 5 sections, from:

  • 1. Architecting ↔ designing
  • 2. Service systems ← production systems
  • 3. Affordances ↔ pattern language
  • 4. Ecological anthropology ← teleology
  • 5. Inquiring systems ↔ methods

The students were alerted that some of the arrows in the section headings were double-headed, and some were single-headed — with specific meanings.  For each day, the classroom audio was recorded.  That digital audio has now been synchronized with slides that had previously been posted on the Coevolving Commons.

This session was #8 of 15 lectures for the OCADU SFI students.  They had already done some basic reading on systems approaches.  Since they were working towards a Major Research Project (a lighter weight form of a thesis) for their Master of Design degree, my overall agenda for this lecture was to have them reflect on acts of representation.   Systems have already been represented to them in a variety of forms:  textually, orally and visually.  For their Major Research Projects, they would be creating detailed representations, as ways of having their audience appreciate the in-depth study of the world and issues selected for the term.

June 7th, 2017

Posted In: design, pattern language, services, systems

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Design professionals were attracted at the RSD5 (Relating Systems Thinking and Design) Symposium to a preconference workshop on October 13 at OCADU in Toronto, with the following abstract:

Since 2014, an international collaborative of design leaders has been exploring ways in which methods can be augmented, transitioning from the heritage legacy focus on products and services towards a broad range of complex sociotechnical systems and contemporary societal problems issues. At last year’s RSD4 Symposium, DesignX founder Don Norman presented a keynote talk on the frontiers of design practice and necessity for advanced design education for highly complex sociotechnical problems. He identified the qualities of these systems as relevant to DesignX problems, and called for systemics, transdisciplinarity and the need for high-quality observations (or evidence) in design problems.   Initial directions found were proposed in the first DesignX workshop in October 2015, which have been published in the new design journal She Ji.  In October 2016, another DesignX workshop will be held at Tongji University in Shanghai, overlapping with the timing of the RSD5 Symposium.

We propose to sustain the relationships between RSD and DesignX with this RSD5 half-day workshop, to explore the relationships between systemic design, existing educational programs and the DesignX agenda. We invite RSD participants engaged in both of these contexts to join in a collaborative discussion aimed at further developing the design and education agendas in these discourse communities. We aim to capture experiences and insights from design leaders, educators and practitioners in Toronto, as input, validation and/or suggestions for further development of the DesignX direction.

The morning started with 26 participants, who were briefed on the context for discussion, and given some instructions on a suggested approach.


The participants broke up into 5 groups for an open discussion over 90 minutes, and then gave brief verbal recaps supported by flipcharts on which that had collaborated.  For the impatient, here are some initial summaries expressing voices on emergent issues, that may serve as a basis for further inquiry.

Group 1‘s discussion centered on social designers:

  • For a design professional, what can a community of practice do to develop our roles as social leaders on multidisciplinary teams for change?

Group 2‘s discussion centered on design educators:

  • For a design educator, what specialized expertise requires preparatory knowledge and practices enable participants (citizens) to engage and lead transformations extended from the lab and studio to the arena and agora?

Group 3‘s discussion centered on designers working in policy:

  • For designers working in policy, what can and should they do that others can’t do?

Group 4‘s discussion centered on designers engaged with stakeholders:

  • For designers engaged with stakeholders (customers to planet), what are the value(s) associated with the products and services cocreated in the bigger system?

Group 5‘s discussion centered on design learners:

  • For design learners, what is the best way to continue ongoing learning with real life that includes learning by failing?

Comments on refining these questions are welcomed at the foot of this post, or through private communications.


Susu Nousala chaired the workshop.  The agenda was to explore together what people know, think, feel and experience about the field of design in relation to the DesignX and Systemic Design initiatives.  On the wall was a shrub (initially envisioned as a tree) of quotations on DesignX, published in She Ji.


Some excerpts were read out, and participants were welcomed to come up to refer to the text during the discussion period.

November 9th, 2016

Posted In: design, systems

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Evolving the Proposal to Collaborate on a Pattern Language for Service Systems from January, the initiative has now taken on a label of Service Systems Thinking.  The presentation at the 58th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences in Washington DC was recorded, so that interested parties have the option of watching or listening ideas that have developed over the past six months, and reading the slides at their leisure.  Here’s the abstract:

“Service systems thinking” is proffered as a label for an emerging body of work that: (i) builds on social systems thinking (i.e. socio-psychological, socio-technical and socio-ecological systems perspectives) to advance a transdisciplinary appreciation of service systems science, management, engineering and design; (ii) explores opportunities to enrich Alexanderian patterns and categorized pattern catalogs into a generative pattern language; and (iii) collaborates on new platforms, moving from inductive-consensual wiki pages to a multiple-perspectives (federated) wiki.

The session was conducted in two parts, each of about 90 minutes.  The first part had a soft start playing some videos on the Smallest Federated Wiki by Ward Cunningham, since participants were coming back from lunch in another building.  The presentation alternated between projected slides, and live content on the federated wiki at  The agenda covered:

  • 1. Service Systems Thinking, In Brief
    • 1.1 An intentional representation
    • 1.2 An object-process representation
  • 2. Conversations for Orientation
    • 2.1 Systems thinking
    • 2.2 SSMED (Service Science, Management, Engineering and Design
    • 2.3 Generative Pattern Language
    • 2.4 Multiple Perspectives Open Collaboration
Part 1 Audio [20140730_1453_ISSS_Ing_ServiceSystemsThinking_128Kbps.mp3]
(85MB, 1h32m25s)
Part 1 Video (1h32m26s) nHD qHD
H.264 MP4 [640×360
238Kbps m4v
] (243MB)
716Kbps m4v
] (846MB)
2028Kbps m4v
] (1.4GB)
3341Kbps m4v
] (2.4GB)
WebM [640×360
135Kbps webm
] (176MB)
289Kbps webm
] (282MB)
0688Kbps webm
] (557MB)

In the second part after the break, the agenda covered:

  • 3. Conversations for Possibilties
    • 3.1 [Multiple Perspectives Open Collaboration]: We could have federated authored content on open source platforms
    • 3.2 [Generative Pattern Language]: We could be reoriented for unfolding wholeness, layering systems of centers and/with creating interactive value
    • 3.3 [SSMED]: We could have trans-disciplinary cooperation on service systems improvement
    • 3.4 [Systems thinking]: We could have service systems evolving from the systems thinking tradition

August 26th, 2014

Posted In: design, services, systems, technologies

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At the Oxford Futures Forum 2014, hosted by the Saïd Business School, I was invited to be a participant in a generative dialogue.  Each of the invitees was requested to submit a 250-word abstract and an image four months ahead of the event.  In two days, we had three group discussion meetings, where individuals were free to go to other groups (or form new groups) according to the ideas emerging from the dialogue.

This event runs on the Chatham House Rule:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

Further, in a generative dialogue, ideas flow and merge as participant learn from each other, so representations related to people outside of the involved group don’t get a full appreciation for the unfolding learning.  Having been a participant in a series of prior IFSR Conversations that similarly focus on generative dialogue, any describing of the experience turns out somewhat inadequate.  The most that can be related to others are “proceedings”, where some of the ideas in progress are captured.  As a participant in Oxford Futures Forum, I was involved in three rounds of conversations, which can be roughly framed as:

  • design and scenarios to instigate change (as an introductory clustering to start the first round);
  • methods framing (as the emergent theme from the first round to go into a second round); and
  • scenario-buffered design (as the label that was presented as the conclusion of the third round).

Based on the abstract I had contributed some months earlier, the conference organizers initially slotted me into the “Design and Scenarios to Instigate Change” group.  A few of us had brief contact on a teleconference a few weeks before arriving at the event, and then in the pub on the night of arrival.  When the full group finally met face-to-face, we still didn’t really know each other.  As a way of getting involved with others, we were asked to present the abstract of another person from the group.  From those foundations, we started a loose discussion making sense of some common themes.  The organizers helpfully provided a note taking volunteer, Saba Riaz, to record some of this preliminary dialogue — a challenging flow to track, as the round 1 groups tried to make sense of  the ideas of others, as well as ourselves!  The proceedings (final report) included the following synopsis:

Round 1: Design and scenarios to instigate change

August 18th, 2014

Posted In: design, innovation

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The systems thinking roots from architect Christopher Alexander aren’t completely obvious in his work on pattern language.  A republished version of an 1968 article resurfaces some clarification on a perspective on systems thinking originating from practices in architecture.  This article introduced ways in which systems thinking could be most directly applied to built environments.  The cross-appropriation of pattern languages across a variety of domain types — object-oriented programmers were the earliest motivating adopters — could be enlightened by revisiting the foundations.  Alexander concisely presented 4 points, and then provided detailed reasoning for each:

1. There are two ideas hidden in the word system: the idea of a system as a whole and the idea of a generating system.

2. A system as a whole is not an object but a way of looking at an object. It focuses on some holistic property which can only be understood as a product of interaction among parts.

3. A generating system is not a view of a single thing. It is a kit of parts, with rules  about the way these parts may be combined.

4. Almost every ‘system as a whole’ is generated by a ‘generating system’. If we wish to make things which function as ‘wholes’ we shall have to invent generating systems to create them.  [Alexander 2011, p. 59; Alexander 1968, p. 605]

In a properly functioning building, the building and the people in it together form a whole: a social, human whole. The building systems which have so far been created do not in this sense generate wholes at all.  [Alexander 2011, p. 58; Alexander 1968, p. 605]

Let’s leave analytical explications of the original 1968 text as secondary, to first appreciate the idea of “systems generating systems” through sensemaking done some decades after 1968, and in the broader context of Alexander’s other writings and interviews.

Molly Wright Steenson, as part of her 2014 dissertation, has a 66-page digest of Alexander’s work between 1962 and 1968.  Her deep reading was reflected in a 2009 recorded presentation on “Loving and Hating Christopher Alexander“.  Generally speaking, interaction designers love Christopher Alexander’s approach, while architects hate Christopher Alexander’s approach.

SVA Dot Dot Dot Lectures: Molly Wright Steenson from MFA Interaction Design.

Amongst the lovers and haters of Christopher Alexander is a predisposition towards interaction compatible with systems thinking.  For built environments, architecture can be described through a language of patterns, where those patterns may or may not be generative.  In her 2014 dissertation, Steenson fleshes out Alexander’s 1968 “Systems Generating Systems” with the broader context of the 1979 The Timeless Way of Building, and 1983 publication by Stephen Grabow of interviews with Alexander.

Generating Systems

Alexander describes pattern languages as “generative,” referring to the quality of multiplicity, of a system that operates both as a whole and as a set of rules.  A system, like a language, works on multiple levels.  The system presents itself on the surface, he writes, when “we are confronted with an object which displays some kind of behaviour which can only be understood as a product of interaction among parts within the object.  We call this kind of behaviour, holistic behaviour.”262 It also incorporates the rule set for the manipulation of the elements that it composes. This dualistic system is analogous to the functions of the pattern language. Just as a generating system is a kit of parts, “Each pattern is a rule which describes what you have to do to generate the entity which it defines.”263 [Steenson 2014, pp. 90-91]

262Christopher Alexander, “Systems Generating Systems,” AD 38(1968): 606.
263Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, 182.

April 10th, 2014

Posted In: design, systems

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The thinking behind GIGA-mapping, as a technique from designers, echoes some research into (computer-supported) collaborative work from a decade ago.  In “GIGA-Mapping: Visualisation for Complexity and Systems Thinking in Design“, Birger Sevaldson wrote in 2011:

GIGA-maps are the central device in the Rich Research Space which includes social spaces, media spaces and physical spaces.

This reminds me a lot about the design of mediating spaces coming from Ian Simmonds and myself in 2002:

We propose a framework for designers of business organizations and designers of information systems that portrays three forms of “space” that mediate social interactions: physical space, social space and informatic space. The framework aids organizational designers and information technology designers to understand some of the complexities of enabling knowledge work, by contrasting the properties of the spaces and their interactions:

  • Social interaction enabled by physical spaces is the focus of architects of buildings and urban planners, managers locating individuals and team who work together, and conference organizers who plan events to encourage networking.
  • Social interaction enabled by social spaces is the focus of organizational designers who develop supporting social structures such as centers of excellence or practitioner support networks.
  • Social interaction enabled by informatic spaces is the focus of knowledge architects and process analysts, who administer and moderate groupware and workflow applications.

In addition,

  • Informatic spaces hosted in physical spaces are the focus of Information Technology architects, who ensure appropriate geographical coverage, performance, availability and security through appropriate computer hardware and software (e.g. servers, access points and networks).

Since the ways in which knowledge work can be carried out vary from person to person across a community, and innovations are naturally introduced over time, an enabling infrastructure should be capable of adaptation to those changed needs. We draw on research in general systems theory, architectural theory, and social theory to inform our practices in advising on business design, and methods and tools for information modeling.

Across disciplines, our starting points were definitely different.  However, the trends driving this direction would appear to be complementary, as described by the Rich Design Research Space in Sevaldson (2008):

The Rich Research Space is a “tool” or a meta-tool for research-by-design.  [….]   The Rich Research Space is here regarded as a complex and manifold tool that will
enable an inclusive and complex research process.

March 8th, 2014

Posted In: design, systems

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