Theme: Playing with Tensions

Embracing new complexity, collaboration and contexts in systemic design

The fate of all complex adapting systems in the biosphere – from single cells to economies – is to evolve to a natural state between order and chaos, a grand compromise between structure and surprise.

Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe

Complex systems do not lend themselves to much simplification. Systemic designers have no choice but to embrace complexity, and in doing so, embrace opposing concepts and the resulting paradoxes. It is at the interplay of these ideas that they find the most fruitful regions of exploration.

The main conference theme explores design and systems thinking practices as mediators to deal fruitfully with tensions. Our human tendency is to relieve the tensions, and in design, to resolve the so-called “pain points.” But tensions reveal paradoxes, the sites of connection, breaks in scale, emergence of complexity. Can we embrace the tension, the paradoxes as valuable social feedback in our path to just and sustainable futures?

We welcome contributions on better understanding, communicating about, and ways of fruitfully dealing with tensions in systemic design. Contributions can be domain-specific and as such focus on contextual tensions, or can deal methodologically or theoretically with tensions as a general concept. The following focus areas highlight interpretations of the theme.

Breaks in scale 

Systemic design briefs are concerned with large-scale issues which call for a macroscopic perspective. Yet change is often driven by individual actors making decisions within their scope of control, at their own microscopic level. How to combine such macroscopic and microscopic perspectives, considering both the large-scale aims and the individual perspectives, in design?

Value conflicts 

When dealing with issues systemically, implies the inclusion of multiple stakeholders and timeframes. No systemic change goes without violations of values that keep the system in place. We do want a healthy planet for future generations, but to reach this, we need to give up on things we value in our current context. How can design creatively deal with tensions between short-term and long-term values, individual and collective values, and values between different stakeholders?


Throughout its history, humans have relied on technology to overcome every challenge they encountered. It is thus no surprise that our hopes to address today’s most pressing issues rely so heavily on technological innovation, whether it is a vaccine or a renewable source of power. Yet no technology is ever so powerful that it can do away with human factors, our ability to collaborate and co-create, our power relationships, our capacity for empathy, and our easily bruised egos. How to make the most of the available technologies while addressing human needs and desires?

Collaboration and transdisciplinary working

Systemic issues cannot be dealt with effectively by single disciplines. We need to bring multiple expertise together and push ourselves beyond what we know. But this is easier said than done. Every discipline and field of practice brings a different language, different mindset and different way of working. A variety of disciplinary perspectives together dealing with great uncertainty is a fruitful ground for friction and conflict. What can we learn from this and how to leverage such friction for more effective collaborations?

Combining thinking, feeling, and acting

Many of the problems that systemic designers are concerned with call for urgent actions. They are the realm of entrepreneurs, be they the social or the commercial type. Yet all the busyness of these solvers and makers may not result in much good if we don’t reserve some of our collective energy to thinking, pondering, and questioning. This is the role of the philosopher. Systemic design is at its most effective when drawing on the alternation of thinking and doing, each activity feeding new insights into the other.

We invite contributions to the main theme and sub-themes described above, as well as contributions that speak to the general theme of Relating Systems Thinking and Design, including:

  • Systemic design methods and practices
  • Systems change and transitions
  • Systemic design in organisations and services
  • Systemic design case studies