Design for Democracy, Course Description

Apr 2017 | News & Notes

Systems Oriented Design: “Design for Democracy “

Scope: 24 ETCS

Institute for Design

Oslo School of Architecture and Design


Do you want to take this course?

Please see www.aho.no for application.

The course runs autumn 2017. Most likely it will be running again autumn 2018.

Requirements: You need to have a bachelor in design or architecture or similar education that will be accepted by the Oslo School of Architecture. You can either join this course as an exchange student or apply for the master studies at AHO. Please contact the AHO study administration


The Design for democracy course is part of the Institute of Design.


We are accepting students from all institutes to this course



Course Description

This course description is based on the 2016 Design for Democracy Studio and future studio courses might differ.

Language: The course is taught in English

Professor in charge: Birger Sevaldson / Linda Blaasvær

Prerequisites: Bachelor degree or equivalent in design or architecture

Recommended previous knowledge: Completed first year of master level education




Course content:

The course is suitable for all design topics including architecture, urbanism and landscape architecture. The course ranges from micro to macro scale and students can develop and choose their perspective. The course has a main theme but even individual programming is possible. The course well suited as preparation for the diploma.

Design for a complex world
Designers today are confronted with an increasing complexity. Constantly new fields and tasks are opened up for designers and the importance of design increases. Complex socio-technical, problems are addressed by designers, both in the development of design solutions and the development of processes for complexity.

To be better prepared for this development, we as designers must learn to handle greater complexity, understand larger contexts, learn more about the consequences of our choices, both for businesses, customers, individual users as well as and society.

   Systems thinking

A deeper understanding of processes and entanglements of systems is called systems thinking. In Systems Oriented Design (SOD), we have developed an approach to systems thinking that is especially developed for practicing designers. It is the designerly approach to systems.
We follow in the footsteps of many great SOD projects that have opened up
new fields and which has given the design profession extra weight and more substance.

SOD is part of a larger movement with many approaches called Systemic Design (systemic-design.net). This movement was started by SOD teachers here at AHO and other people mainly from Canada and the US.




   Focus theme: Design for Democracy

We are experiencing major unrest in the world; democratic values are at stake, people fleeing from their homes and from war. Many nations are heading to democracy but it is a cumbersome way forward. Even established democracies are struggling, examples we have from the European Union and the United States. Norway is not an exception when it comes to the need for better participation and accountability of voters and citizens in general. The democratic systems’ inherent short term perspectives together with the complexity of the driving processes makes it very difficult for citizens to voice long-term considerations and to know how to claim participation. Local democracy is underdeveloped compared to the major tasks that communities are confronted with. These range from sustainability to economic development and integration.

On the other hand, design has a long tradition of developing processes from a democratic perspective. Universal Design and Participatory Design processes are examples of this. In addition, designer have been involved in democracy in designing voting processes and information distribution for a long time.

However, design for democracy can be developed further. Can we, through design, envision and describe a future that supports a balanced distribution of power, values, and resources? Can we contribute to building democratic cultures and lowering the threshold for participation in democratic processes? Can we design processes that make it easier to think long term and through this encourage sustainable development? Can we, through the design of our surroundings help the emergence of democratic organizations?

The theme Design for Democracy seeks innovation to support democratic processes in small and large scale. Democracy is under pressure and there is no guarantee that democracy will prevail without a comprehensive effort to protect and develop democratic processes. This effort for developing democracy may in many ways, be perceived as a design process, and designers have a lot to contribute.

In our age where the Internet has made it possible to reach out with ones opinions and where Democracy 2.0 has been relevant for a while, it is important with an effort to find out how designers can help.

The theme may involve a number of areas and issues where design can be a crucial factor:

– How to convey democratic history? – 
– How to help people to vote for their long-term interests?

– How to make discussions of sustainability more accessible?
– How to vote on behalf of others, your children, grandchildren, future generations or others who cannot vote? (Agency)
– How Designing voting process as an interactive service? 
– How Reveal / uncover and communicate processes that undermine democracy? 
– How to fight for democracy? (Activism) What is the role of digital media in the ongoing popular uprisings?
– How to build democratic cultures?
– How to design our environment, cities, architecture and nature in democratic processes and democratic expression?
– How designing new democratic arenas?
– Networks, Technology and mobile phones as the venue for Democracy 2.0.
– Design for variety, tolerance and integration.
– Crowd Sourcing. (Self-organizing systems)
– How can design fight oversimplified solutions and populism?
– How can design make economic processes transparent?


The course is open to all students at AHO and it endeavors to think in transdisciplinary perspectives and to develop new perspectives or take positions that are not covered by the AHO disciplines. Examples include organizational design and design for action (action design) or entirely new perspectives.

The course should obviously be interesting for service and interaction design but also for product design, where one can think of many approaches that could lead to democratic products. Just think of the refinement of social signals and separation embedded in automobile design. On the systems level it is a big problem with today’s mass production, which can be socially destructive and oppressive, and where there are big challenges when it comes to sustainability. Another interesting issue in the realm of products is the current development of 3D print technology. While general main steam commercialization tends to streamline and drain cultural expression, how might distributed manufacturing influence a growing diversity and new opportunities for individuals to express themselves? The tolerance for and thriving of diversity is a hallmark of democracy.

Architects are encouraged to apply. Architecture has a long history in serving the establishment and power. Today ethical discussions and an awareness of social responsibility increases. A deep knowledge of the process mechanisms, economics, cultural drivers and ethics in this is crucial. There is great frustration in parts of the Norwegian population of many of today’s development projects and the accompanying processes. Participatory design processes should be explored.

The course is also relevant for urbanism and urban development as well as landscape and nature management. Participation in place development is statutory by Norwegian law but “we have bad processes for participation” (Geir Vikan, Councilman Tønsberg Municipality)


The students are expected to participate at RSD6 18th to 20th October
RSD is an extremely successful, interesting and rewarding conference series that was started up at AHO in 2012. The symposium has something for everyone also has a separate track for architecture


   Expectations to the student:

Students are expected to be able to work independently and be able to use their previous experience from design or architectural education into their project. We expect a high level of activity and effort. More than 20% of undocumented absence in lectures and other announced activities will result in a fail.

Students are expected to evaluate their project systemically. This applies to the approach to the task, the threshold for systemic impact and synergy. It is expected of students that they can describe a problematique or problem-field, and specify a field for mapping / exploration.

The course aims to prepare students to work professionally as a systems-oriented designer or architect within, product, service interaction design or architecture, or a more general (hybrid) direction in design. It is expected that the student demonstrate maturity in execution, development and implementation of their design project.

Students are expected to open up new themes or areas to work within as a designer or architect.


   Learning outcomes


Students will be introduced to System Oriented Design (SOD) as a method and an approach, to be able to work with a greater degree of complexity.

System Thinking is a foundation to develop a deeper understanding of sustainability, ethics, culture and society, and to develop the understanding of communication, technology and innovation. These aspects will be discussed in lectures but will also be discussed during tutoring sessions in the projects. The contents of these discussions will be related to the respective projects and will thus vary. Students will gain a general understanding of systems thinking and especially on SOD. They will develop skills in adaptive expertise, Very Rapid Learning, collaborative processes and participatory design and in opening up new fields as design projects.

The students will learn the techniques of SOD including GIGA-mapping, Timeline mapping, Rich Design Space, ZIP analysis. Training is also given in facilitation, co-design, scenario building, foresight, risk analysis, literature search.

SOD seeks to make designers able to handle an open process where the goal is not defined in the outset. It involves learning the ability to manage the uncertainty that comes from working with great complexity and get to know the designer’s strengths and weaknesses in cooperation that break new ground for new fields of design. System oriented designers need to be both humble and courageous.

We will train skills in communicating with partners in workshops and participatory design processes. We will guide in communicating very complex projects in an understandable way using posters and video so that the projects become available to outsiders.

There will be an introduction to General Systems Theory.

Furthermore, students will be involved, through lectures and discussions throughout the process, in a number of areas such as design thinking, aesthetics, sustainability, ethics, culture and social understanding, materials technology and socio-technological systems. These topics will be discussed from a systemic approach.



The course is principally political neutral. But understanding society including power structures are necessary in this study.

Ethical considerations are important and we think that social systems should not oppress and marginalize any participant or citizen nor do harm to non-humans.

We do not think that design can fix problems easily. We do not think every change does needs long-term commitment but we think change is a continuous process.  It is a misunderstanding to focus on processes of change like if they would be different and separate of an imagined normal state of no change. We do not believe in the traditional designer role, providing plans for people for them to implement. The best we can do is to use our designerly creativity to suggest actions that might trigger new directions in the flux of society. We therefor think of this project in the framework of versioning and iterations. The design activity is an integrated part of this ongoing flux.

In line with this position, the suggested design interventions need to take these issues in account and demonstrate how they might evolve into new versions, how they will work and might develop independently after the designers have left the field.


   Teaching and learning activities

Students working on semester project individually or in groups (recommended size of groups is maximum two students). Project Plans are created for each project individually according to their demands. Each project requires, in principle, its own project design.

The course itself is a dynamic social system that must be adjusted and tweaked in real time. Therefore, students must be actively involved in designing the course. We expect corrections of the course and changes in the approaches along the way.

We emphasize that the students must be very active in designing their own project.


   Interdisciplinary work

This as many other such projects cross into other knowledge fields. Designers are at risk to become amateurs if not especial care is taken. There are existing methods for coping with cross-disciplinary work, e.g. the Delphy Method. In SOD we use the extensive building and application of expert networks. The student is obliged to build a relevant expert network.



Communication within the project acquired through co-inquiry, co-mapping and co-design and use of Gigamaps to form consensual images of complex situations.

Communication outwardly practiced orally at the project presentations in open reviews and using appropriate techniques such as posters, video or narratives.



Submission of semester project communicated in an easily accessible manner with video or other visual techniques and in terms of exhibition to AHO WORKS EXHIBITION.

The main delivery is a project report with the following specifications:

1) Full name and contact info and private email (not aho email since it disappears.)

2) One title picture representing project.

3) Abstract of maximum one page

4) All permits obtained and anonymization completed

5) Table of Contents at the beginning

6) COMPLETE reference list at the end!

7) ALL images numbered, and with copyright cleared and with credits.

8) All other deliveries as video and slides must be cleared with rights on all materials.


The report should contain the following structure and sections:

·        Title and subtitle

·        Author name

·        Author title and Institution (Master student at Institute of Design, Oslo School of Architecture and Design)

·        Abstract: A summary of the project, one sentence about context (master project, Theme, Partners), one or two sentences about main findings and results.

·        Table of content with page numbers

·        Introduction: more about context and Theme. Shortly about the fields (Democracy, SOD), state of the art, approach, methods, process, and results). Present the expert network. Present Gigamaps of the landscape, the environment and the task.

·        Process:  Methods, Research (literature and project reviews) and inquiries (interviews and conversations and other fieldwork) Do not call inquiries for research. Make a distinction. (Present data, information, findings and insights). Important to present and discuss the expert network.

·        The project presentation: Presentation of your final project with emphasis on the results.

·        Discussion (criticality is required, pro et contra)

·        Conclusion and further work

·        Acknowledgements: Thanks to your partners and others who have helped you.


The students are evaluated based on participation and effort, milestone reviews, assessment and final project delivery.

Minimum delivery: Project report, eventual video and exhibition that easily communicate the project.

The course is assessed as: Pass / Fail.

It is compulsory attendance at lectures, tutorials and presentations. More than 20% absence will result in a fail.



The main task is suggested to be to design participatory processes for urban development within two main fields.

1: The further development of the urban plan for the center of Tønsberg.

               Kommunaldirektør Teknisk etat, Jan Eide

Tønsberg has decided on one of the most developed, detailed and sensitive development plans ever in Norway. The goal is to densify the inner core of the city, which is now scattered with large parking areas that have been there for years due to archeological issues. These issues are now solved and the city is moving into a phase of intensive development. Despite the good intentions of the development plan, the result can go wrong, due to the failing ability of common contemporary architecture to provide satisfactory solutions. Problems are the limited range of formal variation and ability of adapting to the existing situation demonstrated in most cities in Norway. This has created frustration in large groups of inhabitants.

The city center of Tønsberg is too valuable that these processes are left for developers and architects alone to decide. We are seeking to create constructive dialogues in different scales and scopes to experiment with a new level of participation in this process.

The outcome of this task is probably new participatory processes and tools for the municipality.

2: The town for an aging population: Social life in the city.

               Kommunaldirektør Helse og Omsorg, Tove Hovland

The Cities population is aging and will age more in the future. At the same time the aging population is changing towards a more active life style. How can the city center and its networks and activities support active social lifes for the elder generations. How can we design scaffolds for social interaction?

The outcome for this task can be configuration of principles and examples of small scale urban public spaces and or any other design, including services and web based initiatives.




Main Partner:

Tønsberg Municipality

Rådmann, Geir Viksand

Kommunaldirektør Helse og Omsorg, Tove Hovland

Kommunaldirektør Teknisk etat, Jan Eide



Andreas Wettre

Rambøll is a big consultancy, which provides total expertise for a wide span of planning processes. They are providing consultancy services for architecture, transportation, water management, environment and health, energy, oil & gas, management consulting. They also have an office in Tønsberg.


Our main contact is Andreas Wettre, an expert in consulting and facilitating dialogic processes. His expertise in running very large-scale workshops is of special interest.


Norsk Eiendom

CEO Tor Olav Ascher

Carl Henrik Borchenius

Norsk Eiendom (Norwegian Property Federation) is the association of leading commercial real estate businesses in Norway. The members are large and small real estate companies. Interestingly on their list of purposes, their first point is to promote the work for more environmentally friendly buildings and measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This commitment to society reflects an advanced perspective on their role and possibilities to influence and form urban development in an ethical responsible way. They were very interested in helping to develop participatory processes and this is why they are a partner in the project.


See their project on efficient planning processes:




Benedicte Wildhagen

DOGA is the Norwegian Design Council. Participatory design is growing and they are working on a project for participation.

Benedicte is a long-term collaborator with SOD