Why systems thinking needs design thinking

Feb 2011 | News & Notes

I was reading late Russel Ackoff’s and Rovin Sheldons “Redesigning Society” a while ago. Ackoff is one of the true heroes in systems thinking and his achievements are substantial. To my knowledge one of the most important contributions of Ackoff is the critique of technical systems approaches and to be one of the first to state that such “hard” approaches have limited value when working with human activity systems.
The first part of the book is a wonderful read on systems thinking in relation to social change. The second part presents the ideal society according to the group that was involved in this study. The experience of reading this study was a strange roller coaster. Many concrete suggestions were made and what is interesting is how they establish a connection between the layout of a city and how it works in a totally new type of democracy. All kinds of particular problems are addressed in detail including a funny but to my mind highly unrealistic design of a car. However clever the suggested model is it seems strangely detached from reality and is to my mind totally utopic or even undesirable. The gridded city disregards discussions on diversification in architecture, nor are systemic features of self organisation and emergence addressed. How would old cities transform into these master planned schemes? Also the square uniform grid and repetitive organisation is unbearable for me as an European. The model presents a dated belief in hard planning combined with modern ideas of bottom up democratic processes that leave me quite ambivalent. Also some of the suggested changes touch upon issues that fundamentally conflict with our current view on democratic rights like the right to own land.

But the most important issue to my mind is the lack of thoroughly addressing economic processes. How and where are the production facilities, industries workspaces organised? What kind of economic systems are at play when totally removing private land ownership? How would the model cope with dynamic change of commercial areas?

Maybe some of my criticism is unfair and I think the first part of the book is really worth reading. But to my mind this is an example where the lack of holistic design thinking that has room for the fuzziness of real life becomes obvious. The study could have greatly benefited from more imaginative and creative design thinking.

I am looking forward to eventual comments. email me on birger.sevaldson@aho.no

Here is a link to people who are developing further the work of Russel Ackoff http://ackoffcenter.blogs.com/