Systems Design Approach to Public Policy

Nenad (Ned) Rava
30 min readJun 13, 2020

Chapter in the Handbook of Systems Science edited by Metcalf, G. (Springer, 2021: link 1 or link 2)


Interest in policy design has increased due to the growing complexity and interdependence of policy issues, and the rapid expansion of design practices into new fields. Nevertheless, the concepts and applications of policy design still tend to be addressed by designers and policy leaders in isolation, and without sufficient contribution from systems sciences. Such an isolation might be particularly surprising when we realize that policy and design share some of the same roots in complex the social systems approach and decision-making, which has been a tacit “undercurrent” in design and policy since for over 50 years. This chapter describes the research and application of systems design approach to public policy (systemic policy design). The chapter is divided into two main sections. The first addressed the systemic, comprehensive understanding of policy (with emphasis on policy as learning in complex contexts), with linkages to main issues on systemic design. The second section puts forward the main arguments regarding systemic policy design. In the conclusion, future paths are outlined.

Keywords: policy, policy design, systems change, systemic design, social complexity, learning, planning

1. Introduction

This chapter aims at addressing an important gap in the current body of knowledge: that of conceptualization and application of a systems approach to policy design[1]. Systems approaches, policy, and design remain siloed and there is still a predominant understanding that those three emerged and evolved independently. To some extent, this is valid because each has carved its own discipline and developed distinct new ideas, concepts, and practical applications. However, they share the same foundations; they have cross-fertilized each other; and they are increasingly converging in the theory and practice. It would suffice to mention the so-called “wicked problems” proposed by Rittel and Webber already in 1973 (presaged by Özbekhan in 1968), that combined systems approaches to complexity, (urban) policy, and design[2].

With such legacies properly understood, the current task is not necessarily to propose a fundamentally different approach to policy design — the discipline is far from nascent[3] — but to complete the puzzle, address the ongoing “arguing in confusion”, and inform real-life applications and pedagogy. The first step in that direction is interpreting the legacy of systems, policy and design in the context of systemic policy design, including occasional friction between those three arenas of thinking and action (Jones 2014). It will require a “double-edged” purpose (Skocpol 2003), i.e. interacting between theoretical concepts and practical applications, to bring us to the place from which we observe new horizons for systemic policy design.

The chapter starts with brief introduction to policy studies that emphasizes a systemic and comprehensive understanding of policy, which goes beyond policy instruments (e.g. regulation) or decision-making. While this might be obvious for most policy scholars, it is still not necessarily how policy is perceived from other fields of inquiry and practice. Moreover, it will introduce policy as learning in the context of complexity. Only minor attention will be paid to policy process and tools. The same section provides key insights into systemic design so as to show the alignment with the systemic policy approach. An overview of main ideas and issues on policy design will provide less content and more references in order to provide a foundation for the main arguments in the chapter. These arguments will be presented with the intention to bring closer together a systems approach to policy and complex social systems design in order to set the stage for continued research and practical application (with quick reference to possible methodological frameworks). The chapter concludes with proposals for paths for further considerations of systemic policy design in real-life context and in educational programs.

It should be mentioned that the main arguments presented in this chapter benefited from “standing on the shoulders of giants”, which rendered, amongst other, three particular considerations. The first is the understanding of design as the 3rd culture of human inquiry (Nelson and Stolterman 2012), which is exactly where systemic design and policy intersect. The second relates to the notion of policy as norm-seeking and value configuration (Özbekhan 1968), which is closely related to political, social and normative reasoning of Diesing (1973). Finally, systems approach to policy and to design find another shared ground between Latour’s (2008) reference to the design “thing” (within the broader concept of collective and dasein) and the use of “thing” as the traditional, political assembly in proto-democratic German tribes[4]. The arguments are also firmly based on the recognition that both policy and design are forward-looking. Design is about “that-which-does-not-exist” (Nelson and Stolterman 2012), while policy is an intervention in the society for future impact — hence, both necessitating elements of anticipation and strategic foresight.

2. Systems Approaches to Policy

As is the case with most social concepts, policy remains evasive, and the long tradition of policy research has not necessarily produced a “final” definition. What seems to be important is that there are certain common threads across different understanding of policy. This chapter is not a study on policy[5], but it is essential to understand policy in systemic, comprehensive terms, i.e. more than decision-making, policy content, or policy instruments (but inclusive of those).

2.1 Systemic, Comprehensive Understanding of Policy

The birth of policy research is often credited to Lasswell (1951), who wanted to develop “policy sciences of democracy” to promote human dignity, political democracy, and prudent judgment of citizens. However, this noble goal largely evolved into the technocratic approach to policy (most recently represented by New Public Management) that has become insulated from politics and from democracy. Policy thinking and practices have become further siloed[6] between those related to policy-making and those related to policy implementation. In contrast to such technocratic and disintegrating trends, the “original” understanding of policy has been much more in line with systems approach (Özbekhan 1968), and the creative,design domain (“art”, as in Vickers, 1995). Furthermore, we should recognize the argument made by Moore (1997) that the purpose of policy is a triangle of a) public value, b) legitimacy, and c) feasibility. While feasibility has always been intrinsic to policy, values and legitimacy fell into the background, and the value tends to be considered predominantly a financial value.

We should start with a more generic definition of policy. Easton (1965) proposed that policies are the systems or mechanisms through which values are authoritatively allocated in the society. In other words, he posited that a) policy relates to values; b) policy is a mechanism; and c) policy is about allocation. These notions, in particular values and mechanisms/systems, will cut through the rest of this chapter. However, at this point, we need to make another reference. Moving to specific definitions, Peters (2015; 2013) proposed that public policy is the set of activities that governments engage in for the purpose of changing their economy and society. This is much more comprehensive than considering policy as mere policy instruments (e.g. regulations, program, services) or even decision-making[7]. Essentially, it is about real-life change for a sort of betterment or improvement[8]. Achieving expected policy success is a difficult endeavour. And policies might need to be considered from the angle of bounded rationality and incrementalism, which challenges the notion of causality and attribution (and, certainly, the so-called “evidence”-based policy or linear “delivery” of “solutions”). Important are also the issues of intentionality and evaluation because policy success is often being articulated only retroactively. Conversely, it is impossible to generalize (or optimize) what a “good” policy or a good outcome represents without situating it into a context — something that design can help us achieve.

Critically from the social systems perspective, policy is shaped more through argumentation than a rational, analytic process. This makes the framing of policy through identifying, scoping and structuring the policy problem one of the most critical aspects of the entire policy process. Moreover, the understanding of policy continues to evolve and change even in the course of implementation. This implies that policy is “completed” only when its outcome/s are co-created with its target group/s.

There is rarely a single conception of the policy problem (or of its causes and consequences), so there is rarely a single conception of how to address it. This is ultimately a political process that influences not only policy objectives and types of interventions, but also the identity and roles of policy actors. Since social problems are (for most part) “wicked” — and we know from Rittel and Webber that “wicked” problems cannot be solved[9]- there is a dynamic of iterative and interactive conceptualization and operationalization of the problem, the instruments and methods, and the expected results taking place both consequently and simultaneously.

Schneider and Ingram (1997) discussed policy in terms of the policy content and patterns produced by policy. They posit that policy is meant to serve a wide range of goals: from solving problem, to reflecting interests and being accountable, to serving justice, and to engaging and enlightening citizens. Most importantly, they relate policy to democracy because policies are also “lessons in democracy” and hence propose an integrated policy theory. They argue that policies are recognizable in texts and in practices through which policies are conveyed and in which policies produce consequences. Policies are found in statutes, guidelines, court rulings, and practices of case-workers, but also revealed through symbols and discourses that “define and deliver values”. Policies are also about blueprints, architecture, and aesthetics of both its instrumental and symbolic forms, and they are determined by target populations that receive benefits or burdens, values distributed in the process, rules guiding or constraining action, rationales that explain or legitimate policy, and assumptions as logical connections that ties elements of policy.

In what he called “general theory of planning”, Özbekhan (1968) proposed highly relevant insights on policy. He considered planning from a systemic perspective[10] and, de facto, equated it with policy. Rather than seeing it in terms of sequential steps leading to future goals, planning represents continuous “investigation of purpose”. It is not an individual activity, but a social one, and this process is of normative nature that leads to creation of “ought-to”, “willed” futures. Furthermore, “truth is a social fact” and its verification is a social process closely related to values, so he differentiates value judgement (definition of norms) from valuation (appraisal against existing norms). Policy-making for him is the third[11] level of planning and it represents a “norm-seeking” endeavour that should change the present to fit the image of the “willed” future based on a new configuration of values. For Özbekhan, a social change that is not based on new policy as a fundamental change in values merely extrapolates and extends the present into the future. This happens when the focus on feasibility (what can be done) and operations (how things should be done) replaces the strategic function (what will be done) and policy-making (what ought to be done). Sometimes, there is even a complete merger of “ought-to”, “will be”, and “can be” into “what is” done[12].

Özbekhan’s emphasis on values bring us full circle back to the Easton’s definition of policy, as presented earlier. His reference to “willed” futures is in direct alignment with policy as a future change produced by intervention into the society and economy (and, as I will present later, with design’s “preferred future situation”). Policy as values should be grounded in Diesing’s (1973) social, normative and political rationality. Özbekhan’s notion that policy should be considered from the perspective of (value) judgment is also proposed by Vickers (1995). It is closely related to how Nelson and Stolterman (2012) describe design judgment, as another critical linkage between systems, policy, and design.

2.2 Social Complexity, and Policy as Learning

Social problems are part of social systems that are essentially different from other systems because there is the autonomy of both parts and the whole[13] (Ackoff 2010). A social problem represents a convention that the situation has an inadequate or negative value and, crucially, that it is considered sufficiently important to organize for action (Jones 2014). This aligns with the argument of Özbekhan (1968) that situation is considered problematic when there exists a dissonance between the situation and the value system. His concept of problematique and Critical Continuous Problems (CCPs) leads us to Warfield, who concluded that social problems are a “state of mind” (Warfield and Perino, 1999). Such problems — equally of policy, design and systems legacy — are also referred to “unsplittable” (Jones, 1995), intractable controversies (Schön, 1984), and “messes” (Ackoff 2003). Most commonly they are known “wicked” problems, as articulated by Rittel and Webber (1973).

Here we can refer to the work of Hisschemoller and Hoppe (1996), as they built upon Schön’s notion of intractable controversies, referring to complex social problems. Policies are seen as socio-political constructs that, by action, bridge the gap between the existing situation and a normatively-valued desired state. They further posit that policies do not operate on objective givens, but articulate values as much as “facts”[14]. Conversely, policies cannot be defined objectively, but only through a political process, which then involves multitude of actors with often conflicting values and “facts”. This reminds us that, while policy might be different from politics, it cannot not be insulated from politics, and it leads us back to policy as value judgment, as presented by Özbekhan and Vickers.

In their framework[15], some problems might be structured (“tamed” in the terms used by Rittel and Webber). Other problems, those genuinely complex, are “unstructured” (ill-defined, “wicked”) because their boundaries are diffuse, and one problem can hardly be separated from another, related one. Nevertheless, most problems could be understood as semi- (or moderately) structured problems, and they propose two kinds. Structured problems can be addressed by policy through rules, applying technical reasoning (as proposed in Diesing 1973). There is little need for public participation because the process is dominated by experts that “objectify”[16]. Moderately-structured problems apply economic rationality in two ways: a) Policy as negotiation takes place when there is (at least a broad) agreement on the means, so the focus is put on the ends, and b) Policy as accommodation applies when there is lack of agreement on the ends, but focus is on disputes about regarding goals (values or “rights”).

The consequent conclusion by Hisschemoller and Hoppe is that neither accommodation of ends or negotiation of means can deal with “unstructured” problems. For that we require strategy of “learning”, i.e. “policy as learning”. However, governments tend to prefer to define problems as structured, even when they are not because it minimizes uncertainty and limits the need for searching alternative solutions. The cost is often focusing on the “wrong problem” and “losing touch with true complexity and normative volatility of the problems as experiences by other groups”. Citizens are often considered to be “unqualified”, so that there is a need for specialist to play the role of “guardians of public interest”.

2.3 Key Aspects of Systemic Design

Design remains an evasive discipline (for good, designerly reasons), so it is important to clarify the specific approach applied in this chapter. Defining design is interdependent with the task of putting a boundary around what the history of design is. Commonly[17], it is considered that (modern) design emerges from graphical standardization of patterns required for mass production of textile during the industrial revolution in Britain[18]. This aligns with Buchanan’s (1995) proposition that all design is graphical (symbolic), and it also supports the notion that design is distinctively human because it requires the capacity for visualization and anticipation. From there, design evolves under the influence of its own trends and in interaction with other disciplines such as architecture, engineering, and arts. While experience, interaction or service design are by now embraced by conventional designers and incorporated into educational programs, there is still certain resistance towards organizational design[19]. When it comes to designing systems, positions span: from systems as the context of design, to considering all design to be systemic, to proposing a separate domain of systemic (or systems) design. The complex social systems design has its origins in the work of Churchman (1967), and was further developed by Özbekhan, Warfield, Ackoff, and Banathy, amongst others. This approach closely relates design and systems (Jones 2014), and sometimes even tends to equate them[20].

For the purposes of illustration (not intending to be exhaustive), several specific definitions of design are worthwhile. In Boland and Collopy (2004) design is defined as giving of form to an idea by shaping artifacts and events that create more desirable futures. This is very much in line with Fry’s (2012) preconfiguration of what we want to bring forth into the world[21]. Both build upon the basic but essential definition of Simon (1969) that design is human endeavour of converting actual situations into preferred ones. From a more systems perspective, we should refer to Schön (1984; 1995) where design becomes a reflexive dialogue with the situation[22]. Moreover, design could be understood as “making sense of things” (Krippendorff 1989; 2007), which builds upon the strong legacy of second-order cybernetics (e.g. von Foerster 1981) and it also circles back to Fry’s proposition that we design futures as we live them.

Nevertheless, the core approach to design in this chapter was articulated by Nelson and Stolterman (2012): design as the ability to imagine “that-which-does-not-yet-exist” so as to make it appear in concrete form as a new purposeful addition to the real world. It incorporates elements of previous definitions but further emphasizes the human inquiry as creation of something new for the purpose of change. It also emphasizes the need for “concrete form” and purposefulness, as well as the action-orientation. They also emphasize that design is “compositional” and about assemblages, as also reflected in Latour’s approach to design “things” (see below) and in configurational nature of design of Schön.

Of relevance for systemic design is also what John Chris Jones (1992) referred to as: black boxes, glass boxes, and system boxes[23]. Neither the “black box” nor the “glass box” are effective for “unsplittable,” complex problems when the necessary knowledge and experiences need to be generated as a part of the design process. In these situations, the designer cannot make an intuitive choice, while an optimized design process would require foreknowledge of objectives and criteria that are themselves dependent upon alternative that are not available at the start (need to be generated in design). The only adequate approach is when the design becomes a “self-organizing” system. In what he calls “self-plus-situation”, the designer works on two models simultaneously: the design strategy and the external situation.

For Latour (2008) in his post-Promethean theory of action, design is always redesign — we never create ex nihilo — and it is critical for understanding that policy never starts from a blank slate. Designing is the antidote to hubris and the search for absolute certainty, absolute beginnings, and radical departures. However, and most importantly, Latour describes design as “drawing things together,” i.e. collaboratively drawing (referring to visual representation as well as bringing things closer together) the value-based assemblies for “matters of concern”.

3. Towards Systemic Policy Design

Specific academic references to policy design emerged more prominently only in the 1980s and mostly by criticizing the concept as such (see, for instance, Linder and Peters, 1984). Most criticism came from the understanding of design as applied in product design, architecture, and engineering, and in situations where design ends with the “model” and does not extend into “making”. If that is the approach to design that we apply, then policy design is built on weak foundations. However, as argued in this chapter and fully elaborated in Peters and Rava (2017), we should refer to systemic design and the notion of judgment, as previously explained, in order to move towards a more meaningful policy design approach. Schneider and Ingram (1997) posit that it is “creativity and innovation” that provides the flexibility for government to “deflect choices between grand theories[24]”. This is so because design, they argue, enlarges the frames of reference and the alternative design possibilities beyond the limited options of “grand theories”.

However, policy design focus took a major turn towards the narrow focus on policy tools and instruments. Although producing important insights, theories, and frameworks, the focus on policy implementation led research away from more upstream aspects of policy design, while embracing technocratic, “evidence”-based perspectives. Hence, most of what goes under policy innovation is focused on downstream aspects of policy and it lacks approaching policy in systemic terms. Policy design is meaningful only if we consider the applications of design that are able to deal with complexity, with the complex social systems design school pioneering the approach decades ago[25].

3.1 Key Issues: Complexity, Foresight, and Intentionality

We should briefly consider several existing definitions of policy design. One definition (Dryzek 1983) proposed that policy design is a “conscious invention, development, and application of patterns of action in problem resolution”. Another one (Howlett and Lejano 2013) states that policy design is a process by which a number of policy actors seek to “improve policy making and policy outcomes through the accurate anticipation of the consequences of government actions and the articulation of specific courses of action to be followed”.

There are several major issues with these definitions. The first one is that there is not really much of design in either — at least not the kind of design that was presented in this study. Basically, these references to design could simply be replaces by “creating” or “making”. Secondly, they have a rather limited scope. Dryzek focused on “patterns of action” in “problem resolution”, while we know that design is not about problem solving (Nelson and Stolterman 2012) and the systems approach to complex problems assumes those cannot be “solved”. The second definition focuses mostly on policy making aspects of policy and seems to rely on forecasting, which is ill-suited for complexity[26].

Howlett[27] and Ishani (2014) tried to bridge the gap in the understanding of policy design between the emphasis on either the substantive component or the procedural one. They proposed that policy design involves a deliberate and conscious attempt to define policy goals and that it connects those in an instrumental fashion to instruments or tools expected to realize those objectives. Hence, policy design incorporates both policy formulation and policy implementation and involves actors, ideas, and interests at all stages of the policy process. Even this more inclusive definition still does not refer much to design. It can even be understood as a way to define any generic problem-solving process. Even more problematic are the references to policy goals/objectives, which in systemic terms may fail to achieve the essential norm-seeking function of policy (Özbekhan 1968).

It is interesting to note that despite continuous reference to “wickedness” in both policy and design communities, there still a notion of “solving” problems. To be clear, not all policy problems are complex, but that these approaches even imply that policy problems could be solved indicates a narrow approach to policy, or a lack of proper understanding of social complexity. The issue of foresight is another critical one. Traditionally, the methods used to deal with the future(s) in policy have been limited to forecasting. Those, following Özbekhan, extrapolate present into the future and further enable the “creeping up of administrative and regulatory outlooks”. Thus, it is not wonder that policy often ends up being limited to strategic planning, regulatory management, and service delivery.

We should not forget that most policies are rationalized and justified retroactively (post factum) and that policy intentions are rarely manifested as initially expected, especially in the context of long chains of implementation (Pressman and Wildavsky 1974). We should also note that policies are implemented by the co-creating of policy outcomes with the target group, which is usually out of the control of policy makers or those formally implementing policy (Peters 2015).

Nevertheless, the issue of intentionality might be more of a problem in the design space[28]. One approach is found in the notion of “desiderata,” Nelson and Stolterman (2012), oriented to understanding factors that arise in the “real design problem”. Desiderata are not measurable goals, but desires, aims, “intentions” of design represented in the image of an idealized “ultimate particular”. In this approach, design is the process of approximation of the idealized to the actual (not “problem solving”) and it “ends” only when the second letting go takes place (i.e. there is no “stopping rule” as in “wicked” problems). On this basis, it could be inferred that intentionality in design is “goal-less,” as it should be considered for policy in terms of going beyond strategic, goal-setting function into norm-seeking and making value judgments.

In the policy community, this is still not reflected well. For instance, Howlett and Ishani[29] (2014) refer to a “poor” design space and a “political non-design” space, with the “government intention” differentiating design from “non-design”. Moreover, they propose a spectrum of policy non-design types in which Replacement, Patching, Layering, and Stretching represent design in a decreasing order — while Bargaining, Clientelism/Corruption, Log-rolling, and Electoral opportunism represent “non-design”. Beside applying a limited approach to design, this also reflect a rather technocratic approach to policy. For instance, bargaining might be as much (or less) “design” as Replacement or Layering. It would suffice to go back to Schön (1995) and his proposition that designers, being immersed in the “reflective conversation with the situation”, always face unintended consequences and emergent developments, which should not definitely not imply any sort of “non-design” space.

3.2 Principles and Models of Systemic Policy Design

The need for increased “density” in policy design (Carlsson 2009) can be claimed. A “mess” of different perspectives would facilitate more effective design approaches by increasing requisite variety, avoiding “optimal solutions” to “wickedness.” The strategy of “policy as learning” recognizes social complexity (social problems being “conventions” co-created by stakeholders); the iterative approach to policy (“muddling through”); and the notion of turning existing situations into “preferred ones” (e.g., foresight). Furthermore, the role of the policy designer can be expanded to include various publics and the specific target groups influenced by the policy. While perhaps this might be challenging to the status quo of technocratic policmaking, that would help use systemic policy design as genuine “lessons in democracy” and reinstate democratic public spaces where collaborative design culture thrives.

For the democratic public space to emerge, it is suggested to move from the dominant techno-economic reasoning and embrace political reasoning[30](Diesing 1973). This would shift towards prioritizing norm-seeking over goal-setting and execution (Özbekhan 1968) and would train stakeholder to process with appreciative, design judgments (Vickers 1995; Nelson and Stolterman 2012). Such an agonistic context implies that the more policy tension we tolerate, the more politically rational actions will we bring forth into the real world. The quest of systemic design to remain in a “fluid state” and avoid “early closure” should be balanced by the need to have a closure after all. Decisions should be made and actions should be taken. Nevertheless, policy actors would need to identify ways to “satisfice” when there are no “stopping rules” for wicked social problems, and to assume accountability for such choices.

The focus of systemic policy design should be on social change that is catalysed by changing behavioural patterns, power relations, and resource flows. This emerges when we manipulate leverage points and value configurations for increasing the number of possibilities for action[31]. According to Donella Meadows’ (1997) scale of leveraged entry points for system change, the higher the leverage we can get, the more effective will be the outcome. We cannot design values (as we cannot design experiences), but it is possible to design for value configurations.

Conversely, such an approach would lead us towards norm-seeking grand narratives and co-designing the future as it emerges. In order to design for emergence, there is a need to considerably increase the time horizons of our considerations and the breath of our perspectives. We should not seek ideal designs, but the approximation of idealized to the actual in the given situation, so that a deliberate design strategy based on desiderata aligns with the need to “muddle through”. Returning once more to Latour[32], this implies that we “first act tentatively and then begin to know a bit more before attempting again.”

Finally, we should emphasize the triad foresight-design-innovation in the context of policy design. Foresight should replace the dominance of forecasting and be further integrated into policy design towards “Policy Design from the Future Present.” Because of the long policy cycle, this approach would help enable the interactive approach to policy design (Ackoff 2003). Along the normative dimensions of the reframing of policy, our future policy design must advance beyond human-centred design; the policy design space must include the natural environment and regional impacts in the biosphere.

4. Conclusions

While sometimes intellectually rewarding, continued discussions on what policy design is or is not will not bring us much closer to improving the way policies are designed in real-life situations. We might improve an aspect of a concept or devise a new method. But, as Ackoff (2003) warns, improvements in the performance of all or some parts of the system taken separately may not — and often do not — improve the performance of the system overall. This is not to mislead us into the “myth of comprehensiveness” (Nelson and Stolterman 2012), i.e. that we can change all at once. Instead, we should consider the enhancement of our understanding and applications of systemic policy design as a design challenge in itself. And since this is a social problem that spans disciplines, practices and even geographical borders, we need to organize “assemblies” with high “density” of people, perspectives, and ideas that would be “thrown” into emergent situations and facilitated for a genuine stakeholder design.

Two basic models of policy design can be articulated (Rava 2017a). Both are based on systemic policy design, but they lead to different strategies and produce different implications. The “bricolage[33] model” is based on resisting one overall framework to policy design — instead, it combines different design approaches for different aspects of policy. Depending on the design situation and the policy intentions (including on whether the problem is complex, complicated or simple) policy designers would use a spectrum[34] of possibilities to locate their design challenge in the given situation. In simple terms, policy designers could apply product and service design to policy instruments, or strategic foresight and dialogic design for agenda setting. Critically, they would work on several initiatives simultaneously, while maintaining the “bird’s eye” view of the whole policy system and how it changes over time. The second model is the integrated platform[35]. The emphasis is put on a fully integrated framework, which would deal with the overall policy system in systemic design terms, and to facilitate genuine application of “policy as learning.” Such a platform would address the challenge related to the tendency that value creation (and value destruction) tend to happen at the point of value delivery — thus making citizens genuine democratic policy designers. This model does not exclude the “bricolage” because each model serves different purposes and contexts. Together, they could enable what is otherwise known as “interactive governance.”

Ultimately, systemic policy design would require nurturing of a new kind of design — policy design — and a new kind of designer — a policy designer. We would need different educational curricula and different pedagogy that align with the design culture of Nelson and Stolterman (2012), while bringing into the mix the principles and postulates of complex social design. Such a program would nurture new capabilities and attitudes of public at large by combining policy literacy, design literacy, systems literacy, and elements of foresight, comparative politics, and social change. Furthermore, that would require us to engage with the “box” (rather than merely thinking “out of it”) and spend less time in “safe spaces” and more in actual real-life situations.


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[1] This is particularly critical for bringing a comprehensive understanding of policy into the mix. As for systems and design, there has been a long tradition of shared research and practice, as best articulated, for instance, in more recent work of Nelson and Stolterman (2012) and Jones (2014). Moreover, papers presented in the She Ji Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation provide new avenues for further promoting systemic orientation in the international design community.

[2] Other related prominent work was produced by Schön (1984; 1995) — see later the application of his approach on “policy as learning”. Buchanan’s paper on “wicked problems” in 1992 was to remind designers of their systems ancestry.

[3] For some earlier approaches see Dryzek (1983) and Linder and Peters (1984; 1991).

[4] Similar approaches can be found elsewhere, including in the assemblies of Slavic people (“zbor” or “sabor”).

[5] For an overview of policy, see, for instance, the book edited by Peters and Zittoun (2016) and Moran et. al (2006).

[6] The division between policy making and policy implementation is disintegrating; counterproductive for policy effectiveness; and cannot be endorsed from a genuine systems standpoint.

[7] It is not unusual to hear from policy people that they “have a policy” after they made certain decision. However, this is too narrow understanding of policy — at least for the purposes of applying a systems approach to it.

[8] Compare this to definitions of design later in the chapter, including Simon’s emphasis on transforming current situations into preferred ones. Also, Ackoff relates to the notion of development as increasing opportunities, Özbekhan refers to “betterment” in the context of a complex social systems approach to policy and planning.

[9] “Wicked” problems do not have a “stopping rule” (i.e. we do not know when we finish addressing them) and each “solution” tend to create a new problem. This is the same argument made by Özbekhan for the Critical Continuous Problems, and by John Chris Jones for “unsplittable” problems. On the difference between resolving, solving, and dissolving problems, see Ackoff (2010).

[10] Its task is to reduce entropy and increase organization of the system by acting upon the environment so as to improve the ability of the system to adjust to it (i.e. improve coherence and cohesion and address tendencies toward disintegration and dissolution).

[11] The lowest level is operational that works on limiting the scope of inputs from the environment by imposing boundaries. It is focused on feasibility. The middle level is strategic that relies on the mechanics of the operational and reduces the scope of it by imposing new boundary. Finally, the normative plan delimits the operations of the strategic by imposing on it a boundary that makes it serve the norms established through it. Three corresponding functions are: operational; goal-setting, and norm-seeking.

[12] Compare this to Dee Hock’s what was, is, might be, and should be.

[13] This is why it is very misleading equate social complexity with complexity in nature.

[14] On this distinction, see Latour’s “matters of facts” vs. “matters of concern”.

[15] Compare this to David Snowden’s simple, complicated, and complex (and chaotic) problems.

[16] This is probably the only case where “evidence”-based, technocratic approach to policy makes sense.

[17] Notwithstanding other traditions, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (1st century BC) presented the first principles of design in his Triad (Trivuum): firmitas, utilitas, venustas (solid, useful, beautiful). Each of these can be reinterpreted for policy purposes.

[18] On history of design, see Clark and Broody, 2009. See also: Cross, 2007.

[19] It should not be a mystery that, if we can design objects, processes and experiences, we can design organizations. On this, see Boland and Collopy (2014) and the related idea of chaordic organization in Hock and Senge (2005).

[20] Key arguments entailing systems, design and cybernetics were made by Glanville (2014) and Krippendorff (2007)

[21] It can be compared to Maturana’s theory of autopoiesis and his definition of life as “bringing forth into the world”.

[22] The reference to situational design is particularly relevant for policy, as is his notion of “user-as-inhabitant”.

[23] In the black “box”, most of the process takes place in the designer’s head s/he acts “magician” relying on the creative capacity with the design process not fully capable of rational explanation. When designer acts as a glass “box” the process is externalized and assumed to be entirely explicable because there is full knowledge of what and why in the design process — such design might be automated and conducted by a computer algorithm. These are applicable only to repetitive and “splittable” problems.

[24] Relate this to the notion of post-Promethean role of design of Latour.

[25] This is not to say that all of the design community engages in, or even recognizes the criticality of, design that can deal with complexity. The dominant practices still tend to be based on what Jones referred to as black “box” and glass “box” (rather than systemic “box”) and what Alexander referred to as “systems as a whole” (rather than “generating systems”).

[26] Forecasting aims to “predict” the future (as in “accurate anticipation of the consequences of government actions”).

[27] Howlett (2001; 2007; 20013; 2014) is one of the most prolific recent authors on policy design, and it may even be said that he leads a new school of policy design, mostly focusing on policy instruments design.

[28] We often refer to something being done “by design” implying rational intention and the opposite of “muddling through”.

[29] Other authors make this even stricter, e.g. Goodin (1996) on distinguishing between designed change, serendipity, and evolution.

[30] Political rationality is very “designerly”: besides relating to creativity (as an “organizing principle”) it requires dwelling in a permanent state of tension between differentiation and unification. Such “intelligence” means holding two or more contradictions simultaneously, while being “thrown” into a situation with its own systems dynamic.

[31] We should also acknowledge that not all policies could (or should) be designed in such a way, and that many policy outcomes would still be a result of luck or necessity.

[32] From Bruno Latour’s lecture “How to think like a state,” Sciences Po, 2007.

[33] Bricolage is understood as the construction / creation from a diverse range of things that happen to be available.

[34] On this spectrum, see Steenhuisen (2014).

[35] Platforms are not always digital and that actually the first platforms (bazaars, cooperatives, auctions) were far from digital.



Nenad (Ned) Rava

Innovation & Foresight; Strategy & Policy Design; Learning; Systems Change; Leadership; Platforms & Business Design