From Design Thinking to Systems Change | Conway, Masters, Thorold (RSA) | 2017

A 2017 report by the RSA Action and Research Centre has resurfaced, with a critical review coming from the design community, including some contributions from individuals knowledgeable in systems thinking.

From Design Thinking to Systems Change: How to invest in innovation for social impact says that “To truly design for lasting social impact, designers must think systemically”.

A core problem we identify is the high instance of socially minded innovations ‘bouncing off’ the system they are intended to impact. Rather than scaling to create systems change, many innovations experience a ‘systems immune response’ whereby a complex set ‘barriers to change’ render the innovation unused and redundant.

To counteract this, we offer a new RSA methodology: ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’. By developing a rich systemic understanding of a challenge, designers can then select the most entrepreneurial opportunities for change – pre-empting and identifying ‘hacks’ around the barriers to change.

To illustrate this the report uses the government’s Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) as its primary case study. By applying the think like a system, act like an entrepreneur model to SBRI, we suggest that the programme could deliver more effectively on its dual mission of both generating commercial markets for innovations and delivering social impact at scale.

Checking the bibliography, the list of references relies on 20th century works: Ackoff (1974); Checkland (1985); Meadows (1999, 2010); Rittel & Webber (1973). There is an HBR reference by Snowden and Boone (2007).

The online review is " UNPACKING “From Design Thinking to Systems Change" | NextD Journal | August 2022.

Invited Contributors: Daniel Engelberg (Canada), Geoff Elliott (UK), Roger James (UK), Piotr Kulaga (Australia), Arvind Lodaya (India), Sunil Malhotra (India), John Mortimer (UK), GK VanPatter (USA),

The review was not favourable.

In Closing: Whether we all like it or not, a case could be made that the RSA document reflects an often seen kind of time-warp thing going on in the design community that remains truly perplexing. Parts of the community seem to be isolated from decades of process related knowledge that exists right next door in other knowledge communities and in some cases has existed for decades. The discombobulated time-warp results in alot of Repeating Starting Point Initiatives including much of this report. Often, instead of moving forward there is a lot of high profile going backwards, reinventing the wheel, presenting old wheels as new and going around in circles. I am not sure if NextD Journal peer reviews of various documents can even make a dent in the design community time -warp discombobulation.

Caveat lector!