I’m sharing my insights and surprising parallels that I encountered during the courses on Systemic Design and Designing Resilient Regenerative Systems.

Visualisation for John Cage’s “Music of Changes” by Alexander Pryshyvalka

It is probably too late for the world, but for the individual man there always remains a chance.

Joseph Brodsky, Nobel Lecture, 1987

Recently I completed the course “Systemic Design for Tackling Complexity” by Peter Jones, Kristel Van Ael and Koen Peters at the Service Design College. It was a really insightful and encouraging journey through complex systems!

The course became really an eye-opener to me. As always with a new domain, I can see how much I have yet to learn; however, a comprehensive foundation has been laid. As the main effect, I feel like I’m starting to see the world from a different perspective — as a multitude of nested systems in constant interaction, with new properties emerging over time. Or, as English poet T. E. Hulme put it, “concrete flux of interpenetrating intensities”.

What I like in particular about the course and the “Design Journeys” methodology itself is that each tool or method has a clear scientific background in Social Sciences, Strategic Foresight, Transformation Theory, and others. The elegance of the methodology is that it is coherent, holistic, and consistent.

One more striking course that I completed lately is “Designing Resilient Regenerative Systems: Worldviews” by Tobias Luthe at the Systemic Design Labs, ETH Zürich. The course engages multiple instuctors and provides profound content on the topic of sustainability and regeneration.

A couple of my takeaways after both courses. One of the main messages to me was to “abandon problem solving mindset”: one-off solutions do not work in a complex environment; instead, what we need is interventions able to move a situation to its better state. Yet what seems even more important and insightful is understanding the larger impact of a personal transformation on the whole system. Since we all participate in multiple systems, a change coming from within any single person, ultimately, influences the whole.

What I’d like to ponder about in this text is my insights and surprising parallels that I encountered during the course and that keep emerging over time. I’ll be focusing on several tools from the Systemic Design Toolkit and also on Joseph Campbell’s book “The Power of Myth” (which is based on the TV series now available on YouTube). I’ll try to describe some of my personal and in a way spiritual effects they produced together.

Also, I’ll touch on the topic of the “separation narrative” which is about the widening disconnect between people and nature, between individuals and communities, as well as between the rational and the somatic.

Systemic design

I’ll not go into details on what systemic design is. However, just to outline, systemic design is an interdiscipline that joins systems thinking to design methodology in order to tackle complexity. What distinguishes systemic design from other design domains is scale and complexity. The following figure illustrates this.

Design domains (Jones and van Patter, 2009)
  • 1.0 Artefact design as a means for visual communication,
  • 2.0 Product / service design which is creation of value by human-centered design,
  • 3.0 Organisational transformation or strategic design which is oriented towards organisational structures and strategies,
  • 4.0 Social transformation or systemic design which has to do with complex social systems, approaching them from the holistic perspective.

These design domains are not isolated, but rather they are highly interconnected, and Systemic design as a broader approach integrates knowledge across all of them.

For more details on systemic design I can recommend Peter Jones’ paper “Systemic Design Principles for Complex Social Systems” as a starting point.

Systemic Design Principles for Complex Social Systems.

Causal Layered Analysis

One of the tools in systemic design methodology is Causal Layered Analysis (CLA).

On the one hand, CLA is a framework used for guiding the research of a complex problem; on the other hand, it provides a space for creating visions of an alternative future. As a model, CLA consists of four levels of increasing depth:

  1. Litany — observable events and trends,
  2. Structures & systems — underlying causes,
  3. Worldview & values — deeper paradigms that underpin structures and systems as well as enable behaviours,
  4. Myth — metaphors or social narratives that reflects collective consciousness and reveals emotional perspective.

Considering these four levels during research is a really powerful way to include different sources of knowledge: public discourse, science, discourse analysis, art & culture (Inayatullah). Once the deepest level of inquiry — myth/metaphor — is reached, deconstruction of conventional metaphor and articulation of an alternative one allow an alternative future to be envisioned.

What is the most captivating to me is this underlying level of myth/metaphor or “the civilizational level of identity” as Inayatullah calls it. “These are the deep stories, the collective archetypes — the unconscious and often emotive dimensions of the problem or the paradox. <…> This is the root level of questioning.” (Inayatullah) While the top three levels can be considered as rational ones, the level of myth/metaphor stems from emotional, somatic, and unconscious perception. This level also reveals something foundational that everyone presupposes without even articulating it.

The idea of taking mythology into consideration during design research sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? This is the case at least with me, and this is how I discovered captivating Campbell’s “The Power of Myth”. In his book Campbell argues that mythology is not something obsolete or related only to entertaining stories and fairytales, but rather, mythology is weaved into the fabric of our daily life: “Every mythology has to do with the wisdom of life as related to a specific culture at a specific time. It integrates the individual into his society and the society into the field of nature. It unites the field of nature with my nature.” (Campbell) In other words, mythology is a foundational knowledge about values, beliefs, aspirations, and motivations. Myths are not mere stories, but rather, they are metaphorical reflections of fundamental, archetypical symbols and narratives that come from the spring of unconscious. That’s why myths are always relevant to everyone, regardless of one’s culture, religion, or education. “These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don’t know what the guide-signs are along the way, you have to work it out yourself.” (Campbell)

Campbell suggests that “civilizations are grounded on myth.” He explains that the Fall in the Garden entails that in Western mythology nature is seen as corrupt: “You get a totally different civilization and a totally different way of living according to whether your myth presents nature as fallen or whether nature is in itself a manifestation of divinity, and the spirit is the revelation of the divinity that is inherent in nature.” Mythology can provide a clue for one of the possible reasons behind a disconnect between people and nature or a “separation narrative”. In contrast to the ancient believes in unity of all life, the story of separation assumes that humans are separate and superior to the rest of the natural world. In this light, it’s not surprising that during recent centuries nature has been treated as a resource for economic growth and the whole planet — as if being infinite.

Painting by Maxim Osipau


One more powerful technique in the Systemic Design toolkit is called Paradoxing.

The power of paradoxical thinking – Namahn

Dealing with a complex problem implies considering multiple perspectives across different levels — individual, organisational, and social. It could be tempting and easy to simplify and stick to one perspective while ignoring the others — paradoxical, opposite and conflicting ones. This is where Paradoxing can help to reveal where tension in a system stems from. Although a paradox might seem irreconcilable, both its polarities are valid at the same time, as Yin and Yang.

As a means to apply the technique, there exists a set of cards each of which presents an “interdependent pair”, as Johnson calls it.

A paradox card.

I find Paradoxing to be a very powerful technique since it allows to explore and perceive a situation from numerous — and contradictory — perspectives in order to embrace different facets of reality. Basically, Paradoxing suggests “AND thinking instead of OR thinking” (Van Ael) because a real system is interconnected — it’s impossible to ignore contradictions and tensions that constitute paradoxes. At the end of the day, both halves of the whole are true and have to be satisfied simultaneously.

Interestingly, how this idea of a paradox appeared to be grounded in mythology as dualities of good & evil, heaven & hell, male & female, and others. “It started with the sin, you see — in other words, moving out of the mythological dreamtime zone of the Garden of Paradise, where there is no time, and where men and women don’t even know that they are different from each other. <…> Out of one comes two. All things in the field of time are pairs of opposites. So this is the shift of consciousness from the consciousness of identity to the consciousness of participation in duality.” (Campbell) For a pair of opposites there’s only three ways in which they can interplay: (1) this dominates over that, (2) that dominates over this, and (3) both are in balanced accord. Mythology envisions an authentic and spiritual path going between pairs of opposites. Like it is reflected in the story about the Buddha and a musician who was explaining that the strings, being tuned too tightly, would break; the strings, which are too loose, would not play. This is known as the Middle Path, the way to reconcile two extremes and grasp them as inseparable pieces of the whole as well as, ultimately, to transcend the opposites into one, non-dual. And the other way round, the whole can be perceived as a flux of interdependent pairs.

The idea of conflicting opposites entails the need to constantly decide on how to make one’s way. “Separation narrative” seems to be a result of reductionist and unbalanced decisions. Thinking in terms of opposites leads to extending the disconnect and strengthening the hierarchy and disregard. As a result, everything seems to be irreconcilable: humans are separate and superior to nature, some people are superior to others, the rational is superior to the somatic. However, the wise way would be to move away from OR thinking towards AND thinking.

Leverage points

In her famous text “Leverage points” Donella Meadows suggested a framework for intervention strategy. A leverage point is an aspect where high-impact system intervention can be achieved. There are 12 types of leverage points with different scale of effectiveness an intervention can produce. Another Meadows’ text — more evocative one — that I came across recently is floating around “systems wisdom” or the idea of “dancing with systems” which in a way transcends the notion of leverage points.

Dancing With Systems – The Donella Meadows Project

What is essential is that a system change stems from qualitative shifts rather than from quantitative ones. Currently, most of us strongly believe in numbers and consider something that can be measured as more important than what can’t be measured. However, Meadows invites to pay attention to what is really important, not just quantifiable: “No one can precisely define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can precisely define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist.”

One can look around and make up one’s own mind about what is really important. I strongly believe that we all have own intrinsic knowledge — other than extrinsic one — as well as intuitive sense of right and wrong that we can listen to and act upon.

One more thing that Meadows points out is that the mindset of the industrial world is blinded by the illusion of control over a complex system: “We can never fully understand our world, not in the way our reductionistic science has led us to expect.” Although there are 12 different types of leverage points available, it does not mean that they extend human possibility for establishing control over complex environment. Predictions and one-off solutions are not applicable to non-liner, self-organising, feedback systems. However, even though systems can not be controlled, they can be designed and redesigned; although future can not be fully predicted, it can be envisioned and its better state can be fostered and approached through “different sort of ‘doing’”.

Instead of problem solving as a one-off precedent, systems require continued and iterative interventions. This is embracing of other form of engagement with reality which is mindful and wise participation in relationships. Control is based on separation and domination, while participation is rooted in interconnectedness and collaboration. Participation is an ongoing process which opens up a space to “listen to the wisdom of the system” (Meadows), contemplate what is constantly emerging in it, experiment, learn from trial & error, and, eventually, listen again. I can compare such different sort of doing to playing improvised music in contrast to playing according to the scores (you may want to have a look at my text about improvised music).

How playing improvised music can train the ability to synthesize in design

Back to Campbell: “When life comes into being, it is neither afraid nor desiring, it is just becoming. Then it gets into being, and it begins to be afraid and desiring. When you can get rid of fear and desire and just get back to where you’re becoming, you’ve hit the spot. <…> It’s the giving and coming into being that counts, and that’s the becoming life point in you. That’s what all these myths are concerned to tell you.”

The world is beautiful in its complexity meaning that everything is connected to everything else. Complexity cannot be ignored, simplified, or controlled. Latin maxim ‘‘divide and conquer’’, that seems to be fueling the “separation narrative”, is not applicable for tackling complex problems. Reductionist mindset often tries to find simple, cheap, and one-off solutions which, eventually, yield new wave of unpredicted challenges. “In the strict systems sense there is no long-term/short-term distinction. <…> We experience now the consequences of actions set in motion yesterday and decades ago and centuries ago.” (Meadows) What one can do, instead of harnessing complexity, is listen to its wisdom, experiment, learn from errors, and start over.


In the CLA model mentioned above, one of the layers is called Worldviews. It has to do with worldviews, believes, and paradigms that support and legitimise existing structures and observable issues. “At this stage, one can explore how different discourses (the economic, the religious, and the cultural, for example) do more than cause or mediate the issue but constitute it. It investigates how the discourse we use to understand is complicit in our framing of the issue.” (Inayatullah)

Worldviews can be considered as both (1) lenses through which one perceives the world and (2) particular ways of its interpretation. The thing with these lenses is that one is not aware that one ‘wears’ them until somebody points it out. This is one of the reasons why worldviews are incredibly powerful — they implicitly influence how problems are defined and approached. In his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” Robert Pirsig provides the following example: “If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government.” Worldviews are deeply intrinsic and implicit which makes them relatively hard to be reflected upon and reassessed. Because of that, worldviews prone to become rigid and even dogmatic at some point.

One thing that caught my attention while I was exploring the topic of worldviews is not exactly what is wrong with these lenses per se, but rather, how we humans construct them. According to classical views on cognition, there has been hierarchical separation between mind and body meaning that mind has been considered the only means for acquiring knowledge and, consequently, body has been seen as inferior to mind (Macrine, Fugate). However, according to the current understanding, human cognition is referred to as embodied, in other words, “we know the world through the body, just as that body produces the world for us” (Hockey, Allen-Collinson). Unfortunately, this personal inner disconnect is still prevailing.

To me, separation between mind and body signifies larger lack of mindful connection with one’s authentic inner life. Next, this individual crisis contributes to the overall mindset of separation from others and the environment. Seeing the world through such ‘lens of separation’ leads to certain interpretations and actions. As a result, today’s global problems are attributed exclusively to the external world: economy, policy, technology, society, etc. In his book “The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses” Juhani Pallasmaa explains the impact of how one perceives the environment — through domination of vision over other senses — on one’s interpretations and actions: “The hegemonic eye seeks domination over all fields of cultural production, and it seems to weaken our capacity for empathy, compassion and participation with the world. The narcissistic eye views architecture solely as a means of self-expression, and as an intellectual-artistic game detached from essential mental and societal connections, whereas the nihilistic eye deliberately advances sensory and mental detachment and alienation. <…> The world becomes a hedonistic but meaningless visual journey. It is clear that only the distancing and detaching sense of vision is capable of a nihilistic attitude; it is impossible to think of a nihilistic sense of touch, for instance, because of the unavoidable nearness, intimacy, veracity and identification that the sense of touch carries.” The ‘lens of separation’ renders such picture of reality where a lot of one’s inner faculties and capacities of other people as well as facets of the environment are overlooked. Each of those ignored features is a missed opportunity or a way for interplay. Eventually, everything is perceived as if being disconnected and disparate.

What the Mind has to do with the Climate Crisis

Being inherent to human cognition, bodily sensations deserve one’s attention and respect. While one’s mind tends to travel here and there and elsewhere, body, via its senses, keeps being immersed in the constant flux of reality. The crux is that attuning to body senses connects one both to the place & moment and to one’s authentic inner life. Overcoming personal disconnect between one’s mind and body could be a starting point for a larger cultural paradigm shift from separation towards interconnectedness and interdependence — from the fragmented to holistic worldview. “The principle of holism argues that there are no privileged parts, no primary causes, no blueprints which define the emergent order.” (Reason, Goodwin) Eventually, embracing holistic worldview is a doorway towards more humble, caring, and spiritual way of relating to the world.

Holistic Worldviews: an introduction

Although holistic worldview is referred to as a new one, upon hindsight, it appears to be perhaps the oldest one which had made it possible to create indigenous knowledge and mythology. Campbell highlights that mythology appeals to the personal. As he puts it, “mythology is the penultimate truth”, in other words, “what can be known but not told”. Mythology can be considered as a guidance or a map for life experience but the journey itself or “the adventure of being alive” is a personal thing. Campbell summarises it as follows: “The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and who’s on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it’s alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself.”

Today’s complex problems have not been planned deliberately, rather, they have been emerging as consequences of collective actions rooted in social paradigms and individual worldviews & values. At the end of the day, these global nested crises can be considered as reflections of personal inner crises of separation from inner life, from others, and from nature. Hence, tackling complex problems inevitably presupposes one’s inner personal development.

All in all

Thanks to the study courses, I realised that systemic design is definitely my way of thinking and doing, in other words, my way to go further. Systems thinking and design together yield a mighty synergy for tackling complex problems.

Systems thinking argues that global challenges that we as humanity are facing today have to do with complex systems. Together with that, according to the idea of Antropocene, all systems can be considered as deeply influenced by human activity. Although one of the system’s characteristics is its emergent behaviour, it is us who are also responsible for creating complexity — through technological, economic, and organisational networks — that we are trying to tackle. Mindset of the industrial world has produced specific cultural paradigms — economic growth, competition, consumerism, and others — which have both positive and negative consequences. “Differentiation has produced science, technology, and the unprecedented power of mankind to build up and to destroy its environment. But the complexity consists of integration as well as differentiation. The task of the next decades and centuries is to realize this underdeveloped component of the mind. Just as we have learned to separate ourselves from each other and from the environment, we now need to learn how to reunite ourselves with entities around us without losing our hard won individuality.” (Csikszentmihalyi) So, the problem is in our ways of acting and solving problems.

Based on systems thinking, I reckon that one’s individual influence is broader than we might think. We are all participating in various systems and, hence, systems change is unattainable without inner personal change. Larger transformation comes from within meaning that an individual and planetary wellbeing is not in opposition, but rather they constitute an “interdependent pair”. The overlap between personal and systems change is inherently about our relationship towards ourselves, others, and the environment.

“Different sort of ‘doing’” is rooted in a shift from the fragmented to holistic worldview. Seeing through such holistic lens reveals the world in its complexity — as multitudes of complex systems encompassing multitudes of parts in ongoing interactions that generate emergent outcomes. Holistic perspective embraces interconnectedness while respecting individuality; ultimately, holistic worldview fosters the “narrative of interbeing” while balancing the “narrative of separation”. Back to Campbell: “And the only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is one that is talking about the planet, not the city, not these people, but the planet, and everybody on it. That’s my main thought for what the future myth is going to be.”

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Some (spiritual) reflections on my systemic design studies was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.