Systems thinking, transition and the city: a dérive

Peggy Bacon in mid-air backflip (Copyright-free image from The State Library of New South Wales)

Early October 2021 I was invited to give a talk at EPFL Lausanne in the context of the new Master of Advanced Studies in Urban and Territorial Design (co-organised by EPFL ENAC-HRC and ETH Zürich D-Arch). The video recording of the full session can be found online. Here I’m summarising some of the main points of my talk.

I styled the talk as a dérive. ‘Dérive’ is a French word that refers to the activity of drifting through a city guided by intuition and subjective impressions. My desire to meander through the thoughtscape of systems thinking reflects a knee-jerk reaction to the hype around this subject. I am wary of fueling that hype. Rather I would like to dampen people’s expectations about what systems thinking is able to offer. It’s by no means a magic wand. It’s a more or less clumsy, more or less skillful way of engaging with the world around us. I want to reframe the discipline away from a dominant view that foregrounds systems thinking as an analytic approach to understanding systems as consisting of subsystems that are interacting with one another and through that interaction are determining the system’s behaviour. It is part of the picture. But only a small part.

I highlighted the following quote by the American philosopher José Medina:

“Imagination is crucial because it engages will and is therefore closer to action than reason. In addition imagination is positional: it concerns our relation in the world and to others. (…) it operates at the interface of individual and society: whereas it is always individuals that imagine, they do it by relying on materials that are forged by social relations. (…): imagination enables us to see the meaningfulness of other’s lives. In this sense, imaginative pragmatism is the habits of always seeing an alternative, of seeing things in perspectives.”

Medina doesn’t specifically talk about systems thinking. But his imaginative pragmatism reflects an ethos that resonates very much with a systems approach to life. Indeed, it is more a matter of imagination than of technical competence. It is more something to step into than to master. The quote also hints at a critical perspective as it makes us aware of the limitations of our own perspectives and invites us to experience the world in relation with others. And it is generative because it alerts us to the new possibilities that are associated to such a relational stance.

I am not keen on the moniker ‘systems thinking’ as it suggests an impartial and instrumental relationship with the world ‘out there’. But as it is universally accepted I did an attempt to articulate the difference between:

  • Systems science/theory: a set of ideas about how we frame our relationship with the world and how we conceptualise the intelligence that maintains our structural coupling with that world.
  • Systems thinking: the application of these ideas to understanding specific challenges to viability.
  • Systems practice: the acting upon these ideas in the real world.
  • Systems Thinking in Practice brings these two together in an evolving, reflexive practice of learning, and a meta-practice of learning to learn.

Systems are the product of our capacity for making distinctions. We draw a line, a boundary, that separates an inside from an environment. This basic act engenders a lot of flexibility (and responsibility) in defining, studying and interacting with systems. Now let’s superimpose a time dimension and assume that the environment so defined will be subject to change. Let’s also assume that we are dealing with a living, open system. Then the crucial question comes: how is that system going to maintaining its viability? In other words: if there is a structural coupling between system and environment how does it maintain that coupling even if the environment changes? These questions signal that the notion of transition is central to systems theory. We’re always grappling with change and adaptation to changing environmental conditions.

Gregory Bateson formulated the crucial question that underlies systems theory as follows: “What is the pattern which connects all living creatures?” The clue that he gives us is that it is a ‘meta pattern’, a pattern of patterns. It is what he refers to as ‘mental process’, i.e. what living, open systems do to come into being, to maintain viability, how entities maintain their integrity in a dynamic environment.

A simple way to explain this ‘mental process’ is to say that this amounts to a process of learning. And typical for many living systems is that they do this in interaction with other systems, giving rise to a distributed process of learning. Systems thinking then becomes, by definition, systems tinkering, or ‘systems thinking in practice’. ‘Transition governance’ is all about sustaining process of social, collaborative learning.

In the talk I illustrate that by Saras Sarasvathy’s theory of effectual entrepreneurship. This is a very cogent and elegant way of explaining how entrepreneurs learn their way forward in unknown territory, supported by evolving partnerships, spinning out all kinds of real world manifestations of their joint sense-making and creation efforts. For this audience of young architects I also discussed the building of Chartres cathedral. This architectural breakthrough was, according to David Turnbull, not a stone-by-stone rendering of some pre-existing blueprint. Chartres was a full-scale laboratory. The Gothic Style was not in the mind of the builders but emerged from a carefully designed interactive learning process between multiple parties.

I used Piranesi’s speculative Grande Pianta of ancient Rome’s Field of Mars (1762) to segue into the urban realm. The incongruity of this ‘masterplan’ triggers our appetite for asking pertinent questions about the cities we want to inhabit, now and in the future. The point of a plan is not offer a solution but to kindle the conversations that reflect our collective intelligence in response to the question “How do we want to live together as a community in an age of rapid change?” The value is not in its prescriptive but in its heuristic dimension. We’re interested in the meta-plan, in the conditions that allow us to continuously redesign our plan in the light of the new information about changing environmental conditions and preferences. If transition is a symphony of conversations, then a systems practice offers the conditions for that symphony to unfold.

I wrapped up the talk with a pointer to the work of Janis Birkeland. Her work provides a coherent an richly layered frame to deploy systems thinking in practice with a bearing on urban transformation processes. More about that can be read in another short Medium piece.

The main point I wanted to make in this talk is that we need to stop seeing systems thinking as simply a toolbox to master, but as a wayfinding approach that meshes three layers:

  • A conceptual layer of ideas, tools and methodologies that guide and stretch our behavioural patterns in particular real-world situations.
  • A performative layer of tinkering, an evolving practice of collaborative learning in confrontation with the friction in the world around us.
  • A dispositional layer of being, how we position ourselves as tinkerers, articulated and manifested against the background of foundational theories about how the world works.

A parting quote by Gilles Deleuze: „It is no longer a question of imposing a form upon a matter but of elaborating an increasingly rich and consistent material, the better to tap increasingly intense forces. What makes a material increasingly rich is the same as what holds heterogeneities together without ceasing to be heterogeneous.




Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?

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Philippe Vandenbroeck

Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?

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