Systems Thinking

From Beyond Social

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Introducing sustainability as a theme in art and design education comes with a set of unique challenges. Sustainability encompasses a vast number of topics. The word is used in very different contexts, ranging from political programmes to marketing of consumer goods, and therefore has become an almost meaningless term. During the Minor Sustainability, as part of the Social Practices graduation profile at the Willem De Kooning Academy in Rotterdam, we introduce what sustainability encompasses in general, but more specifically how students can use it to respond to what is happening around them. The minor also serves to learn and test relevant methodologies for exploring and analysing the context. The most important methodologies are discussed below.

Author: Lizanne Dirkx

Systems thinking

Too often a 'quick design fix' turns out to be counterproductive within a sustainable design practice. One of the most important concepts we introduce to students is that sustainability is not only related to the properties of an object, but to the state of a system. This way, statements such as 'this product is sustainable because I used a biodegradable plastic' can easily be disproven. Not only the material matters, but even more how an object is used and how it affects the larger system in which it exists. Perhaps the biodegradable object is used as a container for a toxic pesticide, perhaps as a low-cost tool to filter polluted drinking water. The same material can have a totally different impact according to its use. Thinking in systems is therefore a powerful skill for students aiming to make a meaningful change within their art and design practice as well as larger global systems.

Interdisciplinary teams

Systems thinking can be explained as a way of looking at the man-made world as an ecosystem. Instead of chopping up a situation into pieces and studying the individual parts, an analysis is made of how the different parts influence and relate to each other. Within system thinking, the belief is held that different players thrive or fail depending on how they work together and respond to each other following complex paths of behaviour. In practice it means that students work in interdisciplinary teams, and investigate other professional fields such as technology, biology and sociology, placing their practice in relation to these sciences. They are assessing the impact of their work on others, not only close by and directly, but also further away and in the long run. This leads to a different formulation of their assignments and as a consequence we see students becoming facilitators, storytellers, crowdfunders, data analysts and entrepreneurs. Sometimes students can become overwhelmed and discouraged; the systemic approach risks making a problem more abstract which makes it more difficult to act. Therefore it is important that students link the newly acquired knowledge back to the reality of everyday life, to apply it to a locality.

Mapping a locality

During the Minor Sustainability, students work in an assigned area, such as a neighbourhood or district. They build their temporary studios and work on-site. To understand the area and to unravel the complex systems that are in place, students are asked to make mappings. These mappings, geographical or relational, show where resources and waste are located or how people in the community are connected. Mapping is a method for making layers of information about an area tangible, allowing students to identify points of intervention where their impact can be substantial. Therefore, students often do not design something new from scratch but respond to what is already in place and use resources locally available.

Connecting with stakeholders

Students are asked to involve stakeholders in their project from an early phase onwards. Experts, partners or users are an important source of information at the start of a project. In a later phase they can be involved to test a prototype, give feedback, link to relevant other parties or become an active partner to take a project further. By involving stakeholders closely in their projects, students are constantly forced to test the relevance of their own work. Questions arise such as: Is the problem I am addressing really felt by the community? Are other companies working on the same topic? How could my product or service best be implemented? This way of working is not only enriching, it also leads to an attitude of collaboration instead of competition.

Embedded Research

Embedded research methods are used to connect with stakeholders. Instead of handing out questionnaires, the students aim to engage people with a spatial intervention, a performance, a game or a hoax. By using these strategies we can see the type of response as honest and especially valuable when linked to other data required by literature reviews and mapping.


In the final phase of the design process, student concepts are translated into a visual form. Some students might create conversation pieces; others choose to develop working prototypes for consumer goods. Even though their visuals should be largely self-explanatory, we always ask students to present their physical or digital work as a smaller part of a larger whole. Final presentations are accompanied by websites, posters or other visual materials showing the network of the projects and how they positively influence different parts of a dynamic system.

RAID and Microbial Energy: two inspiring examples

We would like to introduce two successful projects that came out of the fourth module of the Minor Sustainability. The fashion collection RAID is designed to be timeless, as a response to the endlessly changing fashion industry. At the same time, locally available waste fabric was used to make the garments and a collaboration with a social workshop was established. The same sophistication can be found in the Microbial Energy project, which combined technology for obtaining energy from a biological source with the possibility of cleaning the Rotterdam harbour waters while floating in an off-grid house. These two projects very well represent the level of impact and interconnectedness which we aim for in the Minor Sustainability.

Lizanne Dirkx is a tutor in the Minor Sustainability at the Willem De Kooning Academy and works as a designer and researcher in the fields of circular and social design.


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