Understand Complex Design Problems Using Systems Thinking

Understand Complex Design Problems Using Systems Thinking

Tao Huang (Columbia College Chicago, USA) and Eric E. Anderson (Independent Consultant, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-617-9.ch020


This chapter provides a brief overview of systems theory and suggests that product designers could use systems theory and systems dynamics models to improve our understanding of complex Product Design research problems, to anticipate how and where changes in these dynamically evolving systems might occur and how they might interact with the current system to produce a new system with new behaviors, and to identify leverage points within the system where potential policy or design process changes might be introduced to produce effective solutions to these problems with minimum policy resistance. By investigating the current and future trends of the application of systems theory in Product Design research, this chapter invites multidisciplinary discussions of these topics.
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Background: General Systems Theory

The Definition of Systems

According to general systems theory, a system is “an entity that maintains its existence and functions as a whole through the interaction of its parts” (O'Connor & McDermott, 1997). One does not need to look far for examples of complex systems. Humans and their activities constitute a subsystem of a system of the Earth, the interconnected dynamic geophysical, geochemical, and biological processes that collectively serve to make our planet a living world.

Systems thinkers must consider three “inters”: the interactions of components within a process, the inter-relationships of processes within a system, and the inter-connections between systems and across time (Waldman 2007). Two types of systems are generally recognized, categorized in terms of their domain boundaries: hard systems and soft systems. Hard systems are those with “hard” problems where the primary concern is with objects, which can be objectively defined (Hutchinson, 2008). Hard systems are also called “mechanical systems” whose behaviors and boundaries can be successfully described and predicted in mechanical terms. On the other hand, soft systems have fuzzy boundaries with parts or elements that are difficult to quantify. Closed systems and open systems are two other common terms used to describe systems with distinct or fuzzy boundaries. Hard systems thinking has been used to maximize efficiency of a system, whilst soft systems thinking attempts to develop effective solutions by being inclusive of different viewpoints (Hutchinson, 2008).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Soft Systems: Systems that have fuzzy boundaries that are not easily defined.

Open Systems: Systems that can be affected by events outside of the actual or conceptual boundaries of the systems.

Path-Dependence: Means the self-reinforcement mechanism of institutions or systems (Pierson, 2004). In a broader conception, it also means “history matters” in the development of institutions and systems.

Hard Systems: Also called “mechanical systems”, are systems whose behaviors and boundaries can be successfully described and predicted in mechanical terms, where the primary concern is with objects, which can be objectively defined (Hutchinson, 2008).

Systems Dynamics Model: Systems dynamics model is a modeling approach to simulating system and understanding the behavior of complex systems over time.

Leverage: In systems theory, leverage points are places where policy resistance is lower and small changes will be amplified.

Closed System (Isolated Systems): Systems that do not interact with their surroundings.

Emergence: The macro-level result experienced as a consequence of the collective behavior of individual system components.

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