Let’s say you receive a brief from a prominent NGO in your country about the fashion industry. They’d like for you to work on ways to promote sustainable fashion products among consumers.
If you didn’t know, the fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters. Almost 10% of global pollution is caused by the fashion industry activities.
You’re well known as a prominent Design Thinking (DST) expert and your client has high hopes that you can come up with a solution.
As a Design Thinker, you know your process. More or less, you’d follow a process as below:
The DST process emphasizes understanding people and establishing empathy with them at their core. And it’s a great tool when it comes to solving problems that deal directly with a group of people – let’s say consumers as an example.
By leveraging DST, you may very well understand the point of view of the consumers in the case of the fashion industry. But the intriguing question here is would that understanding be enough?
DST reveals invaluable insights about how a certain group of people (consumers or other stakeholders) may feel or do but it can’t address the problem at its full scope especially when you’re dealing with wicked problems such as fashion consumption.
To fully comprehend the scope of the problem, you need to leverage the system thinking approach. System thinking was established based on the foundation that the components of a system will act differently when isolated and separated from other parts of the system.
To understand the above statement, I’d like to refer you to the Elevator Experiment conducted by Solomon Ash in the 1950s. He was interested in learning how group dynamics shape our behaviors.
As it’s evident in the video, we are highly prone to act differently in a group than we’re by ourselves. The same goes for complex systems.
In each complex system, a part has to serve towards the overall system purpose as well as to fulfill its individual motives.
Regardless of the kind of project you’re working on, the human factor always plays a significant role. Therefore, a design thinking approach helps us to focus on a part of the system and to understand it wholeheartedly by applying empathy. This is a reductionist approach to solving problems i.e. by comprehending parts of a system and their individual functions, you can grasp the overall function of a system.
A system thinking approach follows a holistic mindset because a dynamic system contains multiple entities each following a unique purpose. The accumulation of the purposes of the parts forms the grand purpose of the system.
For example, from an eagle’s eye view, if the fashion industry and all its stakeholders can be deemed as a system, roughly speaking, below are all the key entities of the system displayed.
Some of the key entities are
As you can see, to truly address the problem of fashion consumption, one shall intervene in the system from multiple angles because each independent entity influences the overall purpose of the system uniquely.
Most systems are open systems. They exchange matter and energy with their surroundings like the fashion industry. Some systems are closed; they only exchange energy with surrounding things like a computer.
For each system, you can define a hypothetical boundary that separates it from the surrounding. For a physical system like a region, boundaries can be tangible but for a conceptual system such as the fashion industry, boundaries are symbolic.
Each system has inflow and outflow. Think of a bathtub, water comes in and goes out. The balance between the inflow and outflow of the water sets the amount of water available in the bathtub i.e. stock.
In the case of the fashion industry, the inflow is the raw material and the outflow is worned-out clothes dumped in the landfill.
Another important aspect of system thinking is the matter of perspective as Margaret Wolfe Hungerford famously wrote “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Each person looks at a system and analyzes it based on their own agenda, experience, and knowledge. Meaning, if you ask 10 different people to draw a map of the fashion industry, you’d most probably get 10 different interpretations.
To design for complex systems, you need to systematically detect different points of view and individual assumptions vs hard evidence.
Design Thinking is people-centric and System Thinking is system-centric.
When you want to gain qualitative understanding, you want to apply design thinking. To zoom in on a part and understand why it behaves in such a certain way.
By studying a system you can understand the relationships between the parts. And how these relationships influence the overall purpose of the system.
The table below sums up the grand differences of the approaches
How can you start with System Thinking: Read one of the best primers on the topic: here’s the link
Thank you for being with me. Let us know about your comment especially if you have experience with applying system thinking to solve problems. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Receive handpicked content on design, UX, Innovation and sustainability every week