70 504 Systems Oriented Design: “Design for Democracy“


Bachelor degree or equivalent in design or architecture.

Recommended prerequisite knowledge

Completed first year of master level education.

Course content

The course is suitable for all design topics including architecture, urbanism and landscape architecture. The course ranges from micro to macro scale and students can develop and choose their perspective. The course has a main theme but even individual programming is possible. The course well suited as preparation for the diploma.

Design for a complex world
Designers today are confronted with an increasing complexity. Constantly new fields and tasks are opened up for designers and the importance of design increases. Complex socio-technical, problems are addressed by designers, both in the development of design solutions and the development of processes for complexity. To be better prepared for this development, we as designers must learn to handle greater complexity, understand larger contexts, learn more about the consequences of our choices, both for businesses, customers, individual users as well as and society.

Systems thinking
A deeper understanding of processes and entanglements of systems is called systems thinking. In Systems Oriented Design (SOD), we have developed an approach to systems thinking that is especially developed for practicing designers. It is the designerly approach to systems. We follow in the footsteps of many great SOD projects that have opened up new fields and which has given the design profession extra weight and more substance.

SOD is part of a larger movement with many approaches called Systemic Design ( This movement was started by SOD teachers here at AHO and other people mainly from Canada and the US.

Focus theme: Design for Democracy
We are experiencing major unrest in the world, democratic values are at stake, people fleeing from their homes and from war. Many nations are heading to democracy but it is a cumbersome way forward. Even established democracies are struggling, examples we have from the European Union and the United States. Norway is not an exception when it comes to the need for better participation and accountability of voters and citizens in general. The democratic systems' inherent short term perspectives together with the complexity of the driving processes makes it very difficult for citizens to voice long-term considerations and to know how to claim participation. Local democracy is underdeveloped compared to the major tasks that communities are confronted with. These range from sustainability to economic development and integration.

On the other hand, design has a long tradition of developing processes from a democratic perspective. Universal Design and Participatory Design processes are examples of this. Also designer have been involved in democracy in designing voting processes and information distribution for a long time.
But design for democracy can be developed further. Can we, through design, envision and describe a future that supports a balanced distribution of power, values, and resources? Can we contribute to building democratic cultures and lowering the threshold for participation in democratic processes? Can we design processes that make it easier to think long term and through this encourage sustainable development? Can we, through the design of our surroundings help the emergence of democratic organizations?

The theme Design for Democracy seeks innovation to support democratic processes in small and large scale. Democracy is under pressure and there is no guarantee that democracy will prevail without a comprehensive effort to protect and develop democratic processes. This effort for developing democracy may in many ways be perceived as a design process, and designers have a lot to contribute.
In our age where the Internet has made it possible to reach out with ones opinions and where Democracy 2.0 has been relevant for a while, it is important with an effort to find out how designers can help.

The theme may involve a number of areas and issues where design can be a crucial factor:

- How to convey democratic history? - How to help people to vote for their long-term interests?
- How to make discussions of sustainability more accessible?
- How to vote on behalf of others, your children, grandchildren, future generations or others who cannot vote? (Agency)
- How Designing voting process as an interactive service?
- How Reveal / uncover and communicate processes that undermine democracy?
- How to fight for democracy? (Activism) What is the role of digital media in the ongoing popular uprisings?
- How to build democratic cultures?
- How to design our environment, cities, architecture and nature in democratic processes and democratic expression?
- How designing new democratic arenas?
- Networks, Technology and mobile phones as the venue for Democracy 2.0.
- Design for variety, tolerance and integration.
- Crowd Sourcing. (Self-organizing systems)
- How can design fight oversimplified solutions and populism?
- How can design make economic processes transparent.

The course is open to all students at AHO and it endeavors to think in transdisciplinary perspectives and to develop new perspectives or take positions that are not covered by the AHO disciplines. Examples include organizational design and design for action (action design) or entirely new perspectives.

The course should obviously be interesting for service and interaction design but also for product design, where one can think of many approaches that could lead to democratic products. Just think of the refinement of social signals and separation embedded in automobile design. On the systems level it is a big problem with today's mass production, which can be socially destructive and oppressive, and where there are big challenges when it comes to sustainability. Another interesting issue in the realm of products is the current development of 3D print technology. While general main steam commercialization tends to streamline and drain cultural expression, how might distributed manufacturing influence a growing diversity and new opportunities for individuals to express themselves? The tolerance for and thriving of diversity is a hallmark of democracy.

Architects are encouraged to apply. Architecture has a long history in serving the establishment and power. Today ethical discussions and an awareness of social responsibility increases. A deep knowledge of the process mechanisms, economics, cultural drivers and ethics in this is crucial. There is great frustration in parts of the Norwegian population of many of today's development projects and the accompanying processes. Participatory design processes should be explored.
The course is also relevant for urbanism and urban development as well as landscape and nature management. Participation in place development is statutory by Norwegian law but "we have bad processes for participation" (Geir Vikan, Councilman Tønsberg Municipality)


All students will be working closely with a partner.
All partners to be confirmed
Possible partners for the theme Design for Democracy is Tønsberg Municipality and Svelvik Municipality.
We intend to cooperation in this with Norsk Eiendom or a big entrepreneur as well as the authorities in a chosen municipality as an expert partner for architecture, urbanism and landscape.
Other institutions and suggestions from students are also appropriate

Students can even program their own themes. In such cases the students must acquire partner on their own but we will assist where needed.

We are planning a study tour to RSD5 (Relating Systems Thinking and Design 5) at OCADU Toronto October 13 to 15.
RSD is an extremely successful, interesting and rewarding conference series that was started up at AHO in 2012. The symposium has something for everyone also has a separate track for architecture

Learning outcomes

Expectations to the student:
Students are expected to be able to work independently and be able to use their previous experience from design or architectural education into their project. We expect a high level of activity and effort. More than 20% of undocumented absence in lectures and other announced activities will result in a fail.

Students are expected to evaluate their project systemically. This applies to the approach to the task, the threshold for systemic impact and synergy. It is expected of students that they can describe a problematique or problem-field, and specify a field for mapping / exploration.

The course aims to prepare students to work professionally as a systems-oriented designer or architect within, product, service interaction design or architecture, or a more general (hybrid) direction in design. It is expected that the student demonstrate maturity in execution, development and implementation of their design project.
Students are expected to open up new themes or areas to work within as a designer or architect.

Skills and competences
Students will be introduced to System Oriented Design (SOD) as a method and an approach, to be able to work with a greater degree of complexity.
System Thinking is a foundation to develop a deeper understanding of sustainability, ethics, culture and society, and to develop the understanding of communication, technology and innovation. These aspects will be discussed in lectures but will also be discussed during tutoring sessions in the projects. The contents of these discussions will be related to the respective projects and will thus vary. Students will gain a general understanding of systems thinking and especially on SOD. They will develop skills in adaptive expertise, Very Rapid Learning, collaborative processes and participatory design and in opening up new fields as design projects.

The students will learn the techniques of SOD including GIGA-mapping, Timeline mapping, Rich Design Space, ZIP analysis. Training is also given in facilitation, co-design, scenario building, foresight, risk analysis, literature search.

SOD seeks to make designers able to handle an open process where the goal is not defined in the outset. It involves learning the ability to manage the uncertainty that comes from working with great complexity and get to know the designer's strengths and weaknesses in cooperation that break new ground for new fields of design. System oriented designers need to be both humble and courageous.
We will train skills in communicating with partners in workshops and participatory design processes. We will guide in communicating very complex projects in an understandable way using posters and video so that the projects become available to outsiders.

There will be an introduction to General Systems Theory. Furthermore, students will be involved, through lectures and discussions through out the process, in a number of areas such as design thinking, aesthetics, sustainability, ethics, culture and social understanding, materials technology and socio-technological systems. These topics will be discussed from a systemic approach.

Working and learning activities

Students working on semester project individually or in groups (recommended size of groups is maximum two students). Project Plans are created for each project individually according to the their demands. Each project requires, in principle, its own project design.

The course itself is a dynamic social system that must be adjusted and tweaked in real time. Therefore, students must be actively involved in designing the course. We expect corrections of the course and changes in the approaches along the way.
We emphasize that the students must be very active in designing their own project.

Communication within the project acquired through co-inquiry, co-mapping and co-design and use of gigamaps to form consensual images of complex situations.
Communication outwardly practiced orally at the project presentations in open reviews and using appropriate techniques such as posters, video or narratives.

Professor in charge

Birger Sevaldson / Linda Blaasvær


Assessment Date Duration Grade scale Oral examination
Prosjektoppgave Pass / Fail

Submission of semester project communicated in an easily accessible manner with video or other visual techniques and in terms of exhibition to AHO WORKS EXHIBITION.
The main delivery is a project report with the following specifications:
1) Full name and contact info and private email (not aho email when it disappears.)
2) Abstract of maximum one page
3) One title picture representing project.
4) All permits obtained and anonymization completed
5) Table of Contents at the beginning
6) COMPLETE reference list at the end!
7) ALL images numbered and with copyright cleared and with credits.
8) All other deliveries as video and slides must be cleared with rights on all materials.

The report should contain the following structure and sections:
Title and subtitle
Introduction, (Shortly about the fields, state of the art, approach, project, results)
Research and inquiries (present data, information, findings and insights)
Process and methods
The project presentation
Discussion (criticality is required, pro et contra)
Conclusion and further work

The students are evaluated on the basis of participation and effort, milestone reviews, assessment and final project delivery.
Minimum delivery: Project report, video and exhibition that easily communicate project.
The course is assessed as; Pass / Fail.
It is compulsory attendance at lectures, tutorials and presentations. More than 20% absence will result in a fail.