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70 504 Systems Oriented Design: “Design for Very Complex System“

Full course name in Norwegian Bokmål: 
System orientert design: “Design for meget komplekse systemer“
Course code: 
70 504
Level of study: 
Teaching semester: 
2021 Autumn
Assessment semester: 
2021 Autumn
Language of instruction: 
Norwegian / English
Maximum number of students: 
Person in charge
Birger Sevaldson
Required prerequisite knowledge

Passed foundation level (BA-level) courses at AHO in design or architecture or equivalent, 180 ECTS.

The course is open for all programmes at AHO.


Course content


Our world is increasingly being battered by pressures such as the rapid development of technology, globalization, immigration and increasing inequality. We are facing multiple complex and interconnected problems within society and the environment. This is leading to disruption and uncertainty to life as we know it across multiple sectors, with the current coronavirus pandemic just one example. These disruptions are intricately linked to the underlying structures of our socio-economic systems and the ecological systems upon which they depend. These socio-ecological pressures and disruptions are reinforcing each other and exacerbating threats to life on planet earth.

Now more than ever, designers are being recognized for their fundamental role in addressing the urgent and connected global health crises we currently face: from climate change to social inequities to COVID-19. As creatives, we naturally navigate between the detail to the big picture, concept and vision to the final delivery. However:

 "We cannot solve problems with the same kind of thinking that created them" - Albert Einstein

For dealing with the complexity and uncertainty that of complex contexts of interconnected social and ecological problems, a systems approach is needed to enhance the ability of the designer to design solutions that address the underlying drivers of the socio-ecological crises. This systems approach will empower students with the ability to rapidly learn and understand the complexity of the context to find the most effective places in the system to design interventions that are relevant to addressing the problems. The SOD methodology is applicable in any context and scale, from sustainable product design, better healthcare services, to policy design to sustainability transitions of communities and society at large.

This SOD fall masters course invites you to get on the dance floor and jointly explore and play with ideas that are rooted in systems thinking and design doing. Through hands on approaches and tools, you'll be able to take a systemic perspective to nurture your design practice to create things that are relevant to the complex world at different scales, from products to services to experiences to sustainability transitions of entire systems. If you are a curious person who likes to puzzle and have fun with exploring a context broadly and figure out what would be relevant to design to make systemic impacts, you have found the right course for you!

Read more on:



Structure of the course:

This course contains three modules

Module 1 (8 ETCS): Regenerative Systems Design (through immersion in Alpine-Urban reality) (4 weeks)

Module 2 (8 ETCS) Design for Governance Innovation (Democracy/Society/Wellbeing) (4 weeks)

Module 3 (8 ETCS) Design for Action (4 weeks)

Between each module there is a short period for reflection, digestion and self-programmed reading.

The content and microstructure of the course is somewhat dynamic and adaptive to possibly changing conditions.

Suitable for designers, architects, urbanists and landscape architects

The course content is suitable for all design topics including architecture, urbanism and landscape architecture and is open to students from all programmes at AHO. The course has two suggested main themes to choose between, but even self- programming your own focus is possible. The course is well suited as preparation for undertaking your diploma.

Module 1 – Regenerative Systems Design (through immersion in a real-world Alpine-Rural context)

The first module based partly in Hemsedal and partly in Oslo immediately exposes you into a real-life design context, where you will be introduced to SOD while being immersed in the local system of the Hemsedal mountain community, considering its complexities and connections to the urban systems. The time in Hemsedal is an opportunity for you to get outdoors and meet locals to help you understand what nature and societies can teach us about systems and designing better solutions for sustainable places and communities. It will also be a chance to get to know the other students and staff in an informal social but facilitated environment, which will be important to build a positive and engaged class culture with the people you will be spending the rest of the semester with.

Concretely we will dive into the local community, ecology and economy of the Hemsedal region, considering the social network of its communities, landscape use, and zooming into the different economic activities. Your tasks in this module will be to consider how to shift Hemsedal’s degenerative, vulnerable and linear economy to a more regenerative, resilient and circular economy that regenerates the community and ecology while building resilience to shocks at various system scales, and improves circularity of materials and waste.

We will consider various scales, from materials, products to communities, to regions while mapping system flows – such as tourists, materials, good and products, food, water, energy, waster, emissions, and money. We will also consider how the mountain systems are connected with urban systems. Mapping the current system flows, and together with insight from locals will help you identify innovation points at the various scales in mountain-urban system of Hemsedal.

Additionally, the module will expose you to various mindsets for considering complexity (such as systems thinking and ecological thinking) and world views and how they are connected to systems. The work will involve developing desirable future scenarios informed by sustainability science and the insight of locals. You will be facilitated to reflect critically on your role as a designer, and whose vision you are designing for. You will be exposed on the importance of moving beyond sustainability, which is focused on stopping damaging to address the socio-ecological crises with regeneration which is focusing on repairing the damages from socio-ecological impacts. You will practice various qualitative, quantitative and spatial mapping techniques (including gathering spatial data by drone flying) to develop gigamaps rich with qualitative, quantitative and spatial information. In this module we are taking the classroom outside the lecture hall and studio room, where will learn through outdoor, field activities and immersion in the context you are designing for.

Why the mountain context of Hemsedal for learning about SOD? Mountain regions are complex social-ecological systems, vulnerable to global environmental and economic changes, often dependent on single industry sectors like tourism, forestry, or mining. They are prime cases for us to consider how we can design a more resilient, regenerative communities, ecologies and economies. How to create circularity in mountain regions, with a more diversified, flexible, connected economy, where (winter) tourism is one pillar of a circular economy? We will consider and reflect on various topics and questions such as what is the role of the consumer, the local citizens, the tourist, the products we consume, the choices we make? How do product design, skis, mobility, local identity, and a circular economy in mountains correlate? How can designers design for circularity?

Module 2:  Design for Governance Innovation (Democracy/Society/Wellbeing)

The second module, back at AHO, sees you pick a real project aligned with the either the theme options or their self-programmed project and facilitates students to deep dive into learning a systemic context and then designing solutions that address the problems and opportunities in their chosen context.

Amongst the context themes of this year, foci will be on how to transform societies at both local and global scales by orienting business and public sector to deliver on wellbeing through enhancing democracy (bottom-up influencing) and innovating governance systems (facilitating top-down structures). Further course foci may feed from Governance Innovation relating with Economic Governance and the implementation of a circular economy on a bio-regional scale, with Governance of the Commons with new flexible network governance systems, new knowledge systems, common resources governance through social circularity and real-world laboratory research, and systemic innovation for creating regenerative systems; and with Transboundary Governance, what governance supports joint innovation on the local-regional scale, and how seeds of systemic innovation can scale and create local people action.

Design for democracy is at the forefront of an international movement based on initiatives by Ezio Manzini and Victor Margolin. Design for democracy has a relatively long history starting with designing election situations. However, there has been a long development where democracy today is better understood in all its nuances. We have previously worked with participation (Tønsberg Municipality), workplace democracy (Gjensidige Forsikring and UDI), and involvement (Dagens Næringsliv). This year we will focus on finding ways to draw political and strategic discussions from being based on singular issues to focussing on holistic thinking. We will seek to cover both public and private fields in the choice of partners. Read more and see previous projects here:

Design for governance looks at our society from different perspectives: New Public Governance is a current trend that seeks to replace the heavily criticized and failing concept of New public Management. New Public Governance introduces a cooperative and networked form of policy development and governance that values a participatory public involvement and views citizens as co-producers of policies and public services. The course will explore democratic political processes and the combined use of political instruments through using SOD as an approach.


Module 3 – Design for action - (Implementation in complex systems)

It is one thing to figure out your intervention concepts, it is another to implement these concepts into the complex reality. The challenges and complexities of implementation often substantially outweigh the efforts of developing your design.

Often implementation will also require the culture of systems (organisations, communities etc) to change for the success of any solution. This module focuses on how to take your design from concept to reality utilising SOD and other approaches like Change Management, Transition Design and Action Research, or Real-World Laboratory research, to prototype, iterate and implement the concepts developed in module 2 while also considering other relevant initiatives already working and how to connect your concepts with these to increase the probability of successful implementation. In order to find the right action points for successful implementation, it is essential to understand which systems we want to change, who participates in this and the power dynamics going on.  And then we need to sort out what counts as change, what changes count, by when does it count?

Learn how to use SOD methodology to take your designed interventions from concept to reality. Be exposed to various implementation models and tools for change, such as piloting, prototyping, action planning, change management, real world laboratories, seeds for systemic innovation and other implementation techniques. Learn how to implement your concept in various contexts, from economies to markets, from governments to organisations, considering the importance of network and alliance building, and how to connect projects together to amplify their collective impact. In all this work we claim that looking at SOD as processes to enhance the necessary silo bridging will be an important contribution to any implementation.

Meet relevant stakeholders and use your curiosity to understand the challenges in getting your concepts to work and then use these insights to improve your impact as a designer. Visualizing complexity will be an important tool in all these processes.

We will also examine the idea of first develop – then implement – and try to look into how these two phases might be wise to let overlap and look at “back testing” as part of the implementation. How can this both improve your concept at the same time help to speed up implementation?

Who should take this course?

This is the course for you if you wish

  • Learn how to develop your own problem design brief(s) that are relevant for the real underlying problem(s) in your community or organisation to design solutions that are more effective at addressing the problem
  • to take up a challenge to work with very complex problems,
  • to develop the designers' abilities of holistic thinking,
  • to have a strategic role in your future work as a designer, architect or urbanist.
  • to combining multiple perspectives and diversified views, as well as conflicting interest, such as sustainability while maintaining profit, or navigating different beliefs, values and opinions be part of driving a transition to more sustainable societies
  • to learn to design as nature: (1) with materials and products, and (2) on a systems level in organizational and economic transitions, such as governance, health or mobility
  • to acquire methodological, contextual, technical, and social skills in circular regenerative design, i.e. life cycle analysis, engineering design with renewable materials, circularity indices, transitioning towards a tourism service economy, and alike
  • to develop the designers' ability to integrate holistic thinking and circular design in a real-world contexts
  • getting better at handling different perspectives, interests and values

This course is for you if you…

  • are interested in developing a systemic perspective on design while driving the shift of society towards sustainability
  • like to work with challenging topics that warrant critical thinking
  • are willing to take in new knowledge and to read independently
  • are good at taking initiative, self-organize, and seek guidance when needed
  • are able to engage in critical discussion and actively participate throughout the course
  • are interested in how to develop design briefs/problem statements to design solutions that are relevant to various system contexts in our world

If you feel that you do not meet these requirements you should think carefully, but if you are willing to improve in the above requirements then you are most welcome.  If you are in doubt, don’t hesitate but contact birger.sevaldson@aho.no



Learning outcome

Students will be introduced to System Oriented Design (SOD) as a method and approach, to:

  • Develop a sensibility for systems, relationships and consequences: cause and effect, to think of how systems are embedded within different domains and different scales
  • Deal with uncertainty through unfolding and understanding complexity while working with “problematiques” (multiple interlinked problems)
  • Anticipate futures through developing an ability to understand and consider multiple future scenarios and evaluate the possible, probable and desirable, developing both individual and participatory visions of the future.
  • Anticipate thresholds for implementation and impacts of designed solutions.
  • Critically think and self-reflect through considering questioning the norms, values influencing the opinions, behaviour and decisions of yourself and the stakeholders they are designing for. Also considering their role as a designer and citizen in the local community and global society. Understand how to navigate decisions about sustainability values, principles, goals and targets in a context of conflicting interests and trade-offs
  • Navigate sustainability by being exposed to the state of the world and guiding design criteria for sustainability Regenerative, Resilient, Circular, Cross-scale design through a critical lens
  • Undertake trandisciplinary collaboration and integrated problem-solving by working in transdisciplinary teams and processes to not only understand the complex socio-ecological challenges but also address them through designing systemically rooted solutions, while applying the aforementioned skills.
  • Strategise through prototyping and implementing developed concepts


Students are:

  • introduced to System Oriented Design (SOD) as a method and approach, to be able to work with a greater degree of complexity.
  • given a thorough introduction to System Oriented Design, Rich Design Space, Giga-mapping, ZIP analysis and systemic evaluation.
  • Given an understanding and a general knowledge of systems thinking, systems theory, systems dynamics: cause and effect relationships and complexity for practicing designers.
  • Exposed to learning, applying and reflecting sustainability science


Students will acquire skills in:

  • SOD as process-led methodology
  • Research by design methodology
  • Systems Thinking
  • Sustainability Science
  • Ecological Thinking
  • Critical Thinking
  • Dealing with uncertainty
  • Collaboration through interdisciplinary problem solving in groups
  • Visioning
  • Action Planning
  • Workshop facilitation
  • Participatory design

General competence

Students will be able to use this methodology to understand and tackle complex problems and to think systemically. Systems thinking in design is a highly relevant skill as the world is becoming increasingly interconnected, and since the challenges the world need us to solve today are fuzzy and consists of a great degree of complexity. This competence is often required by design consultancies today as they take on a higher degree of projects that demands design capacity that can work with Wicked Problems.

Holistic perspectives, ethics and sustainability as well as cultural, organizational, economic and technical considerations are central to the Systems oriented designer. These perspectives and the ability to have the project overview is a very good competence for a designer in a team, and also excellent proficiency for a project leader. Systems-oriented designers can play a decisive role in managing complexity in future societal developments. Systems-oriented designers typically can work in design consultancies, in organizations, in municipalities with service design, on policy level, in the private sector to give some examples.

Systems-oriented designers are trained in techniques such as Gigamapping, this enables them to cope with complexity, - and to take more responsibility for the consequences of their actions. The systems-oriented designer is also a skilled workshop facilitator and leader of co-design processes, to achieve the holistic picture of complex design problems with different stakeholders.


Working and learning activities

Module 1 will involve you working in teams, partly independent, partly outdoors and in Hemsedal. Module 2 and 3 will see you work on a chosen focus context according to the main themes or your chosen self-programmed theme. Projects for Module 2 and 3 can be individual or in groups. Group projects are preferred.

Project plans are created for each project individually according to the 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.



Luthe, T. 2018. Designing More Resilient Arctic Communities: Change Means Chance. The Circle 2/2018. WWF Arctic Program.

Meadows D. (2008). Thinking in Systems. A Primer. Redaktører: Wright D. Forlag: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

MonViso Institute. A real-world laboratory experimentation space. www.monviso-institute.org.

Sevaldson, B. (2011). GIGA mapping: Visualization for Complexity and Systems Thinking in Design. Artikkel presentet at Nordic Design Research Conference, Helsingfors 2011.

Sevaldson, B. (2008). Rich Design Research Space. FORMakademisk, 2008 bind 1 (1) s. 28–44.

Systems Oriented Design: www.systemsorienteddesign.net

Systemic Design www.systemic-design.net

Syllabus literature beyond this will be given during the course.

Form of assessmentGroupingGrading scaleComment
Portfolio assessment (Vurderingsmappe)-Pass / failModule 1 – Circular systems gigamap, walkthrough presentation/video to communicate how Hemsedal as a community, ecology and economy can transform from its unsustainable status quo today, to a pioneering sustainable system in the future. Chapter contributions to report.

Module 2 – Storyboard gigamap, walkthrough presentation/video and chapter contributions to final report with emphasis on leverage points and developed concepts

Module 3 – Iterated storyboard gigamap, and iterated walkthrough presentation/video with extra focus on implementation and action. Final report including chapters from previous modules.

Final storyboard gigamap (digital and walkthrough video) to easily communicate the project for the AHO WORKS EXHIBITION. The report is the main delivery.

The students are evaluated on the basis of participation and effort, milestone reviews, assessment and final project delivery.

All project material is to be digitally submitted to an online assignment system.

Form of assessment:Portfolio assessment (Vurderingsmappe)
Grading scale:Pass / fail
Comment:Module 1 – Circular systems gigamap, walkthrough presentation/video to communicate how Hemsedal as a community, ecology and economy can transform from its unsustainable status quo today, to a pioneering sustainable system in the future. Chapter contributions to report.

Module 2 – Storyboard gigamap, walkthrough presentation/video and chapter contributions to final report with emphasis on leverage points and developed concepts

Module 3 – Iterated storyboard gigamap, and iterated walkthrough presentation/video with extra focus on implementation and action. Final report including chapters from previous modules.

Final storyboard gigamap (digital and walkthrough video) to easily communicate the project for the AHO WORKS EXHIBITION. The report is the main delivery.

The students are evaluated on the basis of participation and effort, milestone reviews, assessment and final project delivery.

All project material is to be digitally submitted to an online assignment system.

Workload activityComment
AttendanceStudents are expected to attend all lectures, tutorials and presentations.
Forventet arbeidsinnsats:
Workload activity:Attendance
Comment:Students are expected to attend all lectures, tutorials and presentations.