How Can We Implement Systems Thinking in Service Design?

Daniel Tuitt
7 min readJul 8, 2023


I’ve been working in innovation strategy design for over a decade now. Throughout this time, one of my biggest interests has been stakeholder and community involvement in our attempts to look at complex problems. But most service designers don’t gravitate towards this approach.

We’re often drawn to problem analysis and solving. So, we tend to work with others that want to rush to the solution without thinking about the problem or the system itself. There is an endless about of problems that involve considering social, political and environmental problems.

Being a designer often comes with having an ego. As designers, we have the mindset and skills to solve many complex problems. However, we need to go beyond just thinking we can do it ourselves. I call this the “designer saviour” complex, and in all honesty, I’ve been guilty of it in my early service design days. Our rushed and often rigid problem-solving approach means designers don’t intuitively connect with systems thinking.

What is Systems Thinking?

“A system is a set of related components that work together in a particular environment to perform whatever functions are required to achieve the system’s objective”. — Donella Meadows

Systems thinking encourages the expansion of the service design scope. This approach acknowledges the fact that complex problems cannot be solved in silos and that there needs to be an interdisciplinary overlap in problem-solving. It calls for a shift away from individualistic-centred solutions to more holistic thinking.

As a designer, you need to think about the wider scope of people who might be directly and indirectly impacted by a problem or new design. A few times in my career, I went into an organisation with the mindset that no one was thinking about the problem or had the tools to solve that problem. That’s where my design saviour complex kicked in. I thought I would be the one to show them the way. But in reality, you have to take a step back.

“All and everything is naturally related and interconnected“ — Ade Lovelace

You must understand that people who have been in organisations or communities for a long time have a lot of insights. They’ve already thought about ways to solve problems, and you need to listen first before you start designing things.

With the adoption of a systems thinking approach, design is evolving to a more open way of thinking. We’ve begun to collaborate more with people both within the organisation and in the impacted communities. So, systems thinking is an approach to thinking about things from a wider perspective.

There’s an interconnected way of doing things because there’s a cause and effect to anything you do, even in a design context. This calls for an acknowledgement that we are part of the systems within which we operate. We engage with the system, which means we can’t be an “objective” third-party throwing solutions at people.

The need for a mindset shift

All it takes to avoid the designer saviour complex is a mindset shift. You need to think in more of a systematic way, where you’re not just focusing on a single touch point. You’re involving as many people as possible throughout the whole process. This is especially crucial when you think about wicked problems.

Wicked problems are unique and have no clear definition. There are usually no clear solutions or quick wins, and the problem is hard to define because there are many different moving parts. As things become more complex and new nuances get built in over time, it’s hard to define what you thought you knew.

The world is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous at the moment, and you can’t rely on one insight. So, you need to get different perspectives.

Figure 1: Developing a Preliminary Causal Loop Diagram for Understanding the Wicked Complexity of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Figure 1: Developing a Preliminary Causal Loop Diagram for Understanding the Wicked Complexity of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Take the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. A more individualistic design approach would only see it as a health issue. However, a mindset shift towards systems thinking will show that COVID goes beyond global health. It has had an impact on education, immigration, and economic growth. As a designer in this context, you’d have to speak to people across different disciplines, not just healthcare workers. So, you’d also need insights from economists and historians, among other experts, to make sense of things.

We need to understand how to turn uncertainty into understanding and understand why things are happening in a certain way. As a designer, you then need to evaluate how you look at complexity and try to get a clear understanding of the future.

When you look at ambiguity, do you have an action plan to make sure that you can go forward and make sense of the world? With COVID, I found that most of the world adopted an “us” versus “them” approach. Countries didn’t share resources or minds around COVID, and I think some of the sad deaths and trauma could have been reduced if there was a more collaborative effort to solve this very complex problem.

Is there enough education about adopting a systems thinking approach?

Things are complex, and our actions have a knock-on effect. Designers, community members, and stakeholders are beginning to understand that. However, the language may not be as common. People might use words connected to systems thinking, but there’s still a way to go.

A lot of the work I used to do with the OpenIDEO team in London involved empowering local communities with the design skills and systems thinking skills to create change. It was centred around empowering people who understand the local context of a challenge.

We used to work with different chapter members across the world to gather insights from different localised communities. This enabled us to start building a bigger picture of the problems and empowering local communities to make sense of their problems. This, in turn, allowed these communities to create new solutions based on their own backgrounds. So, we helped them apply systems thinking as a lens to help them champion themselves.

When implementing systems thinking, you’re not just creating solutions that are informed by community needs. You’re allowing local community members a degree of decision-making authority over the outcome and intervention.

How do we go about handing over that autonomy and authority outside of the design team?

As designers, we need to learn to move away from our own biases. We have a biased view of the processes involved, making our approach generally more rigid because we only want to do things a certain way. I had to change that over time when working with people from different parts of the world.

I learned to try to understand how they frame some of these problems. How can I listen to some of the challenges they’re thinking about when they’re looking at systems over time? What are some of the key boundaries and norms that I’m not familiar with in those cultures?

I adopted a more holistic lens around solving systematic problems while working on a project in Singapore. The project was centred around treatment and preventative measures related to diabetes. We started looking at different pockets of the ecosystem, involving insurance companies, family members, and local small businesses, amongst several other collaborators. We used language that was familiar to the local patients’ context, which is the best way to design.

Although we were in a position to support change, it was almost everyone’s role in this project. And that’s one of the biggest ways that we create a level of systems change. This is where the need for adaptability rises. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to systems thinking.

Systems thinking involves framing, listening, understanding, defining, exploring, and designing to foster change and innovation. You have to spend a lot more time understanding the context, getting the right people on the journey, and evaluating how you approach things.

How do you manage conflict in this new ‘open’ design?

Systems thinking involves interacting with people of different perspectives, interests, and biases. So, conflict is almost inevitable in these circumstances. There’ll be a level of politics involved because most people naturally gravitate to how they will benefit rather than how the wider community is going to be supported. Some people won’t be focused on helping everyone involved and making sure that everyone is seen and impacted.

I always go in-depth when I’m trying to understand the context of a complex project. When I work with different teams, I always try to understand the context of what hasn’t worked before. I try to understand as much of the history around internal relationships by designing stakeholder maps.

During these collaborative design interactions, I try to set good ground rules to ensure that everyone is almost on the same level. On a few occasions, this involved banning certain words so that people would be more creative in how they describe challenges. And that gets them to rethink their whole process.

I also show examples of what has worked in the past. This is where I can leverage my experiences and show examples of what systems thinking can achieve on a global scale. All these techniques are geared towards getting stakeholders, local people, and other collaborators out of their own perspectives, biases, and experiences. But it’s very difficult because people are so nuanced.



Daniel Tuitt

Innovation | Strategy | Making a difference through writing, listening, talking and doing