Systemic design and inquiry

Designing models for learning systems

The first chapter of Churchman’s ‘The design of inquiring systems: basic concepts of systems and organization’ is called ‘Design and inquiry’. It is an introduction to a book about the design of inquiring systems for systemic design and inquiry. It provides definitions of the key concepts ‘systems’, ‘design’ and ‘inquiry’ and outlines how they are related. I used a concept map (see below) to enable me to write the following structured summary (with a few additions to enhance understanding).

Design      … is a general, human activity. It is synonymous with planning, optimizing etc. People design systems that serve purposes to satisfy the needs and desires of the same or other people. We can distinguish two categories of systems: personal systems and interpersonal systems. Personal systems are our lives and our selves. Interpersonal systems include transportation, medicine, and shelter to give just a few examples. Systems are composed of organized components, i.e. components and their inter-relationships. The systems dealt with here comprise people or groups of people – what else could have needs and desires to satisfy?


Design methods       A key activity in design is the identification and selection of design alternatives. This may be done with a design routine or a generalized systemic design methodology. Many design routines impose restrictive boundaries on the system to be designed. In Churchman’s words: “A central design issue is to decide on system boundaries and environment.” This is so because boundaries restrict the space for creativity, design alternatives, and meaning (in terms of moral value and its ground).

Human elements      Since design is a human activity, the human element is important. Only humans design and even when designing interpersonal systems, they are still concerned with their own or other people’s personal systems, viz. the implications for their lives or selves. This is so in a variety of ways: actors – whether in their role of designer or implementer – will protect their interests. As a result, acceptability may become part of the rationale of systemic designs.

Scientific inquiry      Churchman contrasts the scientific model with systemic forms of inquiry. Scientific inquiry limits the scope of design to accepted practice. Science seeks objective knowledge, i.e. knowledge that doesn’t reflect the interests of one group or person or another. But that too is a subjective interest with far-reaching consequences for design, both in method and in result. By defining design more broadly, a more general, systemic methodology can be adopted that is less restrictive and more prone to validate the design rationale.

Implementation     … is essential to design: if it doesn’t work (at all or properly) it is of no use, even if the purpose is so stated to satisfy human needs and desires. Implementation may threaten or favour certain interests, which in turn may affect acceptability in a variety of ways. This is a complex affair. Those who are (co-)responsible for implementation need the right knowledge to be able to implement properly. Defining this knowledge is a complex affair, too.

Design stipulations          Churchman identifies 6 things design must do: 1) distinguish between different sets of behavior patterns (what); (2) estimate how well each alternative set will serve a specified set of goals (when); and (3) communicate its thoughts to other minds to allow corresponding implementation (how); (4) avoid repeating the thought process when faced with a similar goal-attainment problem by using a general design methodology (why); (5) identify the whole relevant system and its components, including human creators (who); and (6) take into account the issues of comprehensiveness and effectiveness, including political and intellectual questions (how much).

The rest of the book      … looks at historical designs of inquiring systems. These days, the design of inquiring systems generally involves more science and research, whereas traditionally, philosophy or reflective thinking (thinking about thinking, doubting about doubting, learning about learning) was also used to learn about reality. Churchman suggests that the history of epistemology can be used as a source of design models for learning systems and their justification. To this end he uses the renaissance of epistemology by Descartes in the seventeenth century as the starting point, followed by Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Kant, Hegel and the American pragmatists, Singer in particular. Find it in your library! It is packed with insights. If you are just looking for a practical methodology to apply the systems approach on a problem of your own, try Wicked Solutions.

About csl4d
This entry was posted in General. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Systemic design and inquiry

  1. Harold Nelson says:

    I am enjoying and appreciate your comments and insights relating to the work of Churchman. I have a report that I wrote with West some years ago that may be of interest but I have no way to contact you.
    Harold Nelson

    • Dear Mr. Nelson, thanks a lot for your kind comment. It is greatly appreciated and I feel immensely honoured. Not only do I admire your book on design, but you are also my most direct link to Churchman. I am totally fascinated by his work and thought and I would very much like to read the report that you wrote with him. If there is anything in particular you would like me to do with the report, just let me know. These are my contact details (also available from

      Sjon van ′t Hof
      De Verwondering 27
      3823 HA Amersfoort


      Kind regards,
      Sjon van ‘t Hof

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s