Complex systems and Design

by Ivar Slavenburg

Some time ago, a colleague sent me an e-mail with a link to an article written by Irving Wladawsky-Berger. The report was about the importance of design in managing complex systems and offered several fascinating insights into the way these systems behave and develop. As a result, I started to follow the blog more regularly. I would like to invite you to give it a visit, as he describes in detail the changing world, or complex system as he calls it, we are living today.

Societies are becoming complex systems

Let’s start off with discussing the definition of a complex system as used by Wladawsky-Berger. In his article, "Design Principles for Complex, Unpredictable, People Oriented Systems" (Irving Wladawsky-Berger, 2012), he defines a complex system as a kind of spectrum:

  • with natural biological systems – e.g., living organisms, ecosystems and evolution – at one end and,
  • physically engineered systems – e.g., bridges, aeroplanes and microprocessors – at the other.

Socio-technical systems, like our society, fall someplace in between.

Wladawsky-Berger points to several types of research among CEOs of major companies and NGO’s that showed that they foresee problems with managing their organisations as societies start to behave more and more like a complex system. The traditional, analytical approach to determine ‚strategy’, the series of choices you make on where to play and how to maximise long-term value, and ‚operations’, producing results in the context of these strategic choices, are getting difficult to apply. Let alone the ambition to make strategic plans for 3 to 5 years; Business environments are getting too unpredictable to do that.

Unfortunately, the point of no return is passed already: societies are behaving themselves as complex systems. It will only get worst. Complexity will grow as globalisation continues. The market shifts to developing markets, which behaviours are not fully understood yet. Additionally, the influence of government is only increasing. Despite a lot of talk about downsizing government, the reality is that it just grows. Where government grows, regulation follows soon. Adding to the complexity is technology, as everything gets connected and systems converge more and more. Influenced by this trend, the line between products and services begins to blur, as products are de-commoditise and services standardised.

Though the complexity to derive a good strategy and operations is increasing, their importance stays high. A way needs to be found to compile both, even though organisations are operating in a complex system. In his article, "Strategy and Execution in an Increasingly Complex World" (Irving Wladawsky-Berger, 2012), Wladawsky-Berger suggest the following three focus points. Increasingly, organisations will need to deal with well-informed consumers and well-educated workers. This new type of customers requires reinventing the customer relationship. That relationship is necessary to trace changing behaviours quickly. They do not always have the competence to adapt their operations to changes as soon as required. To enable them to do that a new type of creative leadership is needed.

New priorities by using Design methods to understand the future

If a purely analytical approach is no longer sufficient, but still it is required to have an excellent strategy and operation, another method needs to be found to help organisations get a grip on the future. According to Wladawsky-Berger, this new way is the field of ‚design’. He describes it as „holistic thinking to pull together everything known about a problem and the creativity to make sense of it all”. As he quotes a curator of a museum „one of design’s most fundamental tasks is to help people deal with change”. He takes that concept a step further when he writes in his article "Design Takes Over: Making Beauty Out of Necessity" (Irving Wladawsky-Berger, 2012) that designers make disruptive innovations manageable and approachable so that they can be embraced and assimilated in life. He describes two types of design, one being ‘theoretical design’ and ‘applied design’. Both will play a role to help scientists, policymakers, and the general public to understand the complex system they live in better.

The importance of design in strategy and operations will lead to a change in focus. Where the traditional product-oriented organisation was focused on product excellence and competitive costs only, designers will force it to focus on a positive customer experience as well. So, not just the methods by which organisations develop their strategy and operations will change, but their outcomes will also be. New priorities will need to be set.

The Cloud and the state of denial

To further clarify the enormous impact this change will have one can look at the effect on the field of corporate IT. In his article "The Complex Transition to the Age of the Cloud" (Irving Wladawsky-Berger, 2012), Wladawsky-Berger argues that cloud computing will become inevitable. The slow adaption of cloud computing in business is a sign that many IT departments are still in a state of denial. They will soon find out, that their company IT infrastructure, build primarily for specific needs of the organisation and thus often very fragmented, is not ready to serve customers who increasingly use mobile devices to approach the organisations’ IT systems and expect it to connect seamlessly with other devices in their world.

The Age of the Cloud, to continue using that term, is needed to integrate and manage these vast numbers of people and devices. Evidently, some organisations have enough scale to build their private cloud. Some companies, like Google and Amazon, are even having such a size they can create a business out of selling excess capacity to other organisations. Most organisations will use a cloud service provider, either to deliver their complete IT needs, or in combination with some functionality in a private cloud. It should be clear that the role of IT in these organisations will be somewhat different, as in smaller or almost nonexistent, than currently.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger describes a fascinating world. As in any disruptive innovations, there will be those that profit, and there will be those that stay behind. Having a bright idea of what the disruption is, will be a good start to become one of the winners. Only for that reason give his blog a try.

Further Reading

  1. Irving Wladawsky-Berger (2012), Design Principles for Complex, Unpredictable, People Oriented Systems. Retrieved from
  2. Irving Wladawsky-Berger (2012), Strategy and Execution in an Increasingly Complex World. Retrieved from
  3. Irving Wladawsky-Berger (2012), Design Takes Over: Making Beauty Out of Necessity. Retrieved from
  4. Irving Wladawsky-Berger (2012), The Complex Transition to the Age of the Cloud. Retrieved from