Pragmatism and critical systems thinking: Back to the future of systems thinking

By Michael C. Jackson

Michael C. Jackson (biography)

Would systems thinking realize its potential as a force for good in the world if it rediscovered and developed its pragmatist roots? Does the link between the past and future of systems thinking lie through critical systems thinking and practice?

In brief, I suggest that:

  • Pragmatism provides an appropriate philosophy for systems thinking.
  • Systems thinking has pragmatist roots.
  • Critical systems thinking and practice shows how to develop those roots.
  • Pragmatism can help systems thinking realize its potential and systems thinking can help pragmatism achieve what it set out to do.

What is pragmatism?

Kant was in awe of Newton’s science but believed it could supply certainty only about the physical world. In most areas of human endeavor, he argued, we have to use ‘pragmatic belief’ to guide our actions.

Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, and John Dewey borrowed the term when founding the philosophy of pragmatism. They viewed the realm in which we are forced to act on the basis of pragmatic belief as vast and hoped to make philosophy relevant again by offering guidance to help navigate it. In particular, they argued that:

  • There are no universal truths. Cognition is an adaptation intimately related to our biological and historical evolution, and has developed to help us cope with the world.
  • Truth should, therefore, be judged in terms of its consequences. James said – “The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one”.
  • The ‘multiverse’ which we inhabit allows multiple truths. James calls this ‘pluralism’, introducing the term for the first time into English-language philosophy. A multiplicity of theories should be encouraged and tested according to their consequences.
  • Theories should not be seen as attempts to mirror the world but as instruments of purposeful action that can be used to change existing realities and make the world better. James said – “The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events”. (The sources for this and other quotations are referenced in Jackson, 2022a.)

Systems thinking’s pragmatist roots

Warren Weaver follows a Kantian rationale in setting out the challenge posed by complexity, stating in 1948 that:
… science has, to date, succeeded in solving a bewildering number of relatively easy problems, whereas the hard problems, and the ones which perhaps promise most for man’s (sic) future, lie ahead”.

These ‘hard’ problems – human, political, economic, social, and environmental – cause difficulties for classical scientific tools. They are, he argued, made up of too many variables to yield to simple mathematical formulae and the variables are too interrelated to yield to probability statistics. They constitute ‘a great middle region’ of ‘organized complexity’. ‘Something more is needed’, Weaver wrote, to help decision-makers tackle problems of this type. It is systems thinking that set out to provide that ‘something more’.

The three pioneers of the systems approach – Alexander Bogdanov, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, and Norbert Wiener – all adopted a pragmatist orientation in seeking to get to grips with ‘organized complexity’. For example:

  • Bogdanov saw truth as “a tool for living … for the general guidance of human practice
  • von Bertalanffy championed ‘perspectivism’, arguing that all forms of knowledge can only capture certain aspects of the truth because any perspective is dependent on a “…multiplicity of factors of a biological, psychological, cultural, linguistic, etc., nature
  • Wiener gloried in taking ‘epistemological short-cuts’ on the basis of what worked.

All wanted their endeavours to secure improvement in the world:

  • Bogdanov hoped his ‘tektology’ would enable people to become competent ‘world-builders’
  • von Bertalanffy regarded ‘general system theory’ as entailing a rejection of the ‘robot model’ of people and as demanding “a basic reevaluation of problems of education, training, psychotherapy, and human attitudes in general
  • Wiener saw cybernetics as having major implications for the organization of society and the ‘human use of human beings’.

Critical systems thinking and practice as a development of systems thinking’s pragmatist roots

Many later systems thinkers see themselves as indebted to von Bertalanffy and/or Wiener and some acknowledge pragmatist roots (eg., C. West Churchman and Russell Ackoff). However, this is far from universal. Recently, I have been explicitly developing critical systems thinking and practice on the basis of pragmatism and seeking to show that this can enable systems thinking to realize its potential. In particular, critical systems thinking and practice argues that:

  • General complexity (with interacting ontological and cognitive elements) resists universal truth. All attempts to model it are partial and, therefore, the fundamental problem posed is “epistemological, cognitive, paradigmatic” (Edgar Morin) – concerned with the ways we seek to understand and manage complexity.
  • In engaging with general complexity, systems thinking should make use of ‘systemic perspectives’ which have enabled the human species to secure coherent encounters with ‘reality’. In other words, those systemic perspectives have provided for our successful functioning in the physical and cultural worlds – specifically, the machine, organism, cultural/political, societal/environmental, and interrelationships perspectives.
  • Systems thinking should embrace ‘pluralism’. It must make use of the variety of insightful systemic perspectives to view the world in different ways, and employ their associated systems methodologies to learn which of these can bring about beneficial change in a particular context.
  • The purpose of critical systems thinking and practice is to bring about improvement in the world. This is not just in terms of increased efficiency and efficacy but also effectiveness, mutual understanding, resilience, antifragility, empowerment, emancipation, and sustainability.

A brighter future for both systems thinking and pragmatism

By explicitly embracing pragmatism, and taking it forward through critical systems thinking and practice, systems thinking can realize the hopes of the original pioneers and chart a bright future for itself. A shared philosophical orientation will bring greater mutual understanding between the currently disparate strands of the systems movement and more unity of purpose.

It will enable systems thinking to engage more fully with, and have greater influence on, contemporary debates in the specialist disciplines. Much of that debate, in philosophy and the social sciences, centres on pragmatist themes. It is not just systems thinking that stands to benefit from an alliance with pragmatism. As an applied transdiscipline, systems thinking can assist pragmatism in achieving what it set out to do – make philosophy relevant to everyday affairs.

What do you think? If you are a systems thinker, does this argument look like it provides a way forward? If you are not a systems thinker, what would help you better connect with our field?

To find out more:

Jackson, M. C., (2022a). Rebooting the systems approach by applying the thinking of Bogdanov and the pragmatists. Systems Research and Behavioral Science. 1-17 (Online) (DOI):

Key references to critical systems thinking and practice:

Jackson, M. C. (2019). Critical systems thinking and the management of complexity. John Wiley & Sons: New Jersey, United States of America.

Jackson, M. C. (2020). Critical systems practice 1: Explore—Starting a multimethodological intervention. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 37, 5: 839– 858. (Online) (DOI):

Jackson, M. C. (2021). Critical systems practice 2: Produce—Constructing a multimethodological intervention strategy. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 38, 5: 594– 609. (Online) (DOI):

Jackson, M. C. (2022b). Critical systems practice 3: Intervene—Flexibly executing a multimethodological intervention. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 39, 6: 1014–1023. (Online) (DOI):

Jackson, M. C. (2022c). Critical systems practice 4: Check—Evaluating and reflecting on a multimethodological intervention. Systems Research and Behavioral Science. 1–16. (Online) (DOI):

Biography: Michael C. Jackson PhD OBE is an emeritus professor at the Centre for Systems Studies, University of Hull, UK. His teaching and research interests are systems thinking, organizational cybernetics, creative problem solving, critical systems thinking, management science and systems science.

36 thoughts on “Pragmatism and critical systems thinking: Back to the future of systems thinking”

    • I think we must accept that pragmatism is the only option given our biological and cultural limitations. Once we do that we can return philosophy to a useful role of helping with everyday affairs (as Dewey has it).
      I’d accept this argument is much less clear cut in the natural as against the social domain. But, even in the physical sciences, I think most lean towards pragmatism. Here is Rovelli (from Helgoland):

      Science is not a Depository of Truth, it is
      based on the awareness that there are no
      Depositories of Truth. The best way to learn
      is to interact with the world while seeking to
      understand it, readjusting our mental
      schemes to what we encounter and find
      (Rovelli, 2020, p. 117; italics in the original).

      • I’m very sympathetic to your position, but I’m not convinced that I would be able to comply with it in practice. At the ISSS conference in South Africa, I plan to present a foundation for an approach that could be called ‘meta-pragmatic’. Which is to say “A truly pragmatic approach would accept that our capacity for pragmatism is limited.”

        I say this because I’ve spent most of my career being (I believe) extremely pragmatic. Almost all of the money I’ve earned is as a software developer, and although my degree is ‘computer science and software engineering’, I’m definitely not much of a scientist. My interest in ‘what is true’ is pretty consistently less than my interest in ‘what I can build’.

        After achieving a level of success in connecting computer systems to each other, I became more interested in connecting people to each other. I didn’t learn the word ‘cybernetics’ until later, but I think it fits.

        In particular, I became obsessed with fixing the flaws in the work of Elliot Jacques. He made some very useful observations about organisation structure, built on a foundation of pseudoscientific superstition. I revised his foundation and believe that the result is something that has some utility: it’s the support for meta-pragmatism that I’ll be presenting.

        The point is this: had I not spent 3 years of my life obsessing over the largely irrelevant theoretical errors of an obscure theorist, I would never have made the breakthrough that led to an improvement in my practical capabilities.

        A meta-pragmatic approach can recognise the practical value of pragmatism, diversificationism, isolationism, and imperialism. Once we recognise that each of them has a distinct usefulness, we can capture them all in an overarching framework (meta-imperialism?), embrace the differences, and allow them to exist in isolation if they want. This minimises effort while allowing us to maximise our reward.


        Great to meet you, by the way. I seem unable to generate ideas unless disagreeing with someone staggeringly intelligent, and I think that’s the most coherent description of what I’m up to that I’ve been able to produce.

  1. Reading this fascinating exchange, I’m reminded of John Wilson’s comment in his book “Thinking with Concepts” that words do not have definitions only uses (and he acknowledges the potential tautology of that statement). One of the frustrations I’ve had seeking to join the systems universe with the multiverse of other disciplines is that the systems field uses words in different ways to those whom I’m trying to link with the systems field. The word ‘pragmatic’ is one of those words. I’ve long grown tired of being told by people who identify as ‘pragmatic’ that the systems field is too theoretical. The implication – at least in the way in which they use the words – ‘pragmatism’ is the antithesis of ‘theory’. Which of course misses Mike’s point completely, but I think is one reason for the systems field’s repeated lack of success in the multiverse. My dear and sorely missed colleague Iraj Imam was always puzzled by the distinction made between theory and practice. From his cultural viewpoint the two were exactly same thing; all theory was practice and all practice was theory. I often wonder if that’s why Persian poetry is so good.

    • Yes, and pragmatism is about finding theories that lead to useful ‘habits of action’ – until they don’t and have to be replaced.

  2. Mike— I agree 100% that seeing the systems-cybernetics-complexity project as continuation of the ‘pragmatic turn’ of ~250 years ago reveals that incommensurability among diverse viewpoints/methodologies is neither a tragic fate we must be resigned to nor a problem to be eliminated with forced unification. The diversity is to be expected from fundamental complexity, with an ongoing process of unification and cohering on the meta level(s?).

    The connections between systems thinkers and pragmatic roots are quite rich and often direct, as you point out with James —> Singer —> Churchman and Ackoff. Whitehead is another source of direct connection who is cited by Bertalanffy, Laszlo, Troncale, Miller (who credits Whitehead with prompting him to take on the development of Living Systems Theory). A thread in a related field is Peirce —> Lewis —> Shewhart —> Deming —> quality movements…

    In 2012 after a workshop in Tokyo with Jennifer Wilby I did a sketch off the top of my head of ‘Pragmatic Roots of Systems Thinking’ that is obviously incomplete (and maybe wrong in some respects), but I’ll send it to you as something to add to what you have.

    • Thanks, Janet. Very encouraging that you have been thinking along the same lines. I look forward to seeing your sketch.
      On your second ‘connection’, I know that Whitehead drew upon the work of James but have difficulty seeing Miller and Troncale as pragmatists. I hope the case can be made because, of course, it makes the overall argument even stronger.

      • Mike— Sorry for the delay in responding. There are so many interesting and relevant issues raised here it is hard to know where to begin.

        I do think the case can be made for Miller and Troncale as pragmatists. Most people would not identify Kant as a pragmatist either! But I agree that Kant can be taken as the watershed figure marking the end of naive assumptions re our ability to distinguish and establish Metaphysical Truth, as you noted. Miller’s and Troncale’s work share the common strands of the pragmatic perspective once one goes deeply enough into the underlying stances and concerns.

        The elements of pragmatic thinking that you list are among those that arise from one of three possible responses to the loss of foundations post-Kant: 1) Classic (denial that metaphysical truth can’t be established, with continued pursuit/use of Foundations to establish timeless knowledge); 2) Romantic (taking Kant’s conclusion as establishing the futility of pursuing knowledge, and so turning to appreciation of transient beauty in art and nature instead); and 3) Pragmatic (a third way that combines elements of the other two, with ongoing pursuit of valuable knowledge grounded in relative and evolving ‘post-foundational foundations’, striving for understanding based on our common experiences).

        In this light, one can see most contributions in the “systems project” of the last 250 years have had either explicit or implicit pragmatic elements (though some have emphasized the classic or the romantic as well).

        You once sought a meta-level bridge for spanning mutually irreducible systems methodologies in the work of Habermas. I think it was more the pragmatic aspects of Habermas’s work rather than his contributions per se that suggested it was appropriate for this role. I believe that understanding pragmatic thinking in its breadth and depth—beyond what is usually associated with that label—can achieve the pluralistic monist (or monistic pluralist) synthesis that you sought.

        • Thanks Janet. Excellent. I particularly like your classification of the 3 responses to the loss of foundations post-Kant. On the second of these you may be interested in this book which details the German romantic tradition stemming directly from Kant’s philosophy:

          Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self
          Book by Andrea Wulf

          I remain, I’m afraid, deeply sceptical of whether Miller’s and Troncale’s work can be seen as ‘pragmatist’.

  3. Dear Michael,
    Thank you for raising the fundamental issues of systems thinking. The answers to these questions will significantly strengthen the potential of modern systems thinking.
    Let me philosophize a little on this topic. Reading your post, I felt that you were unconsciously trying to adjust the meaning of philosophical categories to your understanding of systems thinking. For example, you agree with the statement that “There are no universal truths”, “The ‘multiverse’ which we inhabit allows multiple truths”.
    However, what is the truth? Truth is a designation of how it should be for everything that exists to exist in its past, present and future form. Simply put, Truth is the universal order. If the universe is one, then there must be a universal order for it to exist. For a multiverse to exist, there must also be the same universal order that all universes must fulfill. This order must permeate every universe for a multiverse to exist. We identify this universal order, as proposed by von Bertalanffy, describe it in mathematical language, as proposed by A. Bogdanov, and deprive the object of study of unnecessary complexity.
    However, if we allow philosophical categories to have hidden contradictions, we will be forced to refuse them to play the role of the context of cognition. In this case, pluralism will play the role of context. It must make use of the variety of insightful systemic perspectives to view the world in different ways, and employ their associated systems methodologies to learn which of these can bring about beneficial change in a particular context. In this case, the complexity of the object will increase infinitely.
    Many reputable scientists believe that modern systems thinking is experiencing significant difficulties. Maybe our discussion will help overcome them?

    • Vladimir, I find it hard to respond to this because the notion of truth as universal order seems to me to be a religious rather than philosophical concept.

      • Michael, thanks for the answer.
        I am afraid to make a mistake, but the concept of truth and universal order is more philosophical than religious. The concept of truth and universal order is well–founded within the framework of the philosophical trend – Neoplatonism (the antique philosopher Plotinus). It is enough to modernize the antique philosophical concept of Neoplatonism and form a modern philosophical concept of Unicentrism.

        Mokiy V.S, Lukyanova T.A. (2022). Prospects of integrating transdisciplinarity and systems thinking in the historical framework of various socio-cultural contexts. Transdisciplinary Journal of Engineering and Science, 13. pp. 143-158.
        Mokiy, V. S., & Lukyanova, T. A. (2022). Modern transdisciplinarity: Results of the development of the prime cause and initial ideas. Issues in Informing Science and Information Technology, 19, pp. 97-120.

        In any case, if a religious or philosophical concept is justified theoretically, conceptually, methodologically and technologically, then true pragmatism will come out of it. What do you think?

          • Michael, thanks for the answer.

            Gabriele Bammer is sure that you and I communicate on “different frequencies”. She’s probably right.

            But I think her blog is not an exhibition of interdisciplinary achievements of highly qualified specialists. The achievements of the authors of the posts have already been published in reputable scientific journals. This blog is unique in that each post of highly qualified specialists ends with discussion questions. The answers of other highly qualified specialists to these questions are not always interesting to the authors of posts. But these answers are interesting to other participants (readers) of this blog. These answers and/or discussions allow us to draw attention to the fundamental conceptual, methodological and technological elements that can be corrected or strengthened, made safer. This creates a unique experience of risk analysis of obvious interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary theories, methods and technologies.

            In our case, I draw attention to the fact that our planet, its nature and humanity exist in a single copy. Therefore, we have no right to experiment with the choice of concepts, methods and technologies for the practical conservation of nature and the harmonization of human society. Consequently, philosophy, the philosophy of pragmatism and pragmatism itself should not be based on progressive declarations. They should be based on an internally consistent system of strict concepts and definitions of the main philosophical categories. They should be based on strict concepts and definitions of categories of pragmatism, which are derived from concepts and definitions of philosophical categories. Such grounds make it possible to create a single context that will become the basis for conducting risk analysis from the use of philosophy and pragmatism in everyday affairs. Without announcing these grounds, the beautifully presented materials on pragmatism caused me more questions than delight.

            Therefore, I am not criticizing you, but I suggest that readers pay attention to these aspects.

  4. 1. Kant’s reverence for Newton’s Science is Epistemology (What can I KNOW?).
    “”pragmatic beliefs” in my actions” is Ethics (What should I DO?).
    How is it possible to mix “Criticism of Pure Reason” with “Criticism of Practical Reason” in one phrase?
    This can probably explain the confusion between epistemological problems, ethical problems and teleological problems.

    2. “There are no universal truths.”
    What are “Universal Truths”?
    Descartes, Bacon, Leibniz, Hume, Kant and many others were engaged in answering the question: How is Total Necessary Knowledge possible? According to Kant: how A Priori Synthetic Judgments are possible. For the mass reader – how are the Laws of Nature possible?
    What does “Universal truths” have to do with it?
    What does “Universal truths” have to do with scientific knowledge?
    A false statement of the problem leads to false conclusions!

    3. The nature of Scientific knowledge is different. The presence of Mathematical formulas or Probabilistic Statistics is a consequence of a Scientific Theory, not its cause or sign.
    Before applying mathematics, you need to create Objects of study, create principles of interaction between Objects, create a Common Environment in which Interactions and Objects occur.
    Only after that, a Subject appears to whom mathematical and statistical methods can be applied.
    Mathematics is the exact science of what does NOT exist in nature!

    Therefore, in sociological disciplines (such as Management), a natural scientific approach is quite applicable, which was very briefly formulated by A. Einstein!
    Based on my own experience, I can say that the result exceeded all expectations.

    • 1. Kant was indeed concerned with what we can know. And, he believed there were many areas in which we could not achieve certainty. Here, he thought we had to rely on ‘pragmatic beliefs’. It was this insight that the pragmatists took forward – how could we arrive at effective ‘habits of action’ that would help us decide what to do when natural science was unable to help.
      2. By ‘universal truths’ the pragmatists meant accurate representations of reality as implied by the ‘spectator theory of truth’.
      3. No problem with what you say here.
      4. Disagree here. In my view if you make social systems and management into ‘objects of study’ to which mathematics applies, you dangerously distort their character.

  5. I think what Mike is proposing, which I first read in his “rebooting the systems approach” article offers the potential of overcoming the academic warfare between the various systems approaches that has characterised the evolution of systems thinking and seriously undermined its potential usefulness, so I would urge those with a tendency to advocate only one or a limited number of approaches to see the wisdom that Mike offers, because the world desperately needs what Critical Systems Thinking can offer if it is focused on being both pluralistic and pragmatic.

    In saying this I admit to having a strong bias since I have worked with Mike to develop an online eight week online programme for a global audience, based on his book, “An Introductions to Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity.” We are just coming to the end of the delivery of it to a second cohort and we will start the third in September. The participants from many sectors and many parts of the world are benefiting greatly from it and the feedback has been superb. They include CEOs, strategists, project managers, policy makers, and consultants with an interest in change management. We cover all the major approaches and their strengths and weaknesses related to problem situations, and the programme includes live dialogues with practitioners so people see the practical relevance, not only the theory. Each week smaller reflection groups are then encouraged to explore the practical relevance further. APPLICATIONS ARE NOW BEING ACCEPTED FOR THE THIRD COHORT .

    • Thanks, Paul. It has always been the aim of Critical Systems Thinking’ to forge a stronger unity out of the diversity of the systems movement. However, to achieve this, it had to find a unifying philosophy acceptable to the disparate strands. I believe that pragmatism is such a philosophy. It builds on the thinking of the founding fathers of systems thinking and can facilitate communication between and guide the mutual endeavours of:
      – Advocates of the different Western systems approaches;
      – The Western, Eastern, Indigenous, etc. systems traditions;
      – Systems thinkers and those of a pragmatist orientation in philosophy, science, and social science.

      I certainly hope people interested will join us on the third cohort of ‘Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity’ programme starting this September.

  6. Thank you for this informative and inspirational piece about pragmatism and critical systems thinking, which to me represents a much-needed model of what ‘ought’ to be happening in terms of thinking, acting and learning in the real connected-world. I was particularly taken with your frequent references to ‘truth’, which in turn brought to mind ‘speaking truth to power’…

    The ingrained habits of culture, however, can act as something of a constraint to adopting such a powerful approach in the first place, and views about ‘improvement in the world’ or ‘beneficial change’ travel in many directions at different speeds in different places. I agree it is crucially important to supplement a focus on efficiency and efficacy with effectiveness, mutual understanding, resilience, antifragility, empowerment, emancipation and sustainability. It does not seem sensible to single one of these out: they all merit attention concurrently. Could this list somehow represent a cohesive set of core values (‘true needs’) for the current generation of transdisciplinary, ethical research?

    • Thanks, Cathy. I think it is a tribute to systems thinking that it has been able to produce methodologies orientated to that set of human endeavours and values.

  7. Excellent write-up that is in my experience, helpful to those looking to learn from and use systems thinking. Pragmatism reminds us that the only reason that theory exists, with regard to a discipline like systems thinking, is in its ability to become useful. If we accept this, then we might see that much of what others are doing may already be part of systems thinking, regardless of the fact that they might not have a body of theory behind them. I am thinking of work by people like Tyson Yunkaporta as an example.
    Having said that, I hope that pragmatism itself does not become a theoretic subject of study, but is actually the real link to practice.

    • Thanks, John. Yes, I think pragmatism enables us to find commonalities across a wide range of systems traditions – Western, Eastern and Indigenous.

  8. Thank you so much for this contribution. As an apprentice of system thinking and a pragmatic person it was very comforting to read how they can work in the same direction and be complementary. I agree 100% with the arguments and I also have a lot of hope in this combination.

  9. I share the same viewpoint about pragmatism and systems thinking that Mike has described. My path to get there might be of interest. My original concern was to get a better handle on this question: How do we know what we think we know? My reading in philosophy did not help much. However, I encountered a fascinating book, The Morning Notes of Adelbert Ames, Jr by Hadley Cantril. A considerable portion of the book is devoted to correspondence between the pragmatic philosopher John Dewey and the visual experimenter Ames. In one of the letters Dewey wrote: “I think your work is by far the most important work done in the psychological-philosophical field during this century.” Ames developed a series of visual demonstrations (e.g., The Ames Distorted Room) that shed light on the fundamental process of how we perceive the world out there. That is, we participate in perceiving what is out there via strongly held assumptions based on our past experiences. Hence, the need for diversity in our experiences and implementation of alternative points of view. Dewey emphasized how researchers participate in subtle ways doing scientific research that easily appears to be “objective.” I wrote about Ames and Dewey in a 1991 Journal of Socio-Economics article “A Transactional Approach to Economic Research,” Bartley J. Madden available at my website

  10. The Design approach to complexity is exactly this. Design (as a discipline and as a practice) is founded on Deweyian pragmatism, and takes this lens to addressing complexity (‘wicked’ design problems).

    • I’m not familiar with all the work of the ‘design community’ although I don’t think it universally embraces systems thinking and pragmatism. The design and systems communities should be more in touch. If that can be achieved through a joint commitment to pragmatism then that is great.

      • I accept your point that it is not universal. I think it follows a divide of two lines of development.

        There has been a long history of Design Research associated with Design practice and a discipline of academic design that evolved from this (authors such as Cross, Lawson etc). This branch has an extensive body of knowledge, research and evidence based on observational studies of ‘designer at work’ in many different fields.
        There has also been a far more recent and superficial branch that coined the term design thinking. It was backed by some high level articles (eg Tim Brown Harvard business review) with a whole bunch of ideas but few empirical studies and not related to the deeper body of work from Cross, Lawson etc. This gained popularity in business and management schools but remains quite superficial as a body knowledge. It largely confines design to an intro-mental innovation exercise, an exercise on paper, on sticky notes and on whiteboards, that is perhaps easier to report than more traditional design but less rooted in pragmatism and delivers less practical outputs – outputs often remain at the ‘idea’ level, perhaps extending to a paper based ‘plan’.

        It’s easy for outsiders to conflate these two branches.
        But the branch based on design practice is based on pragmatism. Inherently even if unknowingly by many designers.
        Because it is always about exploring new ideas as a way of solving problems, and bringing together multiple strands of theory and evidence to create an optimal (not ideal) solution.
        It combines theories and evidence about costs, production, life cycles, sustainability, materials, ownership, emotional attachment, behaviour, inclusion, wellbeing, personalisation…

        Alongside engineering disciplines, design is a translational discipline. Its whole purpose is to make real world change and improvement. Arguably it makes more direct and obvious changes in ways that many other disciplines do not. And each change embodies multiple theories (pluralism).
        In the ways I have described above design uses there various theories to change the world but is judged by the consequences (people buy products or use services and so make judgements about the consequences).
        And it accepts there are multiple truths. The challenge of attempting to meet multiple truths with a few service or product variants as possible, is an eternal challenge for all designers.
        Design generally sits in a intrepretivist-constructionist view point and (in my domain of practice which is health/wellbeing) often is at odds with the predominant (positivist) scientific view point.

      • And following on from this Design comment. Ackoff was an architect, and his Idealised Design is a design based method. Churchman appeared to certainly be pragmatic and his SSM is a design method, no?
        And of course, we cannot forget Bela Banathy, who wrote about designing social systems, and is one of the foundations of the Double Diamond and Systemic Design (the combination of systems thinking and design).
        So, in my understanding, there is a significant overlap between systems thinking and design. But I do take the point that in each discipline, there appears to be a focus on their own areas. However, each of the people named above appear to be pragmatic.


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