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Syllabus for

Academic year
ARK176 - Design systems
Syllabus adopted 2015-02-10 by Head of Programme (or corresponding)
Owner: MPDSD
7,5 Credits
Grading: TH - Five, Four, Three, Not passed
Education cycle: Second-cycle
Major subject: Architecture
Department: 55 - ARCHITECTURE

Teaching language: English
Open for exchange students

Course module   Credit distribution   Examination dates
Sp1 Sp2 Sp3 Sp4 Summer course No Sp
0108 Written and oral assignments 7,5 c Grading: TH   7,5 c    

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Bitr professor  Jaan-Henrik Kain


ARK175   Systemic design

  Go to Course Homepage


In order to be eligible for a second cycle course the applicant needs to fulfil the general and specific entry requirements of the programme that owns the course. (If the second cycle course is owned by a first cycle programme, second cycle entry requirements apply.)
Exemption from the eligibility requirement: Applicants enrolled in a programme at Chalmers where the course is included in the study programme are exempted from fulfilling these requirements.

Course specific prerequisites

Qualification for the master programme or Civil and Environmental Engineering or a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Design Engineering or Design, or Human Geography with a profile in planning.


When working with sustainable urban development, sustainable building or
sustainable design you need to integrate a variety of parameters into a whole
design. However, the content, functions and interdependencies of urban
landscapes, built environments and artifacts, regardless of size, are becoming
increasingly complex and difficult to grasp. They can be seen as a mix of
hardware (physical stuff), software (control and information flows), orgware
(rules and administration), finware (costs and financing), ecoware
(environmental concerns), shareware (commons, collaboration and generosity) and
other wares not to forget form, attitude, sense of place, space, etc.

Though systems thinking could be argued to be an inherent part of
sustainable design, it is rarely pulled to the forefront and used as a specific
tool in the design process. It could be useful to examine and improve this
skill and explore the tools that can help us manage and deal with the complexity
inherent in the design challenges before us. This type of investigation into
systems thinking, mapping and analysis in relationship to the design process is
an emerging practice and field of research around the world, the course will
therefore take an explorative approach into the world of systems thinking. Its
ultimate aim is to uncover, investigate, discuss and develop the role of
systems in design and vice versa. The course will provide opportunities to
explore systems and their ability to expose our thinking process, build
understanding, support dialogue, as well as uncover, understand, explore and
explain the interdependencies of different aspects of a program, situation or
design solution. As a natural extension within this work we will also look into
nature's systems through biomimicry and ecosystem services.

Learning outcomes (after completion of the course the student should be able to)

1) Explain systems thinking and its relevance for design, architecture and planning.

2) Understand some of the systems thinking approaches that are relevant for design, architecture or planning tasks.

3) Structure, challenge and expose knowledge (or lack thereof) about the interdependencies of a design problem through systems thinking.

4) Tentatively analyze and synthesize complex knowledge by employing systems thinking, i.e., by combining and integrating different systems approaches to identify leverage points for positive change.

5) Reformulate such analysis and synthesis into design criteria and conceptual design proposals using systems thinking as the language of communication and justification.




- Theory and methods in the field of systems thinking are presented in lectures, films and literature, as well as through workshops.

 - The compulsory literature is discussed at a seminar.

- There are three course assignments where the content of lectures, literature and workshops are explored in relationship to design.

- Throughout the course the students are required to write reflections (Assignment 4) on what they encounter in the course and then summarize these thoughts into a 3 - 4 page essay discussing the use of systems thinking in the design process.


    Three interlinked assignments are running through the whole course, where a small but complex design task is dealt with by applying systems thinking in description, analysis and synthesis. The assignments are carried out in small groups (3-4 students). A fourth assignement focuses on literature studies and individual reflection. The course is divided into four parts:

    Part one The Site consists of introductory lectures, films, and workshops. All of this is feeding into Assignment 1 which is carried out as group work. Here, you will carry out a brief research in different ways of dealing with systems and apply the acquired knowledge in a site analysis.

    Part two The Basics consists of lectures and workshops. Assignment 2 will focus on two specific approaches to systems thinking and the basic terminology and the elements of different system types: Giga Mapping and Systems Dynamics. You will start exploring how systems thinking can be useful in analysis and pre-design work with a focus on structuring information, knowledge and relationships through system diagrams and illustrations. You will be presented with a small but complex design task and use the two approaches to describe and analyze the present situation as well as an outline of one or more possible future situations.

    Part three Design Systems shifts towards dealing with complexity, wicked problems and uncertainty in design work. Also here, you will have lectures and workshops, for example focusing on interdependencies, scenarios, leverage points, biomimicry, design criteria and resilience. All this + the skills acquired in part one will inform Assignment 3 which is also carried out as group work. You will continue to work on the design task started in part one but in here, the focus is on identifying the points of opportunities for intervention in complex systems; the so called leverage points, where design efforts can be the most effective to attain desired outcomes. The task is then to define the design criteria or design strategies necessary for turning these leverage points into effective reality. The result will be a conceptual design proposal an outline of some type of built environment or intervention, but keeping the focus on representing how it can work in an optimal way as a complex design system.

    Part four Literature Seminar and Individual Reflection, where the reflection  Assignment 4 is done individually but supported by the literature, the literature seminar and a group discussion. You are encouraged and given time to begin work on the essay from the very beginning of the course.The reflection should discuss the challenges of systems thinking, its relationship to design and your experience and personal thoughts on these.




    The compulsory literature will be discussed in a literature seminar.


    To pass the course and receive a passing grade:


    • 80% attendance at lectures, workshops, and films. However, the literature seminar and presentations/cross-crits are an exception to this and must be compensated if missed.
    • Active participation in workshops, literature seminar and group work
    • Course assignments that fulfil the course objectives and presentation requirements
    • Submit all assignments required by the course. Any assignments turned in after the due date will not be able to receive a grade higher than 3 (few exceptions will be made to this rule, however do contact us in case of extreme situations that may warrant one). Criteria for grading (3, 4 or 5) are found in the Assessment and Grading document.

    Examiner: Jaan-Henrik Kain, 0730 - 38 70 60,

    Page manager Published: Thu 03 Nov 2022.