The sweet spot of systems and design thinking

26 July 2023 | Story Kamva Somdyala. Photos Je’nine May. Read time 4 min.
Richard Perez (front) and Fergus Turner present a masterclass on unscrambling complexity by deploying systems and design thinking.
Richard Perez (front) and Fergus Turner present a masterclass on unscrambling complexity by deploying systems and design thinking.

Approaching complex situations with equanimity and strategies for deploying systems and design thinking were the key takeaways from the masterclass presented by the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Richard Perez and Fergus Turner at the inaugural Africa Impact Summit on 13 and 14 July.

Perez is the director of the Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking (d-school) Afrika at UCT; while Turner is a senior project manager at the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the UCT Graduate School of Business.

The two collaborated on a practical presentation titled “Systems and design thinking for finance practitioners” on day one of the summit themed “Unleashing African Potential through Impact Investing”.

“We all have experiences of complexity … a lot of the work you’re involved in has a lot of complexity. Most of the work involves human beings and communities mixed in with technology. So, you have hard systems and soft systems you’re balancing,” Perez said.

Embrace complexity

Perez told the audience at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) that it is in that addled moment that “you start to find tools such as systems and design thinking, which help us navigate that complexity … and break it down to a point where you can work with it and move forward”.


“The idea behind the principles and attitudes of a systems/design thinker is to embrace complexity.”

He continued: “Things can tend to be completely out of your control … it’s about being comfortable with the messiness of the situation you are in and also knowing that you are not going to be able to control it fully.

“It’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’, and that’s where design thinking comes in: a solution emerges over time as you run experiments.”

Turner added: “The idea behind the principles and attitudes of a systems/design thinker is to embrace complexity rather than to dismiss, avoid, evade or control complex systems where we find ourselves.

“The systems thinker is interested in interconnectedness, synthesis and emergence rather than siloing, analysis and reductionism of complex socio-economic phenomena.”

The groups had to put the lessons into practice.

It’s as personal, said Turner, as it is organisational. “It’s as connected to one’s day-to-day behaviour as it is to how one shows up to work and underpinning this is humility with how we define, model for, and decide to intervene in what are usually complex socio-economic environments.”

Theory into practice

Part of the workshop included group exercises to put the theory into practice. Perez and Turner facilitated the groups through several key tools and frameworks of systemic design thinking – an approach that embodies both the principles of systems thinking and design thinking – as they unscrambled a complex problem statement of their choosing.

“There are a lot of visual tools and mapping models that the systems thinker might deploy in order to both make sense of the complexity of the challenges we face and also to communicate more effectively,” Turner noted.

Perez agreed. “The fundamental part of the journey is spending more time exploring the problem space. What we find is we quickly jump to solution mode. Research shows that the longer you hold that problem space, the clearer it will become, and solutions will emerge over time. Trust the process.

“There is structure in that thinking. A number of mindsets sit behind this level of thinking, namely, being comfortable navigating uncertainty; framing and reframing; reflection; [being] mindful of the process; living the behaviour; [being] driven to make a difference; being human-centre and embracing diversity.

“This should be how you approach the problem.”

If you are interested to hear or learn more about Systemic Design, please reach out to Fergus Turner or Richard Perez or visit the Hasso Plattner’s d-school Afrika website for updates on courses and events.

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