Systemic Design Toolkit

The Design Council in the UK has built on its Double Diamond framework to take design thinking another step forward. The Double Diamond is about divergent and convergent thinking. The Toolkit adds “invisible activities” such as connections, relationships and storytelling. The Systemic Design Toolkit is a methodology for dealing with complex challenges. Although this toolkit and framework are about addressing the climate emergency, the elements, processes, and actions are applicable to any design issue.

Image shows the Double Diamond graphic surrounded by the Toolkit concepts.

The key is the “invisible activities”. Connections, relationships and storytelling are fundamental to co-design and co-creation processes.

The toolkit is set of tools that help designers think more systematically. Therefore, it is not a detailed manual of design basics such as user research and prototyping. And it is not a set of tools tailored to a specific design discipline. It draws on research with designers working in different disciplines.

Systemic change requires a thoughtful design process across government, business and other influential organisations. Systemic change is about tackling the structures and beliefs that underpin the challenge. With so many complex challenges facing all of us, we need to start thinking in different ways. That’s why the Design Council have created the systemic design framework.

Being inclusive and welcoming difference is about creating safe shared spaces. It’s also about having a language to welcome multiple and marginalised perspectives. This creates better outcomes. Image: the characteristics of changemakers from the Design Council.

A red background for four graphics representing: Connector and Convenor, Leader and Storyteller, Designer and Maker, and System Thinker. These are the characteristics of Changemakers.

The introductory webpage has a video that nicely explains the basics and the thinking behind the toolkit and the different elements. As with all Design Council resources, it is carefully designed and presented. There are other supporting resources to go with the toolkit.

Crisis planning by co-design

Floods and fires are a regular occurrence in Australia. However, they are happening more frequently and with more intensity. While there are standards for building evacuations and fire risk management, these were developed without thought for all citizens. And when people need to evacuate to a communal place of safety, there is no guarantee it will be accessible. Crisis planning requires input from all stakeholders and that includes community members.

Researchers in Sweden ran a workshop with stakeholders on crisis planning. One idea was to have practise events so that community members know where to go and what to do.

Fire fighters dressed in protective gear with oxygen tanks run towards the smoke.

Fire drills are commonplace in office blocks and institutions for both the occupants and emergency service personnel. Perhaps community members need these type of events to familiarise themselves with evacuation procedures and safe places.

Distributing information or brochures to households is not enough. People need to physically go through the process of getting to important places. They also need to check out places like shelters to ensure they are appropriate for their needs. People also need to know how to handle equipment they wouldn’t normally use. Also, information via the written word assumes everyone can read and comprehend the information.

A co-design, participatory process

The workshop generated collaboration in addressing the crisis scenario presented to the participants. The lived experience of people with disability was a good learning experience for disaster management staff. Maintaining a home preparedness kit is challenging for some people when some medicines are restricted. That means you can’t order in advance to keep a ‘spare’ set.

Although staff had worked previously with organisations to produce written materials, they could see that some people fall between the cracks. People who get by reasonably well and not connected to community services could be missed. Although they are managing with day to day activities they may need support in a crisis.

In summary, the co-design methods allowed for more nuanced information to emerge. Evacuation and rescue solutions are context dependent because each locality is different.

The title of the article is, Enhancing Inclusive Crisis Planning: Insights from a Disability-Inclusive Scenario Workshop. It’s open access so you can download the PDF.


In response to escalating disasters, inclusive crisis planning is crucial. This study examines a specialised workshop that engaged people with disabilities in crisis planning, focusing on a simulated flood scenario.

Stakeholders from disability organizations and the local municipality collaborated, including eight crisis communicators and thirteen individuals with disabilities. The workshop facilitated knowledge exchange and surfaced disability-specific issues.

While successful in raising awareness, challenges arose in relaying detailed perspectives, emphasizing the need for nuanced communication. Locally relevant scenarios strengthened the workshop’s impact.

The findings stress the importance of early involvement of individuals with disabilities in crisis planning and offer insights for researchers and policymakers. This research contributes to enhancing inclusivity in crisis planning and informs future disaster risk reduction.

Vulnerable citizens in floods and fires

While there are standards for building evacuations and fire risk management, these were developed without thought for vulnerable citizens. And when people need to evacuate to a communal place of safety, there is no guarantee it will be accessible.

Residents of the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales are not new to flood events. But the floods are getting worse. A major flood event occurred previously in 2017 and four researchers decided to explore the experiences of people with disability.

They found people with disability and carers are more likely than others to be affected and displaced. Their needs are more immediate and urgent than most, and their mental health is more likely to be compromised.

Road Closed signs and a barrier of a road that reaches down to a river in flood.

Their findings show the profound impact and systematic neglect experienced by people with disability and their carers. A longer term recovery period is required for people with disability with tailored supports. Consequently, people with disability should be included in flood preparations and recovery efforts.

The title of the article is, Exposure to risk and experiences of river flooding for people with disability and carers in rural Australia: a cross sectional survey. It’s not a very accessible document as the format is in two columns.

Fire safety

The NDIS aims to support people to live independently in a home designed around their disability. This usually means a step free entry and modified bathroom designs. However, little, if any, thought is given to the design of fire safety and safe evacuation in an emergency.

“Fire safety systems must be considered as a total package of risk management, equipment, maintenance, training and fire and evacuation drills. …Where disabled or immobile persons are concerned, the importance of the total package cannot be underestimated.”

house fire photo taken at night time.

Some NDIS participants will need extra support to prepare for and react in an emergency. Hank Van Ravenstein outlines the role of the NDIS in his paper, Fire Safety and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The first part relates the history of the NDIS followed by technical considerations for safety. He argues that the National Construction Code regulations don’t fully address or reflect the needs and risk behaviours of NDIS participants.

If we are to take a universal design approach, if the fire safety regulations aren’t sufficient for people with disability, are they sufficient for everyone?

Bushfire safety

As cities grow and become more compact, some citizens feel the need to “go bush”. This usually means finding a forest haven amongst the trees away from urban living. Then there are those who have always lived in the bush and wouldn’t live anywhere else. But bush living is risky and can be costly in terms of lives and property. It is particularly risky for people with disability and consequently, a different risk assessment process is needed.

Despite fire and rescue authorities encouraging people to prepare for bushfires (and floods), many leave it too late. Some are unable to understand the instructions, or unable to carry them out. A paper by Bennett and Van Ravenstein spells out all the technicalities of fire prevention and control.

A nighttime view of a major bushfire. The bright orange and red glow of the fire is reaching into the tops of the trees.

They argue for a risk assessment approach to existing and proposed buildings for vulnerable persons. The aim of their method is to provide a consistent basis for assessment. The title of their paper is Fire Safety Management of Vulnerable Persons in Bushfire Prone areas.

There is an related paper on vertical evacuation of vulnerable persons in buildings.

Doughnut economics and co-design

The problem with economic models is that they count the things you can count and leave out things you can’t. And sometimes that’s what can happen with co-design methods – doing what you know and not what is possible. A group of researchers adapted the Doughnut Economics model to create the Futures Doughnut tool for co-design for complex settings.

Doughnut economics seeks to address inequities, poverty, and standard of living. It’s about meeting the needs of humans and the planet. A group of researchers have adapted this economic thinking in the context of co-design.

Screenshot from the article showing a circle divided into sections overlaid with bright pink post it notes with writing on them.

Using a participatory design process, 115 stakeholders explored the model to navigate socio-ethical challenges. The process fostered constructive dialogue, and explored values and boundaries. This is a good process for working in complex institutional systems where stakeholders have diverse perspectives and priorities.

The title of the paper is, Baking an Institutional Doughnut: A systemic design journey for diverse stakeholder engagement. While the context of the paper is a university setting, it sets a good example for other situations with the Futures Doughnut Tool.

Limits of co-design activities

Co-design activities are good for advocating for and helping to generate creativity. However, they are insufficient for complex systems design where continuity of consultation goes beyond design ideation.

Co-creation methods are difficult to compare by definition because they are context dependent. An adaptive and staged systemic design process requires significant time and buy-in from stakeholders. Without this commitment there is a risk of misunderstandings and therefore consensus on decisions.

Co-design is good for finding common ground with diverse vocabularies, disciplines and lived experience. However, it also needs the right tools and methods and the Futures Doughnut was developed with this in mind.

From the abstract

Doughnut Economics offers a compass for navigating the complexities of creating a safe and just space where humanity can flourish while respecting ecological boundaries. This pictorial reports on how the Doughnut Economics model can be applied as a tool for facilitating complex stakeholder engagement.

We present a visual framework and facilitation method for systemic and values-led thinking. The context is establishing a new interdisciplinary academic institution.

Using a participatory design process, 115 stakeholders from academic, research, and administrative backgrounds explored this model. The aim was to co-create an institutional compass to navigate the socio-ethical challenges of their professional practices.

Co-creating urban development

The concept of universal design has evolved over the last 50 years, and so it should as we learn more about how to be inclusive. However, many authors continue to base their writings on outdated notions of universal design. So it’s refreshing to find an article on co-creating urban development that advances our thinking about the concept.

Nordic countries embraced a universal design policy for urban development at the turn of the century and continue to learn from their experiences. Universal design thinking has evolved to using co-design and co-creation methods in design processes. This the point at which Emil Erdtman takes up the ideas and develops them further.

Universal design is three things:

  • an ethical principle for inclusion of diversity
  • a vision of an inclusive society
  • a unifying approach to policy and perspectives
Drawings of 12 different people indicating population diversity.

In Sweden universal design is a guiding principle for policies, procurement and living environments. While it is applied in local projects, little is known about local practice. Hence Erdtman’s research. His explains the differences between consultation, partnership and co-creation in the graphic below.

A graphic showing three hexagonal shapes. One shows arrows going one way to represent consultation. One has arrows pointing outwards to represent partnership negotiations. One has arrows pointing to the centre depicting equal contribution of co-creation.

Consultation is a one-way facilitation process, partnership is a negotiating process between competing interests, and co-creation is equal contribution for innovation.

Erdtman describes the projects in his study and the methods he used which included conversations about participants’ understanding of universal design. The conversations allowed for critical discussions rather than “battles about words”.

Discussions about terminology are detrimental to the pursuit of inclusive practice so it was good to see the focus stayed on the concept itself. Nevertheless, universal design was only connected to impairment despite the intersectional nature of the concept. A focus on impairment hides a more general user perspective as social beings in urban life.

Co-creation at the local level

Erdtman found that universal design practice shows diversity and inspired new methods. However, changing municipal practice takes time. A concept like universal design does not replace routines of planning, negotiation and rational management.

Co-creative ways of collaborating is about integrating experiences from a diversity of people, not thinking in separate tracks. It’s about equal participation and responsibility. It is not about commenting on ready-made proposals or delivering experiences as information. Limiting accessibility as just for people with disability risks leaving out invisible needs of others.

Universal design must be contextualised

Universal design transcends conventional categories and fosters continuous improvement. It enriches urban development by integrating diverse user experiences. It must be continuously contextualised, and developed differently depending on the locality.

Universal design should inspire innovation beyond group interests, regulations and human categorisation. Otherwise it will be just another rationalistic planning model.

A large and diverse group of small plastic cartoon characters placed around a dark greet star shape.

The title of the article is, Co-creating urban development: local Swedish projects guided by Universal design. It was published in Design-for-All India. You can also download a copy in a font that is easier to read than the original.

From the abstract

This chapter contributes to knowledge about the understanding, implementation and co-creation of universal design. Interviews and group discussions were conducted and participant observation was made in three urban development projects.

The understanding of universal design was multifaceted. It is an ethical principle for inclusion of diversity, a vision of an inclusive society, and a unifying of policy and perspectives. Participants emphasised flexibility, predictability and personalised support. They linked universal design to accessibility as a separate and target group with a focus on regulatory compliance.

In the local context universal design practice will be expressed in diverse ways. Collaboration between municipalities and local disability organisations is formal and established. Different conditions and expectations created tensions about roles and interpretation of disability experience.

Disability experience is information for facilitating processes and for negotiation outcomes. However, there were conditions for co-creation.

Universal design, diversity and low hanging fruit

In the same publication there is another interesting article titled, Universal design, visualising diversity and two low hanging fruits. Here is the abstract.

To plan, design and build with diversity in mind is a complex process. While goals such as inclusion, participation and social sustainability may be present in the vision for a future product, service or environment, studies show that the initial vision isn’t always realized in the end result. There are still far too many products, services and environments that are hard to access or use for parts of the population. In this text we focus on comparatively simple, lightweight, tools – “low hanging fruits”.

Such tools are already available, there are personas, context cards, but also checklists and guidelines. Inspired by the existing work, we have developed one deck of cards, intended to serve as thought support by visualizing population diversity. In order to obtain a similar effect in digital environments (egin digital twins and other 3D environments used in planning and development) we have also developed 3D models (vehicles, devices and humans) that can be put in the digital environment, and serve as a reminder to the users of the digital environment of population diversity.

Young people and co-design

Two male adolescents sit on the kerb looking at the phones. Young people.The views and experiences of young people are often left on the sidelines. Yet they have most to lose or gain in the way society evolves.  So perhaps they should be the ones to craft strategies and approaches for creating the futures they want. Co-design methods are clearly the way to get young people participating in social change processes in their local area. 

A study focusing on young people creating social change using co-creation techniques provides some useful insights. The aim of the researcher’s exploratory framework was to capture the explicit and implicit aspirations of young individuals. This approach also serves to increase our understanding of how to engage with young people. 

The paper explains the methodology of ‘now-wow-how’ phases. This method was selected for accessibility and relevance in facilitating conversations with people unfamiliar with design skills. The co-design process used different tools at different stages. 

A section of the paper is devoted to a critical reflection on what could have worked better. For example the author feels the school-based venue potentially limited explorative inquiries. 

The study showed that exploratory co-creative sessions with young people can yield innovative insights to inform more direct change.  Such sessions require tools that resonate with young peoples’ experiences while also stimulating both critical and creative thinking.

This paper provides details of the project’s structure, methodologies, and outcomes. In so doing, it provides insights into the processes of co-creation within community development and the empowerment of youth.

The title of the article is Young 2.0: advancing an inclusive framework for co-creating futures with youth.

From the abstract

This study presents an inclusive research approach aimed at cultivating inclusivity and co-creating future living environments that resonate with young peoples’ needs and aspirations.

Through co-creative activities, the project captured insights into the lived experiences and future ambitions of young participants. The findings identify some of the entrenched norms and activities that spurred empathy and inclusive thinking through making and enactment.

The project contributes to the initiatives, strategies and methods for young people to shape the future of their hometown. The ‘Young 2.0’ project serves as a microcosm of the potential inherent in co-design to serve as a conduit for youth to express and enact their visions for a more inclusive society.


Design skills in healthcare

Does the design of medical products impact on the safety of patients and health practitioners? The answer in many cases will be, yes. For patients it affects everyday medical items like respiratory equipment. But the real issues are for health practitioners. That’s why we need design skills in healthcare. Authors of a recent paper discuss some of the issues. They note that when design unwittingly excludes whole groups of users it becomes bad design. Medical products and services designed to best fit a Caucasian male body type means a poor fit for others.  The authors provide an excellent example of where a design is potentially dangerous. “In one example, the only green button on a defibrillator switched the device off, whereas the only red button was for shocking. In simulated A wall mounted defibrillator in bright orange.emergency situations, it was no surprise that some participants pushed the green button and inadvertently switched the device off when intending to shock.”  Co-design is considered the appropriate approach in healthcare services, products and building design. It enables stakeholders in healthcare sciences and delivery to provide input at the early stages of design. Although co-design is accepted as a good idea, design skills are yet to be emphasised and captured in co-design processes.  The title of the paper is, Design as a quality improvement strategy: The case for design expertise

From the abstract

Bad design in safety-critical environments like healthcare can lead to users being frustrated, excluded or injured. In contrast, good design makes it easier to use a service correctly. Design impacts on both the safety and efficiency of healthcare delivery, as well as the experience of patients and staff. Co-design as an improvement strategy has gained traction in the healthcare quality improvement literature. However, the role of design expertise and professional design is much less explored. Good design does not happen by accident: it takes specific design expertise.  We define design, show why poor design can be disastrous and illustrate the benefits of good design. We argue for the recognition of distinctive design expertise and describe some of its characteristics. Finally, we discuss how design could be better promoted in healthcare improvement.

Residential spaces for healthcare

An Introduction to Inclusive Healthcare Design By Kiwana T. McClungAn Introduction to Inclusive Healthcare Design is a book with more articles on healthcare design. It includes the built environment, allied health, social care, and urban studies.  One chapter, The Design of Residential Spaces for Healthcare, looks at homes and residential spaces for delivering healthcare. 

Stroke Toolkit co-designed

The Canadian Stroke Toolkit for Aquatic Rehabilitation and Recreation Therapy (STARRT) was devised using a co-design method. The STARRT website has a section on the process as well as using the toolkit. Briefly, the method has four parts:

    1. Scoping review focused on the implementation of the therapy
    2. Qualitative interviews with participants post-stroke and professionals
    3. Participatory design with design team and consumers for the toolkit
    4. Prototyping and dissemination of the toolkit.

Disability messaging guide

The Commons Social Change Library has a new guide for disability messaging. The guide has tips based on research which shows effective ways of building public support. The document was led by a steering committee of people with disability and messaging experts.

The guide is supported by Disability Action Network Australia (DANA), Centre for Australian Progress and Common Cause Australia. Access via The Commons Social Change Library or download in PDF.

Website banner for the disability messaging guide. Dark blue background with white text surrounded by a narrow yellow border.

Key content

The guide begins with a note about language and why they prefer the term “disabled people”. The introduction covers the messaging principles such as the audience and speaking from the frame of experience. The overarching themes for talking about disability are self-determination and diversity. This is followed by the 7 top tips.

  1. Story structure
  2. Design Frame
  3. Strengths language
  4. Our story, not theirs
  5. Bring NDIS back to values and benefits
  6. Build empathy with human stories
  7. Show change is possible
People on a fun run with two older adults being pushed in wheelchairs.

The guide has good examples to explain concepts and how to change old messages into ones that are more attuned to self determination. One example is to talk about being “led by disabled people” rather than “a seat at the table”. The reasoning is to replace inclusion and tokenism with self determination.

Another example is making passive sentences active. Rather than talk about how disabled people experience discrimination, say who is discriminating. And people like to be presented with solutions rather than problems so focus on these. 

The title is By Us, For Us: Disability Messaging Guide.

Co-design in research: shifting the power

People with disability are often left out at the beginning of the research process when organisations want research done quickly. This reduces the level of power they have as members of the research team. For co-design in research to be effective, people with disability must be in decision-making positions before research proposals are developed.

People with disability are expected to be involved as researchers and decision-makers in research projects. But co-design methods require respect for the process from the outset.

A man in a blue check shirt is sitting in front of a laptop on a desk and is writing with his left hand in a notebook.

Researchers have to navigate tensions inherent within research institutions when involving people with disability from the beginning of the process. Improving the quality of the research is one of the aims of co-designing with people with disability. It also gives an opportunity to employ people who might not otherwise find a job.

A research team led by Flinders University use a case study to show how to engage with prospective co-designers. They looked at the different factors or conditions that enable or constrain co-design work, and how they relate to each other. The funding of commissioned work has an effect on the internal dynamics and relations within the team. They also found that authority and power can shift and change depending on how these components interact.

Clearly there is more to simply gathering a group of people with disability within a research team and thinking co-design will just happen. Factors such as institutional requirements, and authoritarian hierarchies can have a significant impact on co-design processes.

The title of the article is, Shifting power to people with disability in co-designed research.

People with and without disability need to work together to resist when co-design work is not treated with respect by people or systems.

Two pairs of women sit at a table with paper and pens. One of the pair looks to be explaining something to the other.

From the abstract

This paper explores tensions navigated by researchers and project leaders when involving people with disability as experts in co-design and in the core team. Part of an evaluation aiming to improve paid employment of people with intellectual disability is used to consider this work.

Structural conditions of funding and institutional support were foundational to the co-design. These included accessible practices, core roles for people with disability and resolving ableist conditions.

Power shifts were easily undermined by institutionalised norms that disrespected the co-design contributions. The value of co-designing research was centre to articulating key issues, methodology and analysis.

Co-designing social housing policy

Co-designing social housing policy is a relatively new concept in Australia, so it’s good to see tenants involved in policy development. New AHURI research tackles the issues amid the need for urgent reform of the housing sector. Tenant participation leads to benefits for all involved.

‘For policy co-design methods
to work well, there must be
respect and recognition of the
expertise of all participants
involved in the policy making

A new three storey housing development still has the chain link fencing around it. Social housing policy.

AHURI’s summary paper of the research acknowledges the role of champions within organisations who must lead the development of the design processes. Otherwise, they are not successful or sustainable. However, they require resources and support for these processes to succeed.

Attracting ‘representative’ tenants is difficult because those with the most complex challenges often cannot spare the time because they are in crisis. If participation programs are online or use written forms, only those who can read will be included.

What’s needed for successful co-design

Other important findings from the research include:

  1. A toolbox of participatory methods is needed for engagement across the diverse population who have varied needs for housing assistance.
An old wooden box with mental handles and clasp.

2. Recognition of expertise of frontline staff is an important but untapped source of potential policy expertise.

3. An ongoing commitment is necessary to resourcing, investing in, and training workforces, and building participant capability and supports for policy co-design. And an evaluation program to confirm what works well, under what conditions and for whom.

The title of the policy summary is, Including social housing tenant voice in policy leads to better outcomes.

The report’s executive summary, Social housing pathways by policy co-design: opportunities for tenant participation in system innovation in Australia has more. Or you can read the full report as well.

Transport infrastructure co-design toolkit

Public transport infrastructure in Queensland is undergoing significant design changes using co-design methods. The new Cross River Rail project embraced the concept of co-design to ensure new and upgraded infrastructure is fully accessible. The result is a transport infrastructure co-design toolkit as well as accessible trains and stations.

Co-design of large-scale public transport infrastructure spans several stages in the design process. Consequently, embedding a culture of co-design across the organisation is essential in the planning, development and implementation stages.

Image from the Toolkit

New train in a new tunnel with workers looking on. Cross River Rail Co-design toolkit.

The authority responsible for the project collaborated with the disability community and established strategic priorities to support ongoing infrastructure design.

Accessibility agenda

First there needs to be an accessibility agenda – finding out the diversity of accessibility challenges. That means establishing ways of working with the disability sector to drive decision making. However, there is a risk that some of these priorities disappear in pre-project activities such as feasibility studies and technical requirements. Some decisions made at these stages cannot be changed as they lock in key aspects of the design.

A culture of accessibility

An organisation-wide culture of accessibility is essential for the success of projects. Without this culture change the potential for “gaps” in the travel chain will arise for travellers. Sharing information across the different transport organisations and contractors and consultants is a must. By consolidating the knowledge base across the sector, it eventually gets easier to create inclusive public transport projects.

The title of the Toolkit is, Embedding Accessibility Co-design into the Delivery of Public Transport Infrastructure. The document is the result of research collaboration between the Hopkins Centre and the Cross River Rail Delivery Authority. The outcome has established a clear set of priorities for continued support of changes including those already underway. They key element is co-design with the disability community.

Toolkit contents

There are three parts to the document: Context and background, Outline of the co-design process, and Facilitating the co-design process. The appendices have extra detail and additional resources.

The Appendix on co-design mindsets appears to follow the theory of the once popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Nevertheless it does indicate that different people think differently – a concept aligned with Universal Design for Learning. It means people should be given the opportunity to express their thoughts in different ways.

The video below gives an overview and showcases some of the innovations in design. For more about accessibility, visit the Cross River Rail website where there are more videos with transcripts.

Accessibility Toolbar