Systemic Design and the Limitations of Conscious Purpose

Activity: External talk or presentationOral presentation


During the late 1960s, cybernetician Gregory Bateson argued that conscious purpose, or at least the excessive focus on it within Western culture, is at the root of ecological crisis. Conscious purpose narrows attention to those parts of situations that are deemed relevant, cutting across the cybernetic loop structures of ecological relationships in so doing. Acting in terms of these limited selections potentially disrupts or distorts the wider systemic relationships in which these actions are embedded. Bateson’s attitude towards conscious purpose aligns, to some extent at least, with developments in design methods and systems thinking at around the same time, a period in which the limitations of expertise and rationality were becoming explicit. To what extent have Bateson’s concerns regarding conscious purpose already been addressed by subsequent developments in how design is understood and practiced? And in what ways does Bateson’s critique offer different challenges to, and possibilities for, contemporary practices and theories? While Bateson’s work is relevant to design in multiple ways, it can be difficult to draw on it directly. Bateson’s thinking spans multiple intellectual, practical, and historical contexts, making interpretation challenging. Compared to many other systems thinking approaches, Bateson’s work does not offer a repertoire of methods and tools that can be easily incorporated within design activity. Most especially, Bateson’s position implies caution over design activity itself, given the entanglements of design with conscious purpose. The development of systems thinking, and its integration with design practices in systemic design, has consolidated techniques for pushing out perceptions of system boundaries to include wider sets of possibilities and relationships. This approach is one way to resist the narrowing of attention in conscious purpose. But, at the same time, it would seem to extend and deepen the reach of conscious purpose itself. Bateson’s own response was somewhat different, advocating for aesthetic practices of various kinds that might mitigate conscious purpose by involving the whole mind, not just its conscious dimensions. In what ways might such an aesthetic approach be relevant to the context of systemic design?
Period9 Jun 202413 Jun 2024
Event titleThe 68th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences: Influence and Responsibility
Event typeConference
LocationWashington, United States, District of ColumbiaShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational