Systemic Design

System-wide action on complex challenges

We are experiencing a period of rapid societal and technological change. Concerns about climate, security, inequality, food scarcity, inherited institutions and the opportunities and threats of new technologies need to be reflected in the systems and institutions we live in. However, changes in attitudes and technology are often not reflected in our systems and institutions. Organizations can sincerely desire an inclusive culture yet systematically exclude many due to existing patterns and routines. Communities can seek renewal yet continue to support systems that make renewal near impossible. Many Canadians are committed to reconciliation with Canada's Indigenous people and yet various systems and institutions make that reconciliation seem far away.

Intervene serves as a creative partner and project backbone for organizations that want to see a shift in how a system operates and the outcomes that it generates.

This often involves drawing on other institutions and sectors, as most complex challenges extend outside of organizational boundaries and require coordinated approaches to generate meaningful change.

We design and deliver on project architecture and processes to improve outcomes and avoid old traps that make progress impossible.

Our team has worked on issues such as reconciliation, economic inequality, hope and hopelessness, decolonization, city-building, and supporting creative activity in rural communities.

Intervene offers better ways to talk about important issues and a model to begin the critical conversations and activities that will bring us together and move us forward. More than dialogue, we propose broad creative action that is democratic, inclusive, and celebratory. The key inflection points, once identified, are often surprising. We are not seeking massive shifts in how things work, but rather local behavioural change that can have a disproportionate impact on how the system operates.

As a society, we aren't putting enough time and attention on designing the moments when people come together. When we do connect on critical issues, it too often devolves into a yelling match where neither side hears what the other is trying to say. We rarely have positive experiences of difference. Building better relationships with those different than us takes time and empathy which is the exact opposite of what we have and what our current technologies encourage. We erect barriers to engagement that prevent us from understanding where people are coming from.

We resort to moral arguments to stress the need to act. Moral convictions are experienced as truth, rather than opinions. All positions are framed as “should” or “must”.  Research suggests that emphasizing the moral dimensions of an issue may encourage people to avoid solving problems. Many of these problems are ones that we can’t afford to avoid.

The Solution


Rushing into action may not serve to improve situations and in some cases, can exacerbate it. Intervene designs, develops, and deploys platforms to bring people together to facilitate better conversations, to collectively participate in a process of generating better solutions, and then capturing the stories that emerge to accelerate and extend future iterations. We can then start pointing to the systems and behaviours that fail to reflect the attitudes we hold.

Observation: Our process looks at discovery and action from the point of view of users, not the priorities of the system, institutions, or organizations invested in dialogue about particular issues. We observe people in context to understand their complex experiences, needs, and wishes, and then integrate and champion those needs through the design process.

Our process focuses on ensuring that we are solving the right problem as well as solving the problem right.

We employ a design-thinking approach, with a specific focus on service design. Design thinking is a mindset for approaching complex challenges and a process by which diverse stakeholders can work together more effectively in an act of creation. Dealing with intransigent social issues requires approaches that are human- and user-centered. However much reliance might be placed on individual ingenuity and initiative, there is now an even greater dependence on effective, multidisciplinary teams. Design-thinking provides the frame by which challenges can be shaped and activities organized to build and deploy resources for positive change.

Insights: Here we transform observations into actionable insights. These insights will relate to both points of leverage to effect change and possible interventions to shift how the system operates. Various criteria need to be considered as well as financial, sectorial, and partnership issues. Core stakeholders usually include sponsors, teams, and connected experts.

Design Interaction: The process of actively engaging broader systems begins here. This stage allows us to test assumptions, validate models, and create a case for additional investment. If the Observation and Insight phases are around framing the systems-level strategy, the Design Interaction phase ensures that the constituent parts are prepared to execute and that the hypotheses underpinning the work are valid. The outcome of this phase will be documentation of impacts, measurement of initial outcomes, and dissemination through selected channels.

Implementation: This phase moves from experimentation to execution. Scaling of implementation will require different structures and new resources. The early days will entail heightened risk, particularly when the intent is to generate new approaches to how public discourse is understood and occurs. This requires support from traditional leadership development activities, system-level influencers, mentors, and other assets aligned with protecting a space for innovation to flourish. The outcomes of this phase will be the economic health of the project and the payback on the investments to this point, both individually and cumulatively.


sample model of payback for strategic design

sample model of payback for strategic design

Complex issues rely on rethinking the problem and building new systems and relationships, in addition to improving existing ones. Outputs will include thought-through decisions that can inform public and private action.

The costs of misaligned systems are enormous but hard to quantify. Customized tools allow us to identify and assess impact across several relevant dimensions. Overall, we offer a scalable process for getting people engaged and a framework for developing strategies that can succeed. Vague or fuzzy advances won’t help make the case for change. To be convincing, performance improvements must be clear and concrete. Sponsors, participants and institutions need to see real evidence of the progress and the validity of the change effort.

Systemic design is about good design and good storytelling. Too many people are failing to engage in meaningful conversations about pressing issues and the lack of diverse perspectives leaves a public sphere that is starved for choice. Polarized positions don’t move us forward. We put the issue at the centre and bring the partners around them.

Payback includes:

  • A platform that generates meaningful impacts in shifting system operation;
  • Dialogue that informs strategies that are set up to succeed (bottom-up rather than top-down);
  • Increased capacity by participants and others to support future collaboration and change efforts;
  • Successes that are seen and adopted by others, creating broader changes in the system;
  • Broadcast of stories and successes to inspire further action.
Being a part of Hope Decoded was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to engage an exceptional group of high-level thinkers and leaders in questions about the relevance of the Arts and Culture sector to Canadian society and the space that Buddies in Bad Times occupies within our nation’s cultural ecology. The experience pushed me to think outside the box when tackling issues that cultural organizations face, to communicate my passion for the arts in a way that has broader impact, and to reframe the way that I see my role as a cultural leader in society. I have new ideas, new language, and an expanded network to further our organization’s mission and increase the effectiveness of our efforts at arts advocacy. I leave Banff inspired, re-energized, and hopeful for the future of Buddies and for arts and culture in our country.
— Brendan Healy, former Artistic Director – Buddies in Bad Times, Artistic Director – Magnetic North Theatre Festival