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Sheryl Cababa, “Designing For A More Equitable World with Systems Thinking”

By Sheryl Cababa

May 6, 2024

Sheryl Cababa with ID modules in lilac
View or Read the 2024 Lucas J. Daniel Lecture in Sustainable Systems

Sheryl Cababa, VP of Strategy at Substantial gave the sixth annual Lucas J. Daniel Lecture in Sustainable Systems on Thursday, April 11, at 6pm. Find the transcript and video of her talk below.

The 2024 Lucas J. Daniel Lecture in Sustainable Systems

Designing For A More Equitable World with Systems Thinking

I am Sheryl Cababa. My pronouns are she and her, and I am the author of Closing the Loop: Systems Thinking for Designers. And I’m going to talk to you a little bit today about the intersection of equity-centered design and systems thinking. And I’m honored to be part of this speaker series dedicated to Lucas Daniel, who I feel would love what I’m about to talk about today.

So Substantial is a design, research, and strategy consultancy based in Seattle. And when I’m not consulting, I’m also teaching. So I teach at the University of Washington’s human-centered Design and engineering program. Talking to students is close to my heart.

I just want to start off by saying I am someone whose career has been foundationally impacted by design thinking, and this is my own sort of rendition of the typical five-part design thinking process, which many of you are familiar with.

Design thinking is often represented in this way, popularized by IDEO and the Stanford d. School, or as the double diamond that’s been popularized by the UK Design Council. And I’m sure many of you have used it in your day-to-day work and are familiar with it and its process and philosophy, but there’s a lot of flaws to design thinking in the user-centric way in which it’s deployed.

Designing For A More Equitable World with Systems Thinking

Whether design thinking can have actual impact in today’s complex world is a real question, and some design practitioners have become disillusioned with approaches that emphasize products and profit over people. In this talk, Sheryl discusses how there is still a spark of value in some of the tenets of design thinking, but to make it really shine, and to design for a more just and equitable world, systems thinking needs to be at the center of the designer’s practice. Sheryl will share stories, approaches and methods that help designers kickstart or expand on their systems thinking practice and will consider the challenges and assumptions that designers have about systems thinking.

I really love this image from Erika Hall who many of you are also familiar with. She wrote Just Enough Research, kind of talking about the role of UX or experience design as it applies to the eventual impact that it’ll have. Often what that means is as designers, we tend to design for the direct benefit of use in the moment for an individual user. And when you just think about some of the digital solutions or experiences that we see every day, social media is a good example, where you have things like infinite scroll, the kinds of things that delight you in the moment or are nice for an individual user in the moment, but have broad ranging potentially negative impact. And part of that is because there is a disconnect between the broader imperative or the business models of these kinds of products and what designers are doing when they call it UX.

And so I think an antidote to this in many ways is systems thinking. Essentially it allows us to make connections that are not necessarily inherent to the traditional design thinking process. Thinking about systems forces us to consider beyond the direct benefit of use. This means going beyond individual users, their context and their use of products and services. And in order to be on the same page about what we mean when we talk about systems thinking, we need to have a shared definition of what a system is.

I’m sure many of you in this program are familiar with Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows, and the way she describes it is a system is more than the sum of its parts. It may exhibit adaptive dynamic goal-seeking, self-preserving, and sometimes evolutionary behavior. So it’s an interconnected set of elements that are coherently organized in order to achieve something.

And this makes them fairly dynamic, which I’ll talk about in a moment. And to simplify it, if you think about what you need to consider as a designer, I view systems thinking as there’s three concepts that you need to use to broaden your lens.

Inclusion is not the same as equity. In my practice we've tried to reduce the use of the word inclusion or inclusive design. Inclusion still centers those who hold power by centering the act of including.

One is interconnectedness. So just thinking about the ways things are connected maybe that are not immediately obvious or at the surface level causality. So that’s thinking not about what you just want to intend to happen, but what will happen as a result of that and what will happen as a result of that. So secondary and tertiary effects and then wholeness. So broadening your idea of what a system actually is.

And one metaphor that I really like when we think about the difference between sort of maybe traditional design and systems thinking is clouds and clocks. So in the seventies, the philosopher Karl Popper, he described two types of problems, clock problems, and cloud problems. When you think about clocks like a physical clock, there are clear elements that work together. You can take it apart and put it back together. You can isolate and reduce problems based on the components involved. Clouds on the other hand, are literally nebulous. They move and are dynamic, they’re complex systems that are interconnected. Anyone who’s seen the diagrams when you’re in primary school of how the rain system is connected—that’s clouds. And then they also adapt and change. And the thing is that in a lot of environments, designers might be working within engineering cultures and technology organizations have cultures that are based on engineering.

We take the same reductionist view that the things we’re working on are clocks. But I think when we think about increased scale complexity and interdependency, a lot of the things that we’re actually trying to solve for or a lot of the problem spaces are actually clouds. And if you kind of use that sort of mindset to expand your thinking, it also involves thinking about power structures and incentives.

Which leads me to the idea of taking an equity-centered approach in design. So there’s an intersection of these two things. The design practice and how our design processes and equity.

There’s a famous image that shows three children trying to look over a fence at a baseball game. Has anyone seen this? Yeah. And it’s supposed to describe equity where the shortest child is standing on a bunch of boxes in order to be able to see over the fence.

We try not to use the term end users. We think about system stakeholders or we think about lived experts.

There are a lot of problems with this image, but it’s not a terrible introduction to those who might be unfamiliar with the idea of equity versus equality because those boxes represent additional resources or actions that would allow somebody who has fewer resources to be able to have equal footing. So one way to describe equity is fairness across difference, as well as the elimination of race and socioeconomic status as predictors of success. And there are other marginalizing factors. Of course, when we’re thinking about the intersection of equity and design, you can think about designing for those with disabilities as well as other types of status that might create a less equal experience for people. I also want to emphasize that inclusion is not the same as equity. And in my practice we’ve tried to reduce the use of the word inclusion or inclusive design. And while equity expresses fairness across difference in some ways, it also means questioning the status quo when it comes to who holds power. And inclusion still centers those who hold power by centering the act of including. And so it’s a way to sort of push the dialogue a little bit further in terms of the design process itself. And who holds power is to think about am I engaging in just inclusion or am I actually engaging in equity?

That said, equity-centered design interrogates the problems of user-centered design by acknowledging the position of designer and striving for more equitable outcomes. It actually questions design. It just interrogates the role it plays in power structures and seeks to empower end users and end beneficiaries during the process of design and development. And within my practice, we also try not to use the term end users. We think about system stakeholders or we think about lived experts when we’re conducting participatory design or co-design, which I’ll also talk about a little bit.

I don’t know if any of you have seen this. It’s a power and positionality wheel. It shows one’s proximity to power using a sociocultural lens. And as you’re working on projects, this one is taken from the Canadian Council for Refugees. And I often do this exercise with teams that I’m working with. So the inner circle holds the most proximity to power while the outer circle was the least.

And there are many different formats of this depending on the sociocultural context that you’re coming from. This one is very North American for example. But this exercise is really good because you should be thinking about the most marginalized of your system stakeholders. So for example, I do a lot of work in education, so we have to think about those who are least served by today’s systems and where I’m from, that means children of immigrants, black and Latina, children and children experiencing poverty. Now think about where you sit on the wheel versus the most marginalized of those who are considered end users or end beneficiaries of your design solutions. And this is what it means to start noticing and reflecting on inequities in your work and among your stakeholders is really a question of who historically holds power versus those who don’t and trying to change and shift that in your work.


The future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed.
—William Gibson

So the National Equity Project created this liberatory design framework. And it’s interesting because in many ways it reiterates the design thinking process with a couple more steps that integrate participatory design. But at the center of it is—notice and reflect, because that’s the role of the designer—how do you recognize your own power and privilege and how it affects your design solution? And reflecting means reflecting and unpacking what you’ve done so that you can change it for next time.

So why do we want to take systems thinking and combine it with equity-centered design as opposed to just designing things the way that privileged people want them or the way that things make the most money? I’m sure many of you’re familiar with this quote from William Gibson: “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And I think in order to truly design for the future, we need to consider the long-term implications for everyone and not just the wealthy few.

Dystopian fiction is when you take things that happen in real life to marginalized populations and apply them to people with privilege.

The correction of current inequities requires systemic change. So it’s funny because I am also a parent, I have four kids, and when we talk about school, I often talk to them about sticking it to the man. So how do you stick it to the man in a way that is not necessarily just maintaining the status quo and doing what dominant culture wants, but that kind of aligns with creating a more equitable world? It’s fundamentally disrupting the status quo, not just working in service of it. So I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot in my work where I don’t know who to attribute this to, but it’s been kicking around Twitter for a few years. Dystopian fiction is when you take things that happen in real life to marginalized populations and apply them to people with privilege. I think about this at least once a week through my work, things that I’m reading.

I recently read Ada Ferrer’s Cuba: An American History, and there was kind of a fact in her writing that really resonated with me and made me think of this. She said in the 30 years after Columbus arrived in what is now Cuba, in 1492, 80 to 90 percent of the local Taíno population was dead. And it was from a variety of causes—new disease, famines, massacres. And it made me think, just think about if 80 percent of everyone around you were dying, that’s literally an apocalypse that is dystopia.

And the image here is from one of my favorite science fiction movies, Interstellar, where the dust storms on earth are making earth uninhabitable. But this is happening already. It’s just in places that where the privilege can view it as far away—the UN says it’s literally a crisis that’s happening right now.

This is known as a perverse incentive. And this is prevalent particularly in complex systems with strong power differentials between people in the system.

And I keep thinking, for example, about the moment we’re in when it comes to AI, AI can further drive existing inequalities or it can meaningfully close equality gaps.

And we as designers are in a position to help set the direction. Yeah, it is really crazy. Every time I go to a conference, education conference, it’s just like, oh, where are all the people at when it comes to the talks, it’s like any talk where somebody has AI in the title is where the people are going to be. And oftentimes they’re just talking about what are the possibilities of this technology and what are the amazing things it can do and not necessarily talking about or thinking about the limitations. And so I think leading with the limitations and thinking strategically about it is a role that designers can play.

Systems Thinking and Equity-Centered Design Principles

1. Make the invisible visible.

I have a few principles that we incorporate in my practice around systems thinking and equity-centered design.

The first is to make the invisible visible. I love this because Mara mentioned earlier to me that this is a tenant in how she teaches systems thinking. And so I was like, oh my gosh, that’s my first principle. Start trying to see systems. Oftentimes they exist in your day-to-day, and we don’t really recognize it. And one example that I use for folks who don’t totally understand what I’m talking about is there was this great story a couple of years ago in National Geographic that focused on the unequal distribution of trees in some cities. So for example, in LA you can have an area with almost no trees and then you’ll have another area that has lots of trees. And what’s interesting is that these images are from the same street. They just happen to be a few miles away from each other. And when there are heat waves, something that is increasing in today’s world, trees and neighborhoods can cool surface temperatures by up to 25 degrees Celsius. These neighborhoods also have very different demographics.

The first image is from Koreatown, which is mostly Latino and Asian population. And the image on the opposite side is of Los Feliz where it’s mostly a white population and areas with fewer trees also have lower property values. These disparate paths are formed by discriminatory attitudes—that some people are worth more than others. And then they also connect to structures, policies that reinforce and codify that racism and discrimination. So for example, one of the reasons that there are certain areas in LA that have fewer trees is because it makes those areas easier to surveil by helicopter. And so this is literally a policy connected to a discriminatory bias against a certain population. And this is all made visible by noticing that trees are in some places and not others. And it reminds you that all of these things are connected. So this is the state framework, and you can basically look at any problem space through this lens where you kind of think about what are the sociocultural implications, the technological, environmental, economic, and political implications.

The idealized future is a statement of the system planners and stakeholders would create if they were free to create any system they wanted.
—Mike Jackson

I work with a lot of technology organizations and I will tell you that they’re often not thinking in this way. And when you bring that to the table, it actually opens up the opportunities for different ways to solve problems and not just the ways they were initially thinking about.

So in addition, if you’re trying to make the invisible visible, you can figure out the root cause of why things are the way they are. So oftentimes when I’m working with organizations, I use the iceberg model because you can have an understanding of what the “events” are, which in the previous example it would be, Hey, I see trees in some neighborhoods and not others. And below that are the patterns and trends that cause those events below that as the structure or infrastructure that causes the patterns and trends. And then below that are the mental models that sort of have a relationship with everything above.

And doing this with folks who are oftentimes just thinking at the surface level about how to solve things. For example, when I’ve used that trees example with teams, sometimes they’ll just be like, well, why can’t they just plant more trees in those neighborhoods? That doesn’t account for all the things that sit below that. And this is not meant to be read, but you can use this method for all sorts of analysis to surface what lies beneath the surface when it comes to interconnection. So for example, I ran this exercise with an organization that was just thinking about the attrition within their company. And at the bottom they were really starting to get into the mental models of it all, such as this idea of ‘work is my family’ is shifting. I think at first they were just like, oh, people are leaving. They don’t like that they can’t work from home.

But as we did this analysis, it was easier for them to see where the true problems were as well as what are the things that are causing the problems that are immediately obvious to them.

2. Today's problems come from yesterday's solutions.

My second principle is: remember that today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions. This is actually a tenet from Peter Sege, The Fifth Discipline, which is a classic in organizational change management and systems thinking—outcomes of change can be both intended and unintended. So we need to work to define how one thing leads to another and where circularity exists.

One of my favorite examples is a historical example about perverse incentives. So in 1902, the French colonial Hanoi had a rat problem and part of it was because they decided to put sewers in sort of the wealthy French area so that there could be indoor plumbing. But of course the sewers were a heaven for rats in the tropical weather.

And so the colonial government created a plan to eradicate the rat population and their solution was to hire local Vietnamese residences rat hunters and pay them for each dead rat tail turned in. That worked for awhile, but then after a while the rat tails started increasing and they’re like, why are there more rats? They’re like, okay, well we’re going to increase the bounty, which is just a ridiculous thing to do. So they found out that people were cutting the rat tails off and just setting the rats free so that they could continue breeding. But then on top of that, people are actually creating rat farms outside of the city so that they could just continue to cut the tails off and bring them in. And it’s a story about how people can be incentivized in a way that towards the outcomes that you’re seeking.

This is known as a perverse incentive. And this is prevalent particularly in complex systems with strong power differentials between people in the system. So in addition to collecting the bounties, you can look at the rat farming and harvesting as a way for the local Vietnamese population under this terribly oppressive colonizer government as a way of sticking it to them. It was a way of sort of reinforcing their own power.

Now here’s a causal loop about that. So you have an increase in the rat population. So they increased the bounty per rat, which led to an increase in rat farming and then led to an increase in the rat population. So as you can see, it’s a vicious cycle you might say. And basically thinking about how the way we think we’re solving problems that leads to other problems is a good way to keep our collective arrogance in check and to put us in the mindset of creating opportunities and mitigate the new problems as well as innovate and potentially prevent them.

And again, we’re constantly thinking and talking about power structures and incentives. So this is a causal loop diagram that I worked on at one point, but I haven’t done a ton of these lately because one of the things that we do now is we do the analysis with our stakeholders.

3. Diversify power in your stakeholders.

And so we use more simplified ways of representing systems, which leads me to my last principle, which is diversifying power in your stakeholders. This starts with knowing who you are, your powers and your biases, and knowing that you’re not agnostic to the problem space. So we talk about this as your positionality as a designer, you’re not neutral. So acknowledging that as a start to diversifying perspectives in your work.

I once had this European collaborator and we were working together on a US-based education project, and his methods were based in design thinking. He said to me, you know what? I don’t really need to learn about the system that we’re in. I’m agnostic to it. I just use design thinking. I just come in and use design thinking. I was just like, that is so arrogant, just this idea that you can parachute in and design for some other community because you have this five-part process at your disposal. And yeah, I was like, that’s not going to work for me. So we were trying to educate him on equity-centered design. I think it was something that hadn’t occurred to him, that you could not just blow in and design for somebody else. And I think that’s what we mean by the participatory principle.

So Mike Jackson, who wrote “Toward a System of System Methodologies,” he describes this as the participative principle. And what he says is, if possible, all the stakeholders should participate in the various phases of the process.

The other thing about engaging what we might call end users or lived experts in the design process—the actual ideation and design process and not just collecting their data and stories—is that it's fun.

Stakeholders here include representatives of the purposeful parts of the system and the larger system. So this also means engaging stakeholders like lived experts in designing for the future. So he says again, the idealized future is a statement of the system planners and stakeholders would create if they were free to create any system they wanted. And I think this is an interesting principle because I think oftentimes designers say they’re engaging in design research or user research, but that’s oftentimes a really extractive position. You’re just taking people’s contexts and using your expertise to design. Whereas designing with community gets you very different results and very different understanding of the problem space, but also the ideas that come out of it could be very different.

Who here has worked on personas? Have you ever created personas? Yeah, so I think, I’m not going to speak for the entire design practice and say we shouldn’t be creating personas, but I found it really hard to create personas within my practice because they tend to flatten and make users less human, if that makes sense. So what we do instead is we do co-design research outputs like persona toolkits or component-based personas because we’re doing this work with lived experts and we call our research participants lived experts because we’re actually engaging in the design process with them. So this puts lived experts and the representatives from those communities on my team in an empowered position and also forces organizations that we work with to with lift experts at every turn of the design process. And so an example of something that we did instead of personas is create the components so that organizations and lift experts can work together to kind of understand context, which is something personas supposed to do for you. And the other thing about engaging what we might call end users or lived experts in the design process—the actual ideation and design process and not just collecting their data and stories—is that it’s fun.

My team does a lot of work with primary and secondary school students. And this for example, is from a project in which we worked with students to imagine the future of math. So we gave them an opportunity to design a branch of the multiverse with inspiration from Spider-Man from shows like Loki to imagine the future they would want. So kind of adhering to that participative principle that Mike Jackson talks about in designing a system of system methodologies. And this manifested in a project I did with the Gates Foundation’s US programs education team where lived experts informed an investment strategy about changing Algebra I.

So keeping in mind the idea of expanding your idea of stakeholders and involving them in the process, we might return to this five-part design thinking process. Now, when I think about systems thinking how might intersect with this, you first have to expand your idea of what a problem space is or what you're actually trying to solve for.

Algebra I is either a gateway course or a gatekeeper course for students. And oftentimes for the most historically marginalized students, it’s a gatekeeper course that prevents you from achieving what you want educationally and the Gates Foundation, they went to the project hypothesizing that there were probably specific mainly digital products that could help solve for this.

But after engaging in ideation with lived experts, students, and teachers from under-resourced communities as well as researchers and experts within the system of education and equity experts, they realized that there were many avenues that needed to be pursued, like strengthening teacher practices or re-imagining tests and assessments or even creating support systems. And so focusing on equity through participation allowed for a more holistic view of systemic change. So keeping in mind the idea of expanding your idea of stakeholders and involving them in the process, we might return to this five-part design thinking process. Now, when I think about systems thinking how might intersect with this, I think there are many different avenues in which problems can be solved. And so if you are combining these things, you first have to expand your idea of what a problem space is or what you’re actually trying to solve for.

You need to imagine different points of leverage. And this is where, as you’re working on things like your systems maps, you’re identifying those points of leverage. And then there’s multiple ways that this could go into the design process or not. What’s not represented here is that there are things like policy that may need to change that are not actually part of a design process. And then lastly, you need to evaluate, so consider what’s working, what isn’t, which of today’s solutions are already causing tomorrow’s problems?

And then you go back and repeat the process all over again. I was really excited because earlier I talked to Kim Erwin who’s teaching a metrics class, and I was like, oh, that is that evaluate phase right there.

In Sum

So just to sum up the principles,

  • Continue to make the invisible visible,
  • Remember that today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions, and
  • Diversify and empower your stakeholders.

And I think these are all good ways of sort of combining that sort of Venn diagram of equity-centered design and systems thinking and systemic changes necessary.

And I love this term, freedom dreaming. Dr. Bettina Love who writes about educational freedom coined the term and she describes it as dreaming about a system that’s free from today’s oppression. And I think that’s what we need to do when we adopt a systems thinking mindset, is dream about and move the needle towards systemic change.

Ruha Benjamin also, she’s about to come out with a book about Imagination and kind of talks about how a similar concept freeing ourselves from oppression means engaging in imagination as we’re kind of thinking about the future.

So hopefully that inspires you to integrate both equity-centered design, and I know many of you’re already integrating systems thinking.

About Sheryl Cababa

Sheryl Cababa, VP of Strategy at Substantial and author of Closing the Loop: Systems Thinking for Designers, drives a human-centered design practice focused on systems thinking and evidence-based design, working on everything from robotic surgery experience design to reimagining K-12 education through service design. In her work with consultancies such as Substantial, frog, and Adaptive Path, she has worked with a diverse base of clients including the Gates Foundation, Microsoft, IHME, and IKEA. She holds a B.A. in journalism and political science from Syracuse University.