Skip to main content Skip to footer
Cognizant Blog

The healthcare and life sciences industry plays a pivotal role in society, with businesses in this sector holding significant social responsibilities. Yet, there's a methodology that remains relatively untapped in these critical fields, despite its potential to transform complex challenges. I’m talking about Systemic Design. This approach integrates systems thinking and design practices and has the power to revolutionize how we address intricate issues in healthcare and life sciences.

In this article, I'll delve into the world of systemic design and explore why it hasn't gained widespread traction in these industries. I'll uncover the challenges and untapped potential and discuss how embracing systemic design could reshape the way we approach complex problems in healthcare and life sciences.

Complexity of Society: Introducing Systemic Design

In the last few decades, design challenges have grown in complexity, surpassing the capabilities of traditional design disciplines. Conventional problem-solving methods used in engineering, business, management, and policy making are no longer sufficient to tackle the pressing issues of today1 and it is crucial for diverse fields to collaborate and gain a deeper understanding of social contexts together.

These rapid changes have seen the rise of new innovative approaches. Think about Design Thinking; this method has gained interest in recent years and has been deployed by the most successful organizations worldwide to solve business problems by putting the human at the center of every decision. 

While Design Thinking is a great innovation method, it often falls short in considering the systemic and social impact of solutions and, for that reason, a new approach, called Systemic Design, is getting a foothold. The new method goes beyond human centricity and considers the user relationship within the larger complex system. As my colleague Paula Martinez nicely articulated in her latest article, “Systemic Design emerges as a practice that brings together the strengths of both Systems Thinking and Design Thinking”, which gives the latter a newly evolved role in the innovation space with a shift from human centered to systems-oriented design. 

human centered vs systems oriented shift

Images by Ana Paula Pereira

This shift entails increased participation in the field of design2,3 and calls for a change in the role of designers, transforming them into facilitators of connections between stakeholders and providers of tools4.

Where Systemic Design is Used Now

Systemic Design is currently mainly deployed in academia, social transformation initiatives and policy making, as well as sustainability and environmental design, addressing issues like climate change and renewable energy. Here are two examples of its application.

  1. Sustainability and Environmental Design: the systemic design labs of ETH Zurich are research hubs where students and researchers apply systemic design methods to environmental issues.

  2. Public Policy and Governance: the UK Government Office for Science produced a systems thinking case study bank as part of a wider systems thinking program to promote and embed systems thinking across the Civil Service.

Despite its successful application in the academic and public domain, the implementation of Systemic Design in the business world remains limited. Similarly, the use of this approach within the healthcare and life sciences sector is mostly at public and institutional level, while private sector entities like pharmaceutical manufacturers, biotechnology experts, medical device developers still struggle with implementing Systemic Design methods. Why is this?

Exploring the Application of Systemic Design in Life Sciences and Healthcare

In the healthcare and life sciences industry, well-designed practices go far beyond aesthetics and user experience. Consider the consequences of a poorly designed website; in most industries it might lead to a loss of credibility or customer trust at worst. However, in the context of healthcare, errors in information display or counterintuitive interfaces can have life-or-death implications, potentially resulting in patient fatalities5

Within the healthcare environment, every action carries immense weight, as it is interconnected with measured health outcomes and highly professionalized practices. Each object, document, or interaction within a healthcare scenario holds the potential to create a domino effect throughout the system. 

The complexity of this sector often leads to knowledge being held by a select group of experts, with a lack of specific expertise in the general design landscape. The need for highly qualified design in the healthcare enterprise is growing, and hopefully more interest will arise in adopting design processes for healthcare problems.

Besides specific domain knowledge, systemic designers, with their skills and expertise, can bring a holistic perspective to the design process which allow to see the complex relationships of various elements within the complex healthcare system.

According to the Design Council6, systemic design works best when four core roles are fulfilled. Below I highlight how these roles can be put into practice in the Life Sciences and Healthcare space.

Four core roles of a systemic design team

Design Council (2021). Four core roles of a systemic design team
Images by Ana Paula Pereira

System thinker:

  • Considering the various touchpoints and interactions among multiple actors in the system and understanding their relationships and behaviors.

  • Analyzing and mapping out the journeys of patients, healthcare providers, manufacturers, and other stakeholders within the system, rather than looking at the isolated journey of the single user.

Leader and storyteller:

  • Balancing the interests of patients, healthcare providers, insurers, policymakers, and manufacturers to ensure a successful narrative.

  • Recognizing the sensitivity and complexity of the industry and use the right language to engage and involve stakeholders.

Designer and maker:

  • Designing products, services and processes that facilitate ethical behavior and respond to different needs within the system.

  • Designing strategies that establish transparent guidelines for decision-making and promote equitable participation from diverse voices within the healthcare ecosystem.

Connector and convener:

  • Stimulating collaboration and facilitating co-design sessions involving diverse stakeholders, such as healthcare professionals, patients, policymakers, service providers and/or manufacturers to bring their view together.

Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice

As systemic design gains recognition in academia and social transformation efforts, it is crucial to bridge the gap between theory and practical implementation in the industry as well as between public and private sector. I believe there are a few simple ways to improve the current state of things. 

  • Recognize the systemic nature of the Life Sciences and Healthcare industries. This is a crucial step to make sure the right skills and resources are deployed.

  • Consider designers for roles that go beyond traditional domains, embedding human-centered design into system-level challenges5. This can ensure that design interventions are not merely superficial, but deeply embedded within the system. 

  • Leverage participatory design and collaborative approach to address evolving challenges collaboratively. Cooperation among public institutions and private businesses can amplify the impact on the system.

By embracing systemic design, the healthcare and life sciences sectors can unlock innovative solutions that address complex challenges, ultimately improving the well-being of individuals and society.

To learn more, please visit Cognizant's Life Sciences section and Digital Experience section.


1 BIS Publishers. (n.d.). Design Journeys through Complex Systems - Peter Jones, Kristel van Ael.

2 Manzini, E. Sustainable Solutions 2020-Systems. In Proceedings of the 4th International Conference towards Sustainable Product Design, The Centre for Sustainable Design, Brussels, Belgium, 12–13 July 1999.

3 Vezzoli, C. (2007). System design for sustainability. Theory, methods and tools for a sustainable “satisfaction-system” design. Maggioli Edtore. Milano, Italy.

4 Freire, K., & Sangiorgi, D. (2010). Service design and healthcare innovation: From consumption to co-production to co-creation. In Proceedings of 2nd Service Design and Service Innovation conference, ServDes. 2010 (pp. 39-50). Linköping Electronic Conference Proceedings.

5 Jones, P. (2013). Design for care: Innovating healthcare experience. Rosenfeld Media.

6 Design Council (2021). Beyond Net Zero. A Systemic Design Approach. London: Design Council. ICT4D Bibliografía.

Latest blog posts
Related blog posts