Gain insights into creating sustainable innovation by learning from architects such as Bjarke Ingels

In previous posts I have written about applying Design Thinking to your innovation process for business growth, and why your HR department should embrace Design ThinkingNow I’d like to take a deeper dive into design ways of thinking, from the systemic design perspectives of architecture and why leaders should think more holistically about the impact of innovation on a system.

Harold Nelson, co-author of The Design Way defines systemics as the logic and reasoning of design: “Systemic thinking brings focused attention to the connections and relations between people, social institutions, environments, and technologies–rather than just the elements themselves.”

Systemics design is closely tied to sustainability and utilizes creativity and innovation in the service of meeting human needs and desires

Richard Farson in his essay on “Management by Design,” notes, “Architects usually carry the thought that when they are designing buildings, they are actually designing organizations. They design experiences, not just rooms; situations, not just spaces; relationships, not just furniture; communities, not just real estate developments.”

Danish born Bjarke Ingels, one of the world’s most innovative architects, embodies this ethos. He is not just an architectural designer; he’s also a social designer. In Netflix’s fabulous documentary series “Abstract: The Art of Design,” he says,

“In the big picture, architecture is the art and science of creating the framework of our lives. The buildings that we build are either open possibilities or they hinder encounters or connections.” —Bjarke Ingels

Unlike the Bauhaus “Less is more” precept, Ingels believes yes is more. How does that work? Ingels explains, ” ‘Yes is more’ is an inclusive approach to architecture. It is crucial to get everyone’s input to the extreme and meet all occupants’ needs. With so many different personalities and ways of life, this driving force can develop into something extraordinary.”

Ingels and his team incorporate every single concern no matter how small. He says, “This obsession about making everyone happy becomes a recipe for making something extraordinary because it has to perform in so many different ways.” You’d think his designs would be bloated and overdone as a result, but that is not the case. He and his team are amazingly creative in how they marry simplicity with complexity.

For example, they designed the sleek and elegant looking Copenhill Power Plant in Copenhagen as an environmentally friendly plant enhanced by the addition of a public park, a 31,000-square-metre ski slope on its roof, and a chimney that blows smoke rings! “One of the things that I love about architecture is that it is the art and science of turning fiction into fact,” says Ingels, “We changed people’s mindset of what is possible.”

Systemic design thinking in business

“Every design is either an element of a system or a system itself,” says Harold Nelson, “No design – or designer – exists in a vacuum. Designers, clients, and other stakeholders are interrelated by systemic relationships and connections.”

These include constellations of individuals and teams within an organizational system, and larger systems that form industries, communities, and cities within even larger social, cultural, political, international and ecological systems.

Each part of the system can have its own effect on every other part, so it is important to make critical connections between innovation strategies and the larger systems in which they are embedded.This means breaking out of silos and developing the relational intelligence to build connections.

“We need to pull all the disciples together to address problems of 21st century,” says Ingels, and I agree. When we look at challenges in a larger context, and through the lens of other disciplines, we expand your perceptions of what is possible. At the end of the Netflix documentary, Ingels says, “I am longing to discover things I haven’t even thought about.” What beautiful way to live and work.


Abstract: The Art of Design” (2017) a Netflix documentary created by former Wired editor-in-chief Scott Dadich

Farson, F. “Management by Design,” Retrieved from

Nelson, H.G. and Stolterman, E. (2012) The Design WayIntentional Change in an Unpredictable World. Second Edition. MIT Press.

This post was originally published in my column on
CC Photo credit: Serpentine Gallery by Bjarke Ingels, by Fred Romero