Explaining socio-technical systems

The world is filled with complex systems in which humans, organisations and technology are connected to shape enormous networks, or so-called socio-technical systems.

This term was first introduced in the context of labour studies in 1960, when talking about the reciprocal interaction of humans and machines in industrialisation, in order to shape technical and social aspects of work (Emery and Trist, 1960). However, Ropohl (1999) later argued that these systems can be applied to technology in general, as innovations will always have a social impact, and social changes will ask for technological solutions.

Model from: Oosthuizen, R., & Pretorius, L. (2016). Assessing the impact of new technology on complex socio-technical systems.
Model from: Oosthuizen, R., & Pretorius, L. (2016). Assessing the impact of new technology on complex socio-technical systems.

Hansen (2018) explains that we need both a conceptual approach to create frameworks of world views around these systems, as well as a mathematical approach to clarify the logical structure of this framework or model. Hansen and Ropohl therefore plead for a multidisciplinary approach to these systems, but this approach is not without pitfalls. Baxter (2010) stated many challenges when it comes to designing a socio-technical system, many of which are related to this multidisciplinary approach. Examples include: inconsistent terminology, different levels of abstraction, conflicting values and communication errors between disciplines. Ropohl mentions important differences that are relevant in the day-to-day work within these systems:

“Engineers tend to ignore the social concerns of their work, and social scientists, on the other hand, do not know very much about technology and are reluctant to consider the artificial reality of technical objects.”
– Günter Ropohl (1999)

Baxter proposes ‘awareness and sensitation’ as important activities to improve socio-technical approach across stakeholders.

Model from: Baxter, G., & Sommerville, I. (2011). Socio-technical systems: From design methods to systems engineering.
Model from: Baxter, G., & Sommerville, I. (2011). Socio-technical systems: From design methods to systems engineering.

So we need translators, that are strong in both the fields of technology and social sciences, to bridge this gap of communicative errors. Recently Lockton (2019) stated that designers are great translators for social, cognitive and behavioural sciences to practical forms. I would like to argue that technology is the next big topic for designers to translate, thus becoming the experts in understanding all stakeholders in the socio-technical context.

Visual communication tool for telling compelling visual stories

Visual communication is an excellent tool to explain socio-technical systems, as it has powerful applications in the explanation of both technological and social systems. Flatland Agency is an excellent example of explaining the social side of systems, as they specialise in telling compelling visual stories about a range of complex systems. They do this by creating clarity and overview through illustration, while appealing to the perspective of different stakeholders.

As a student at the University of Technology in Eindhoven, I often see the power of visuals in another, more technical method: that of data visualisations. In these visualisations patterns and comparisons are central to the story, rather than the perspective of people.

Although these two different applications sometimes seem worlds apart, together they can create beautiful insightful content. I believe in the realms of communication, these two can be brought closer together and strenghten each other’s weaknesses. Together with Flatland Agency, I’m working on ways to create integrated products which highlight both the emotion and the facts, qualitative and quantitative information, the social and the technical.

By Yael van Engelen, research student Industrial Design (Eindhoven University of Technology)

References:

Baxter, G., & Sommerville, I. (2011). Socio-technical systems: From design methods to systems engineering. Interacting with computers, 23(1), 4–17. Chicago

Emery, F. E., and E. L. Trist. 1960. “Socio- technical Systems.” In Management Sciences Models and Techniques, vol 2. London.

Hansen, P., Liu, X., & Morrison, G. M. (2019). Agent-based modelling and socio-technical energy transitions: A systematic literature review. Energy Research & Social Science, 49, 41–52.

Oosthuizen, R., & Pretorius, L. (2016). Assessing the impact of new technology on complex sociotechnical systems. South African Journal of Industrial Engineering, 27(2), 15–29.

Ropohl, G. (1999). Philosophy of socio-technical systems. Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology, 4(3), 186–194.

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