Designing the world through a Systemic Approach

Can food be the key to a new economy? What happens when we use qualitative instead of quantitative approaches? A talk with Professor Luigi Bistagnino.

(Image: M M)


A few months ago I had the chance to meet Professor Luigi Bistagnino during a speech at Circolo del Design in Turin, Italy. He was talking about the opening of the Systemic Approach Foundation. The foundation is the coronation of decades of work and experimentation. During his career, Bistagnino has been developing numerous case studies testing the impact and investigating the challenges of an application of the Systemic Approach to a specific territory. In his research, food is a pivotal element.


At the Systemic Approach Foundation, food is seen a trigger which can produce extensive change, becoming the common subject of a dialogue between different players of a certain geographical area.


I met Professor Bistagnino again in early May 2017 to further dig into his work.






What do you mean with the term Systemic Approach?


It is a new way to act. It is a new awareness.


Actions in the Systemic Approach are based on two values:


Relationships between people: People need to talk to each other, they have to construct a dialogue, there is the need to establish a common ground of trust.


Resource management: resources are needed to carry out human activities, but we also need to ensure that what is not needed is not thrown away. If we are true to this principle, the output of a system becomes the input of another. This allows to change the way we relate to each other, strengthening the relationships between people.


From these two values, a new shared awareness emerges. With this awareness, a new society can take shape - a whole new culture. A new ethic is evident in the actions, productions and economy of the new system.


The Systemic Approach is founded on qualitatives approaches. To understand if the system is working, we can’t just look at quantitative values. We need to change paradigms and also consider qualitative variables. It is not just about how much you earn, but also about which actions you are making to earn that.






What is the difference between Systemic Approach and Circular Economy?



The main difference is that the Circular Economy deals with products, while the Systemic approach deals with people.


When you apply the Circular Economy and you do an LCA - Life Cycle Assessment - the aim is to get to produce something by using the most limited amount of materials possible. But some of the underlying issues are still unresolved: did I challenge the product? Is this product really necessary? Do I really need to make it? Does it create any problems for the people?

In fact, adopting the Circular Economy is surely better than not using any approach, and it can help us in reducing the environmental impact of a given product. However, I would say that the Systemic Approach brings us at another level.


The Systemic Approach revolves around the relationship between people, and it is developed with the idea that one person's output becomes another person’s input. It means zero emission, but it also means that we challenge the need for the production or for the product itself.


Here’s the example of a process that goes against the principle of the Systemic Approach. Think about the use of pesticides in the food industry. I hear some farmers saying "I have to use pesticides, otherwise this product will not grow, and you will not be able to eat it!” Yet, the pitfall is hidden within this very sentence: a pesticide is always toxic, poisonous. This means that people who eat that foodstuff will swallow poison: it means that we will eat poison. The poison that is used to increase the production of such food has the effect of destroying the fauna - starting from the insects - and even weakening the plant itself. The outcome is poisoned. It can hardly become a valuable input for anybody else.


I’m not saying that products are not useful - but we need to challenge them, we need to question how we make them and why we make them.






Why at Politecnico di Torino is the Systemic Approach being investigated by designers and architects?


The reason lies in the need of a qualitative approach. The need for a very close knowledge of the human being. Designers and Architects have the human beings at the core of their practice.


When using the Systemic Approach, we do not start from a business model, but from the relationship between the people. Through the Systemic approach, we focus heavily on the bonds that are created and the relationships that can potentially be further developed. The economy is a consequence, a result of this.


When we apply the Systemic Approach at the Politecnico di Torino, we consider the economy not as the starting point, but as a result of the relationships between people.






During your speech at Circolo del Design in Turin you told about the case study you developed in the High Sangone Valley, in Northern Italy. The impact of the Systemic Approach on this area has been measured by Deloitte. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?


What you cite is only one case study. We have many similar projects that we have been developing around the world, always starting from a specific territory.

When we arrive in a territory, we start analyzing how relationships could change if local businesses and institutions initiated a dialogue rather than a competition. We start from the dialogue, then we go to the exchange: the fact that the output of one can become the input for another one.


Once this process is triggered, it becomes self-generating. If there is a given ​​number of activities in a territory, at the end of the process that number get to double, without producing any waste.


In all our case studies, the local businesses’ turnover is multiplied by a minimum of three to eight times. With Deloitte we have measured the impact of all of our case study and these were the results.




More detailed case studies can be found on the Systemic Approach foundation website |

What is the impact of the Systemic Approach on the food supply chain?


First of all, I would not call it "chain" but I would call it "lanyard", because it develops in a narrow and circumscribed environment. The scale and relationship with the territory are completely different here: the idea is to produce what is needed in your environment and then to exchange the surplus with another territory.


The quantitative standard, when selecting food that goes in the supply chain, relies on factors such as shape, color and size of products. These factors can be easily measured.


When we move to a qualitative approach to solve the same issue, we can consider more "visceral" aspects which are closer to our animal nature, such as smell and taste. An animal smells and tastes a fruit before ingesting it: this is also in our instinct.


If we apply this approach to the so-called “supply chain”, you can easily foresee the impact.

This is an example of how a qualitative Systemic Approach can impact an industry and its territory.






How can a solo entrepreneur adopt the systemic approach? what are the first steps?


The systemic approach is based on the network. The idea is to create a network to which each solo entrepreneur can contribute.


Most of my consultancy works are made for associations, public administrations, or group of people who already have some kind of relationship to each other. My contribution generally aims at improving the relationships between people. I do not want to impose a schedule or a timetable of activities.


As I said before, this is a self-generating process: if the business of a first person is based on the output of a second person, there is a very strong relationship between these two people’s businesses. Also, the attention chain gets very strong and one monitors the quality of the other.


Certainly it is not possible to move from a linear to a Systemic Approach abruptly. There are some evolutionary phases that allow you to get to a Systemic Approach.


For example, a big industry weighing on the territory can follow an evolutionary pathway to slowly evolve into a network of small industries, thus generating a much more profitable economy for the territory. From a linear approach it gradually moves towards a Systemic Approach.




Luigi Bistagnino |  Picture by:

Professor Bistagnino is the founder of the Systemic Approach Foundation, a nonprofit organization advocating for a wider application of the Systemic Approach. If you would like to know more about Bistagnino’s work, the publications Systemic Design (ebook, Slow Food Editions) and Micro Macro (Edizioni Ambiente) are the readings I would most recommend.





May 2017