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The Study of Systems: A Conversation with Paul Pangaro

SVA: You’re teaching a course titled “Introduction to Cybernetics and the Foundations of Systems Design.” Would you describe cybernetics and its application to design?

Paul Pangaro: The word “cybernetics” is a useful place to start. It comes from a Greek root that has to do with steering. In order to steer, you have to see where you’re going; see whether that’s towards the goal or off-course from the goal; then change your actions to head back toward the goal. I act. I see the consequences. I say, “No, not quite what I meant.” And so I correct by acting again. That’s the cybernetic loop.

Now, notice I’ve just described the design process. I’ve just described what happens when we say, “Let’s build this.” We make a prototype and it doesn’t quite work. So we adjust it, get users in front of it, and change our mind, try something else, and so on.

The user’s process is also like that. The user picks up a device and thinks, “I want to buy a book on Amazon,” then realizes that’s not quite where she wants to be, goes to another site, and finds that’s not even the book she wanted. But this new goal is better than the old goal. So humans are also engaged in a cybernetic loop for getting what they want.

Fundamental models of cybernetics have great applicability both to the process of design and to an understanding of what we’re designing for—human interaction.

So cybernetics offers a set of models that starts from general concepts of action and goal and feedback, and helps us solve the complex problems of design today. Cybernetics applies to complex technologies, to organizational structures, and even to conversation itself—which, as we all experience every day, is a basic human way of setting goals and acting to achieve them.

A page From L‘Ère Atomique, Cybernétique, Electronique, Automation. 1958. Éditions René Kister, Genève.

From L‘Ère Atomique, Cybernétique, Electronique, Automation. 1958. Éditions René Kister, Genève.

SVA: Where do students apply systems thinking both in your course and beyond?

PP: My experience teaching these concepts is that it takes over the way students tend to think about a problem. It becomes part of how they look at the world.

I also see it as a diagnostic tool. It offers the perspective that, “I can make this better if I thought about it in the cybernetic frame.” Students learn along the way, for example, how to focus sharply on the limitations of a system’s capabilities—what it cannot do—in order to better define what they want it to do.

Designing the conversation is something they can bring every day to every meeting. “Mondays at 10AM we all get together in the same room to discuss a project.” Looking at it cybernetically, these conversations can’t achieve the goals set for them. Can we design the next conversation so that the knowledge to move to the next step is in the room when we meet? That’s just one example we all experience. Understanding teams and conversations as a system is a way of designing around the horrible meeting culture that so many companies have.

So, cybernetics is a set of tools that apply to our every day work process as well to the design of better interactions.

My goal is that these models get carried forward, not so they get drilled into somebody’s head and are applied slavishly, but so they become a way designers naturally see the world—and not just see the world, but diagnose it to understand how we can make it better.

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