Denver - Berlin
Creative Destruction and the Advent of Smart Systems Design
Private Networks for Innovation - 7 Dec 2021
Creative Destruction and the Advent of Smart Systems Design

why we need to move beyond today’s concepts of design

Alice Dietrich / Unsplash

As the physical world continues to dovetail with machine learning and artificial intelligence, Smart Systems will enable previously unimagined capabilities for both the B2B and B2C worlds. After years of frustrating fits and starts, the technology is here to integrate people, processes and data in ways that enable collective awareness and better decision making. The question is whether business leadership is ready to make the leap and grasp its potential and whether we really understand how to design new complex systems.

With the emergence of connected products and information-based services, even more complexity has arisen in the design of systems and services as well as in the core of intelligent products. Because networks and data add yet more complexity to the process and because just about everything will get connected, we strongly believe that designing new connected solutions requires a combination of the elements from several disciplines in order to fully address the nature of smart connected business opportunities.

Smart Systems Design Is a New Discipline That Lies Between the Fault Lines of Existing Disciplines

Smart Systems Disciplines

source: Harbor Research


Smart Systems really means the future of networked computing and information. It will require a remarkably agile global network that could comfortably scale to trillions of nodes—some of them hardware, some software, some purely data, many of them coming into and out of existence or changing location constantly. Obviously, such systems cannot be “designed” in any ordinary sense. Certainly, it cannot be designed in the same manner we think about designing a product or a service. And yet the Smart Systems and Internet of Things solutions must be designed in some sense.

Assuming that the role of technology is only about making existing products or services more attractive no longer works; players need to anticipate the nature of interactions between and among things, people, and data and creatively imagine fully developed systems and whole marketplaces.

Innovators like Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs understood the value of “systems thinking”… each understood the value of product innovation and the business system that has created entire industries around their products. Their genius lies in the ability to look beyond discrete innovations and conceive of entirely new Smart Systems experiences that become new marketplaces. Such systems and solutions will easily be the biggest technical achievement in the history of humanity. Its closest predecessor is the global financial economy—with which, in fact, it will share vital characteristics.

Convergence Of Design, Strategy and Innovation Processes Is Creating A New Smart Systems Design Discipline

Smart Systems Design Convergence

source: Harbor Research


What we call “Smart Systems”—the convergence of pervasive or embedded computing with the packet-switching “network of networks” called the Internet—describes a new generation of computing, control and data architecture that looks very different from classical computing, telco and information systems and really represents the emergence of complex adaptive systems.

Demand for interoperability is growing, and as designers of new digital solutions work to provide it, they will be laying the foundation for an information system and architecture far vaster than any of today’s systems and solutions. Cyber-physical systems will spill data at a scale few can barely imagine as the Internet is integrated into everything and extends tendrils into our homes, our cars, and our clothing. It will be many orders of magnitude larger in scale and more complex than any artifact human beings have ever encountered.

This new world will look more like the neurons of the brain, or ants in an anthill, or human beings in a society, as well as information nodes connected to each other. The many “nodes” of a network may not be very “smart” in themselves, but if they are networked in a way that allows them to connect effortlessly and interoperate seamlessly, they begin to give rise to complex, system-wide behavior that usually goes by the name “emergence.” That is, an entirely new order of intelligence “emerges” from the system as a whole—an intelligence that could not have been predicted by looking at any of the nodes individually. There’s a distinct magic to emergence, but it happens only if the network’s nodes are free to share information and processing power.

Design, as well as strategy, is concerned with creating values and making them visible, not to mention profitable.  Business strategy and design today need to extend to the experience that customers will have with connected products, services, spaces, or a mix of these and, therefore must integrate the processes and systems that are behind these experiences with decisions related to both design and strategy.

To conceive and design Smart Systems, organizations will need new methods and a more holistic and integrated approach that addresses key dimensions:

Design: We believe design needs to transcend discrete product or service innovation.  Assuming that the role of design is only about making existing products or services more attractive no longer works.  Business designers need to creatively imagine fully developed systems and whole marketplaces.  Companies need to envision the design role as one that can address product, services, community and business systems.

Relationships: Problem solving for new Smart Systems opportunities must address tough questions:  how can an organization turns its workers, partners, and customers into believers and contributors? How can we make changes that can impact multiple functions and organizations and ultimately solve really big problems or create unique new offerings? We are firm believers in the human element – the community as a manifestation of the system and visa versa.   Behaviors of users, customers, teams, functions, leadership, all need to considered.   Understanding empathy, participation, motivations – putting human sensibilities and behaviors at the center of the solution is key.

Knowledge and Skills: Companies need to move beyond a conventional orientation to technology skills and knowledge.  Organizations need a disciplined process focused on optimizing all tangible and intangible skills and assets including people and competencies, brands and positioning, technologies and intellectual property, alliances, relationships and business and operational processes.

The solutions we are describing here will have much less managerial hierarchy, command and control decisions or proprietary ownership of ideas. These relationships will be self-organized by people who are motivated to explore and develop ideas they care deeply about. Collaborative innovation will extend beyond ideas about new products and services to the very manner in which business is conducted

The convergence of design with strategy and related innovation and engineering processes will inevitably lead to a new integrated set of processes, methods and disciplines — the advent of what we are calling Smart Systems Design. ◆

This essay is supported by our, “Smart Systems and Services Field Guide.”

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  • How to frame Smart Systems growth opportunities
  • Smart Systems design success drivers
  • Smart Systems design process and methods
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