OCAD University
Understanding Systems
Alejandra Farías, Amy Morrell, Martha Chomyn, Nicole Brkic, Razane Hanna

Winter, 2021

Research, use of Systemic Design Toolkit, systems mapping, graphic work.

A systemic analysis of consumerism to map out the stakeholders, loops and motivations in order to identify potential intervention points towards breaking away from this complex cycle.

a. Iterative Inquiry

This tool helped us to start framing our project boundaries, allowing us to examine what propels consumption, who the
actors are that drive it, how it is realized, and ultimately, the goal of this system at large.

Function. What is being producted.  A single purchase can evolve into an identity and values.

Structure. Who is involved. Starting with the consumer, expanding to include the media, organizations, retailers, and eventually regulatory bodies.

Process. How the stakeholders operate. At the micro level, through the actors’ respective channels or shops. In the outermost level, through policies and foreign negotiations.

Context. Why the system operates in a specific way. A pursuit of profit or need satisfaction. 

b. Wheel of life

The ongoing cycle of triggers to purchase which are deeply embedded in our lives. Major events and holidays centered around purchasing have either
been invented, like Black Friday, or bastardized by the encouragement to buy – like Christmas. 

c. Actors Map

At the highest levels of knowledge and power are entities and departments in organizations who report to more powerful entities. Retailers have great influence and power since they choose what to put on the market. The individual consumer receives information from and is influenced by, other actors vying for their attention and money.

Causal Layered Analysis

This tool was used to better understand where the root causes of consumerism may have emerged from in North American society.

The litany section, is what you perceive on the surface as the real problem. One of those is the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) that propels us to buy more hoping to catch up with those we perceive as having achieved happiness through consumption.

In a deeper level, the causes could point into the increasing 'influencer culture' in social media, but there are also ideas of planned and perceived obsolescence started to appear in the 1950s.

Next is the worldview, where people used to care more about spending on practical and lasting items, but now the wealthy are adored, celebrated and imitated, as wealth and success are promoted as the way to happiness.

Finally, metaphors or myths that have influenced consumption. Ideas like that of the “American Dream” first became prevalent in the 1930s. While this myth has always been about the prospect of success, its original meaning referred to equality, justice, and democracy rather than individual success and prosperity. The concept of "retail therapy" is a common phrase that promotes the ilusion that happiness comes through shopping. 

System Map

The pursuit of a ‘better’ life comes from a place of unhappiness and dissatisfaction with one’s current circumstances, and those feelings come from external influences. Media feeds us images of the type of life we should aspire to, fueling materialism and prompting a desire to improve our social status, with the hopes it will bring us closer to that ‘better’ life. However, this status seeking pursuit also causes us to feel the need to maintain appearances of success, consequently leading us to question our own identity and sense of self, triggering feelings of unhappiness and sending us back along the vicious consumerist cycle.

To show the influential relationship of consumer habits and behaviours, we mapped the user journeys for three different personas, to consumers and an example product, showing how they intertwine with one another.

3 Horizons

To envision the future we want to achieve, we used this framework to show “three conditions of the same system, over time, against its level of viability in its changing external environment” (Curry and Hodgson, 2008).

The 1st Horizon skewed quite negatively. We noted how the buying cycle affects one’s self esteem and the damaging effects to the environment, which are detrimental to humans longterm. Exploring the 3rd Horizon next, we conceived a future less dependent on consumption; one that respects the environment and encourages inner peace and strong mental health. We then explored the present reality of this potential future by identifying activities and mindsets that exist today; these represent evidence of plausibility. Lastly, we considered the emerging practices in the 2nd Horizon, such as the minimalist and zero-waste movements, upcycling, etc., that are pointing to the ideal future. With a clear vision of the kind of future we hope to achieve we were able to turn our attention to developing an intervention strategy.

Intervention Strategy 

After noting all the loops in the cycle of mindless consumption, we used the Intervention Strategy tool from the Systemic Design Toolkit, which is based on Donella Meadows Leverage Points (1999).

Other interventions were identified as having a high potential for change in the system but pose several challenges to implement:
a. "Change the Narrative” – in advertising and media by minimizing, or even eliminating, the message that wealth is the key to happiness. Support messaging that builds up the individual by providing more airtime to mindful influencers. There is some momentum happening today at a grassroots level, but big business and major retail corporations, along with larger media companies, need to get on board and support this.
b. Higher taxes on consumption products like jeans and restaurant food, similar to the approach in some Scandinavian countries.
c. “Slow Down” Culture – create a lifestyle change and social culture shift that celebrates a more balanced approach to work and life. A culture that supports daily periods of rest, like siesta concept in Mediterranean countries, and encourages a simple life where there is time to pause and reflect.

Using Format