Volume 11 · Number 3 · Pages 572–579

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Design Research as a Variety of Second-Order Cybernetic Practice

Ben Sweeting

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Context: The relationship between design and science has shifted over recent decades. One bridge between the two is cybernetics, which offers perspectives on both in terms of their practice. From around 1980 onwards, drawing on ideas from cybernetics, Glanville has suggested that rather than apply science to design, it makes more sense to understand science as a form of design activity, reversing the more usual hierarchy between the two. I return to review this argument here, in the context of recent discussions in this journal regarding second-order science (SOS). Problem: Despite numerous connections to practice, second-order cybernetics (SOC) has tended to be associated with theory. As a result, SOC is perceived as separate to the more tangible aspects of earlier cybernetics in a way that obscures both the continuity between the two and also current opportunities for developing the field. Method: I review Glanville’s understanding of design, and particularly his account of scientific research as a design-like activity, placing this within the context of the shifting relation between science and design during the development of SOC, with reference to the work of Rittel and Feyerabend. Through this, I summarise significant parallels and overlaps between SOC and the contemporary concerns of design research. Results: I suggest that we can see design research not just as a field influenced by cybernetics but as a form of SOC practice even where cybernetics is not explicitly referenced. Implications: Given this, design research offers much to cybernetics as an important example of SOC that is both outward looking and practice based. As such, it bridges the gap between SOC and the more tangible legacy of earlier cybernetics, while also suggesting connections to contemporary concerns in this journal with SOS in terms of researching research. Constructivist content: By suggesting that we see design research as an example of SOC, I develop connections between constructivism and practice.

Key words: Science, design research, second-order cybernetics, second-order science, practice, Ranulph Glanville


Sweeting B. (2016) Design Research as a Variety of Second-Order Cybernetic Practice. Constructivist Foundations 11(3): 572–579. Available at http://constructivist.info/11/3/572.sweeting

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