Design in Civvies: The Promise of Creating Degrees of Freedom in Government


  • Alex Ryan MaRS Solutions Lab


Both military and civilian design can be measured by the degrees of freedom it unlocks. This paper is a reflection on my experience of civilian and military design reinterpreted through the perspective of unlocking new degrees of freedom. There are many similarities between military and civilian design. The main difference is that it is much more difficult and much less common to create a whole systems team in the military context due to the extreme polarization caused by war. Degrees of freedom can also be created by disrupting the existing system from within or from outside. Disruptive design is ethical only when it alleviates more harm and suffering than it creates.

Design is dangerous because it opens up all of our existing structures, institutions and routines to the possibility of redesign. This creates great potential for improvement but also for harm. A responsible designer approaches complex problematic situations with a mixture of courage and humility. They have the courage to act to learn about and to transform undesirable situations, while remaining open to the possibility that their interventions are making things worse. A responsible designer is both an explorer of new territory and a steward of the future.

Author Biography

Alex Ryan, MaRS Solutions Lab

Alex Ryan is VP Systems Innovation and Director of the MaRS Solutions Lab, which applies systemic design to society’s most complex challenges. He is an Executive-in-Residence at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. Alex Ryan is Co-Founder of Synthetikos Inc. Alex Ryan also Co-Founded Alberta CoLab, where he advised a cross-ministry systemic design and strategic foresight team working to institutionalize systems thinking, design and foresight within government policy and planning processes. The CoLab team addresses diverse issues such as energy transition, integrated resource management, stakeholder engagement, and social innovation.


As a consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton, Alex Ryan has previously taught operational and strategic design at the U.S. School of Advanced Military Studies, and helped to institutionalize design within Western militaries, working with clients such as U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, Australian Special Operations Command, and the Canadian Forces College. He is Co-Founder of the Systemic Design Research Network and Co-Chair of the Relating Systems Thinking and Design Symposium ( His dissertation in applied mathematics advanced a multidisciplinary approach to complex systems design.