SBCD Explained

Towards a framework for sustainable, participatory design…

Story-Based Circular Design (SBCD) is a formative framework that looks to improve the sustainability of design outcomes. To do so, the process pairs systems thinking (ST) processes with Design (D) processes in service of better understanding complex challenges and developing more optimal outcomes than would otherwise be expected.

The framework includes storytelling throughout it to help foster a participant-driven process. Therefore, it is designed to shift the role of designers role from primarily being direct problem solvers to more of one in which they’re facilitative contributors. (SBCD is a team sport!) The goal is to work with groups that are dealing with significant challenges and help them develop systemic change that they will both implement and support for positive, sustainable outcomes.

Below is a brief outline of the framework.

The Story-Based Circular Design Process

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(Design processes are in italics. Systems-thinking ones are in bold.)

Phase I: Understand

In Phase 1, facilitators and participants have the tasks of getting to know each other and gaining comfort in working together as they work to gain a collective understanding of the challenge or opportunity they’re working with. 

Stage 1. Relate & Investigate

In Stage 1, we begin to gain a shared understanding of the problem by sharing our perspective and working together on research.

As the aim is for the participants to own the process, both participants and facilitators should spend significant time getting to know each other before moving on to share their understanding of the problem and the circumstances in which they occur as they work through the Relate (D) process. The goal should be to make participants comfortable enough to share their understanding of the problem, preferably in a story format. Facilitators will help the participants develop their individual stories to share with the group.


Facilitators lead the project team through an active research phase in which a better understanding of the culture of the participants, as well as the systems (ecological, economic, etc.) the problem is embedded in, so that the root cause(s) of the problem might be better understood. The Investigate (ST)process can include ethnography, interviews, desktop research and other methods of information gathering. The goal is to gain a thorough understanding of what you’re up against before moving on to the next stage. Doing so will help you see the interconnections within the current system, which will help you anticipate the impacts of any changes you might implement.

Note: Each of the processes within a stage can be dealt with consecutively or concurrently depending on the need, and a working group can cycle through the processes multiple times (if needed) before moving on to the next stage. The goal is to come to a point where the working group feels comfortable moving on to the next stage, but you can always take a step back if that feels right.

Stage 2. Delineate & Narrate

 In Stage 2, the team will work together to develop a shared understanding of the problem from diverse perspectives, with the intent of coming to an agreement of what will be in scope for their go forward design efforts. 

The Delineate (ST)process attempts to set the scope and scale of the problem the team has collectively decided to tackle. It also defines the factors that contribute to the problem as teams bring the fruits of their Stage 1 efforts together to help build their collective understanding of the circumstances in which they are working. This typically includes a “data dump” of some sort and participants typically need some measure of prep time to get through the materials the team has collected to prep for narration.


The Narrate (D)process takes the information from the prior process and converts it into a relatable human story that details the challenge, its causes, the negative outcomes it fosters, and the long-term consequences of non-intervention. The goal is to take the dry science of definition and relay it in terms that people can connect to on an emotional level as storytelling has been found to provide a number of benefits in a group context, including: contextual grounding, bonding with others, validating and affirming experiences, venting and catharsis, resisting oppression, and educating others, group storytelling can create an environment that supports the evaluation of experiences and promotes problem-solving.

Phase II: Reconceive

This phase looks for solutions that might improve outcomes (while keeping systemic effects front of mind), as working groups develop ideas and work towards implementation.

3. Ideate & Contemplate

 In Stage 3, the working group will work collectively to develop ideas that might help with the challenge, as well as to consider the follow-on effects of such possibilities.

In general, ideation is the formation of new ideas or concepts. In the design context, it is the attempt to generate ideas that might prove useful in solving a particular challenge, or for creating benefits for a specific opportunity. The Ideate (D)process accesses a variety of tools as groups work to uncover possibilities that might offer better outcomes than those currently experienced. 


The Contemplate (ST)process step forces participants to take a step back and consider any unexpected systemic outcomes (positive or negative) that might be fostered with the introduction of changes proposed in the Ideation process.

Note: As we develop new possibilities in Stage 3 that show promise, we take those ideas and tell our stories anew as we share how we believe the system would behave and the outcomes that would be experienced with the proposed changes in place.

4. Iterate & Extrapolate

In Stage 4, facilitators lead the team through rapid prototyping, testing, and iteration as teams work from ideas to workable solutions.

The Iterate (D) process uses prototyping efforts to continually improve the design of the system’s changes. The goal is to capture incremental changes that are readily available, as well as to seek radical shifts that might yield substantial gains.


In the Extrapolate (ST) process, groups take another step back and consider the potential positive impacts of the change, as well as any negative impacts that need to be better understood and either accepted or mitigated. Contemplate is more about thinking things through in a mental process. Extrapolate takes the new information gained from prototyping and repeats the process, while looking for ways to take it into specific lines of analysis.


The last two processes should be ongoing for the life of the innovation, seeking opportunities to extend its usefulness and continually improve outcomes.

Keep Going

This “stage” asks us to shepherd the innovation past deployment in looking to maximize its value over the long-term. SBCD tasks change owners to continually seek ways to enhance the outcomes of their systems through the combination of their experience with the system and new external knowledge. This may come through a quick tweak sometime after changes have been deployed, or it might mean the need for another round through the SBCD framework (hence the circular process flow) if there’s been enough time or the circumstances have changed enough.