Design for open challenges

20 November 2017

In my last article, The Business of Service I looked at the notion of service design as an approach to create and redefine services and experiences for consumers, citizens and organisations. I touched not only on design and its use for communications, products and services but to the application of design ‘upstream’ of these ‘briefs’ or predefined ‘solution paths’ so as to make sense of large scale, complex social and industry challenges.

In this article, Design for open challenges, we are moving to the other end of the challenge scale to discuss how the next generation of design practice aims to create meaningful change. Design seeks to update the often “outmoded tool kit premised on predictability and control”. + The designer’s role means they use “abduction; they actively look for new data points, challenge accepted explanations, and infer possible new worlds”.+ But, as we know, in complex social problem areas,

good work… (often) gets caught in the cross fire of politics and media, the right intentions and their complex reality sidelined. +

So how can we make sense of this to enable change?

Without looking in detail at the methods involved in understanding, visualising and designing potential solutions for these problem arenas, let us explore the basic tenants around what it means to use design in social issues without preconceived ‘solution’ paths.

What is design for complex issues?

The rise of the networked society means collaborative problem solving is more commonly taking place outside single organisations in ‘solution networks’. + However,

Design is not about creating ‘solutions’ in the same sense we create solutions to mathematical equations, as absolute truths in an abstract world. Designers create proposed solutions that can be judged on a sliding scale of better or worse relative to the needs of the stakeholders. +

Therefore, this approach challenges many existing entrenched frameworks in institutions around the world.

Amongst those who espouse the virtues of design thinking many continue to uphold the illusion of designers as idea magicians or those who attempt to simplify vastly complex problems in a quasi-behavioural scientific view for saleable ‘solutions’. + However, in situating the next generation of design (thinking) to create meaningful change, it seeks to craft clarity, understand desired values and aid in developing new approaches to challenges.  It does this through the application of externalised design processes in a multidisciplinary approach, attempting to understand and visualize the problem space, clarify how issues are currently viewed (framed) can be re-framed and solutions (or view points) designed, tested and realised.

In the pursuit of meaningful change there are singular products or services with customer centric or citizen-centric viewpoints, and there are those that move to a life-centric view by understanding the impact they create in our natural world. As we move to an era in which we question the way we approach large complex issues at societal, governmental and global levels, let’s look at some organisations that do this in different ways.

The Policy Lab in the UK use an array of methods to work with policy makers to understand in new ways how policies affect citizens, the intricacies of these complex situations and using policy redesign as a vehicle to imagine possible new futures. Similarly, Mind Lab in Denmark, use design to help transform approaches to public management and help those in the field redefine and realise the value they create in those systems. The UNDP and the World Bank are using design not only in innovative, yet bounded, responses to the creation of new products and services in developing countries, but  also in new ways of working in their organisation as they assess their responses to systemic issues and promote global solution networks.

Open challenge framing

A common denominator in these organisations is how they use design to go about understanding the challenge and formulating new ways to address the causes. Design (thinking) is building on historical design and creative problem solving practices to embed new ways to harness change via contemporary work practices. However, built-in assumptions in your particular discipline or community’s toolbox is common. Just as every problem looks like a communication opportunity when you’re the communications team (as Richard Darlington said in the recent OTT communications course, “When you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail.”), the same applies across the board in approaching social, organisational and industry challenges.

Open challenge framing means removing these solution assumptions that may have been handed down by donors, other stakeholders or your personal or organisation’s abilities. Moving beyond ‘briefs’ (whether they may be apparent or inferred) to frame the problem upstream and question what solution path is best – without this, ideas are often deployed around the wrong problem, which in turn wastes money, resources and fails to provide sustainability in addressing the challenge. +

Design in action

Let us look at an example from my ex-colleagues at the Designing Out Crime (DOC) research centre, based within the University of Technology in Sydney, as discussed in their book Designing for the Common Good. +

The entertainment district of Sydney’s Kings Cross is ‘edgy, illicit and anonymous’. Tens of thousands of young fun seekers from across Sydney flood the area each weekend, translating into drunkenness, drugs and violence – a problem that the City of Sydney had been grappling with for some time.

While the NSW state government was working on their ‘risk management response’, DOC worked with the City of Sydney to rethink the approach to this challenge. Targeting physical environments was not working and continued to be seen as a policing problem, whilst restrictions and limitations meant that young people were penalised for trying and (often failing) at enjoying themselves.

During generative research and behavioral analysis sprints, the music festival analogy provided learnings that prompted event design and organisational management hypothesis’ and potential responses. The council ceased to ask how to prevent alcohol-fueled violence and instead asked how they could enable a vibrant night-time economy. Stakeholders found common ground around the way of framing the issues, which enabled organisational barriers to be removed and ideation to take new paths.

This radical reframing bore the establishment of the late night economy team by the City. It included a re-evaluation of the role played and value created by the City of Sydney and other government departments in the systemic response, and a redefinition of individual employee’s purpose in the organisation. Potential solutions were piloted and a variety of tactical interventions in the area implemented, which in turn saw the co-evolution of the comprehensive strategy document co-created with stakeholders and citizens called Open Sydney.

Whilst an abbreviated overview, one can understand how design-led processes to innovation can lead to new approaches, and how design can help bring about positive change.

Innovating within think tanks

So how does a think tanker use their new design eyes? Knowing when to employ different techniques is key and something that undoubtedly comes with time and experience. However, I’ve summarised some tips:

Don’t go it alone – Multidisciplinary thinking that spans social, political, organisational and economic boundaries is necessary. Whilst think tanks aim to be diverse in their input, extending these networks beyond ‘the usual’ can help form new views.

Don’t try to freeze the world – Today’s challenges are dynamic, trying to stop the clock whilst you perfect in secret your plan is a path to ill-conceived solutions. An agile, iterative approach can lead to learning that can effect change later at a greater scale.

Change your habits/ question your tool box – Question the habits of your organisation: what innovation methods are you using? Are they bound to assumptions around how you will achieve something? The self-sealing phenomenon in organisations means that learning becomes stunted in ‘the way we do things’ – question and challenge them.

Question your organisation’s reality – As per point one, even if you’re using methods that enable innovation behaviours, doing this in a vacuum can render you a false reality. A self-serving reality means that can you are at risk of confirming your own incorrect hypothesis.

All people have a role to play in finding new approaches to social issues, it should not be hidden away in design consultancies or indeed in the lofty heights of think tanks. Unlocking people’s knowledge is key, understanding the biases that bind us to old views, so that we can bring a diversity of thought to issues that go beyond any one person’s imagination of what is possible.