Month: January 2011

art & designcomplexitydesign thinkingevaluationsystems science

Systems Thinking and Design: A Case for Egypt?

Politics provides a great analogy for why systems thinking and design fit together and how effective “design” and systems thinking work so closely together. It’s time that our politicians and policy makers start considering the role of design and systems thinking a little more and Egypt provides a great example of what happens when those areas come together.

Designing (Building) a New Egypt?

Over the past month I’ve done a lot of reading on the role of design and the culture of designers. The reasons are many, but mostly because I see the challenges that we face as a society as ones of poor design and an inability to see systems, think about them clearly, and translate that into action. This last part is really where design comes into play.

Take the current situation in Egypt, that is in many ways a design problem. Many years ago, Egyptians were comfortable — if not always happy — to accept a government designed to be under the heavy influence of one person. Despite the flaws of that leadership, there was acceptance and general, if somewhat muted, support for that model for the last part of the 20th century and the early start of this century. The recent events in Tunisia showed Egyptians that there were alternatives to their current model of politics and that the people could design a new leadership. The past few days have seen a remarkable chain of events that represent the culmination of desire of Egypt’s people for change.

Design thinking provides a lens for viewing problems and developing contextual solutions — or new situations. The exploration of the problem and developing new solutions using design thinking involves a number of steps. This usually includes such steps as:

  • Define the scope, scale and context of the problem at hand;
  • Research the problem and determine causes, consequences, alternatives and opportunities related to that problem;
  • Start working on developing possible options — ideate — in ways that include the wild and outlandish to ensure that there is sufficient opportunity to build on ideas that might encompass the fullest possible perspective on the issue, even if such ideas may seem impractical;
  • Prototype some new options. In the case of political systems, perhaps trying some new ways to organize parts of the government, shift the leadership structure or conduct local experiments to try new models of governance in relatively safe environments;
  • Evaluate the implementation of the prototype and incorporate the findings into successive models and then re-implement them in the form of new prototypes. This rapid-cycle prototyping on small scale experiments enable a safe-fail culture to form rather than aim for the impractical fail-safe models that almost never work in complex systems;
  • Implement and repeat. Take the lessons learned from taking a utilization-focused evaluation (PDF) approach or a developmental evaluation approach (or a combination), implement the necessary changes and repeat.

The manner by which the outcomes and implementation of the new model are assessed can be viewed by taking a systems thinking perspective, largely because what is being designed is indeed a system. By considering the boundaries, the interconnections between civil society and government, and by articulating intention in guiding the change, it is possible to design a new political system for one of the world’s oldest societies in a manner that honours the past and creates a compelling, healthy future.

Change isn’t usually so straightforward, but that’s often because there isn’t the planning and process in place for change. Now is a perfect time to bring that about as Egyptians struggle along with their Northern African neighbours in Tunisia to find ways to bring their intention to bear on the way their country is governed and, in doing so, create one of the most significant opportunities for design and systems thinking in either of those nations’ histories.


Designing an Experience (via Creativity & Innovation)

I’m re-blogging a thread from Keith Sawyer’s Creativity and Innovation blog today. Keith is in Davos as a guest faculty at the World Economic Forum and wrote today about the idea of designing an experience and the role of curation in all of that. There are some very interesting thoughts here about how we create an experience and the need to consider many of the ways in which that experience is gleaned through the role of design.

Davos Day 3 I used to think that a curator was someone who managed the galleries at an art museum. Of course, that's true, but I've come to realize that at a deeper level, a curator is a designer of experiences. I first awoke to this deeper meaning when I was invited to speak in Amsterdam by De Appel arts organization, as part of their "The Old Brand New" speaker series in 2009. They talked about "curating" the speaker series, and I loved this wa … Read More

via Creativity & Innovation

art & designcomplexitydesign thinkingpublic healthsocial systems

Art / Design / Science / Literacy

Szonyi Istvan: Man Reading (artist's father)

Literacy has many forms and art is one of the ways in which these forms come together and present some of the best opportunities for engaging diversity in complex social systems.

The relationship between art and science has been long noted by those looking at the history of discovery, and the nature of creativity and human innovation. In theory, the idea that two creative ventures that use different methods and media as the vehicle for expression should fit together is natural. But that is where theory and practice diverge sharply.

From my perspective, art and design are not perspectives warmly embraced within the scientific community. There is much suspicion among scientists about the validity, reliability and practical utility of art and design in solving important problems. Aesthetics may be nice for culture, but science tackles serious things.

Yet, one of the more serious matters for science is the concept of literacy. Scientists have been worried about the inability of people to pick up and understand the basics of how science works and its implications for society, prompting this to become an educational priority for some.

Science literacy can be defined as:

PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) 2006 defines science literacy as an individual’s scientific knowledge and use of that knowledge to identify questions, to acquire new knowledge, to explain scientific phenomena, and to draw evidence based conclusions about science-related issues, understanding of the characteristic features of science as a form of human knowledge and enquiry, awareness of how science and technology shape our material, intellectual, and cultural environments, and willingness to engage in science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen.

This definition is highly referential to the concept of science, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:

science |ˈsīəns|


the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment : the world of science and technology.

• a particular area of this : veterinary science | the agricultural sciences.

• a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject : the science of criminology.

This term is rooted in the Latin scire, which is to know . If one looks at the first definition on its own, independent of the second definition and conjunction with the most popular applications of the term science, there seems to be little room for art and design. Yet, when revisiting the definition of science itself, the idea of the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment, a door opens up to some new possibilities.

Design is largely about the study of human situations and interacting with people, ideas, and space to create solutions that emerge within those spaces. Unlike science, which has a focus on observation and understanding, design is about taking such understanding and applying it to problem solving. Milton Glaser describes design as intervention into the flow of events and the introduction of intention into human affairs.

Art is a means of expression and for exploring the intangible and making it so. It is for such reasons that art + design go together so much.

Reading the different definitions of literacy and considering what science, design and art do, it seems to me right that we contemplate the ways in which they come together. Art and design are part of the normative scientific lexicon, but perhaps they should. As the human-centred problems that science aims to tackle become more complex, abstract and intangible — climate change, chronic disease, food security, social inclusion/exclusion and mass migration/globalization — the need to visualize the problems in new ways and create (design) solutions based on science becomes imperative.

The only way this will take place is to have greater literacy on how this can be in order to recognize the opportunities that science, design and art present and the ability to transform that into true positive intention into human affairs.

** Image used under Creative Commons Licence from Flickr Pool, by freeparking.

behaviour changehealth promotionknowledge translationpublic health

Health Communication in the Age of Pamphlets

Although social media is all around us, there is a tendency to forget that it is still new and, in the case of public health, very new. What would / did our health communications system look like if it was designed for pamphlets instead of apps, door-to-door visits instead of Facebook, and libraries instead of websites?

I was at a meeting today and caught the phrase “health communication in the age of pamphlets” as a frank, but concerning assessment of how much we rely on models of communication that emphasize written text, paper-based materials, professionals handing them out or information racks as the distribution channel, and authority and fear as the driver.

If we designed our communications systems for pamphlets, we might have a system that looks like this:

1. Public health officials (mostly physicians) would tell the public what was good for them, how to act in case of emergencies, and they would be doing it with confidence.

2. That confidence would come from experience and some evidence and both of those would have largely complete information, or at least good enough information.

3. Messages would be crafted using mostly text in language (almost exclusively English, except maybe French in some cases here in Canada) that was authoritative and technical.

4. Information could be easily found in doctors offices and some public libraries (you wouldn’t want to put too much information in the library because there are no health professionals there).

5. The conditions that caused illness were straightforward, could be diagnosed and treated and that the reasons people got sick in the first place was that they were largely not taking care of themselves.

It seems to me that this system isn’t that different than what we have now.

The only difference is that people have options and that is what they are seeking. They are also seeking relationships,
…are recognizing that illness is caused by social as well as other determinants,
…that their peers and lay helpers have a lot to offer,
…that professionals’ knowledge is limited, but that they are still very important for specific things,
…that they would rather be in partnership with health professionals than not
…there are limits to what we know and that being an informed consumer is an important skill in the world these days
… that there are as many questions as answers.

Information technology, networks, and a newfound sense of empowerment is changing a lot and maybe soon it will change public health communications.

complexityeducation & learningevaluationsocial systems

Complexity and Child-Rearing: Why Amy Chua is Neither Right or Wrong


Science strives for precision and finding the right or at least the best answers to questions. The science of complexity means shifting our thinking from right answers to appropriate ones and what is best to good. The recent debate over parenting (particularly among Chinese families) illustrates how framing the issue and the outcomes makes a big difference.

Amy Chuais probably the most reviled mother in America” according to Margaret Wente writing in the Globe and Mail.  In her column, Wente is looking at the phenomenon that Chua writes about in her new book on parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. What has drawn such attention to Chua and her book is that she advocates for a very strict method of parenting in a manner that achieves very specific objectives with her children. The payoff? Her children are very successful. This is not a new argument, particularly when it comes to Chinese and other Asian cultural stereotypes. But like many stereotypes, they emerge from something that has a kernel of truth that gets used in ways that gets applied as a universal, rather than in context. Judging by the comments on the original Wall Street Journal story that attracted attention and the Globe and Mail’s review page, I would say that there is some truth to this stereotype and some wild overstatements as this gets applied universally to parenting.

A summary of the comments and commentary on this, crudely, fall into two camps (which, for reasons I’ll elaborate on later is ironic given how problematic the whole idea of reducing arguments into twos is, but go with me on this): 1) Amy Chua is recalling my childhood or parenting reality and its nice to hear someone acknowledge it and 2) Amy Chua is promoting harmful, inaccurate, racist stereotypes.

Child-raising is a common example of a complex system, showing how past experience is not necessarily a formula for future success. Thus, you can have the same parents, same household, even same genes (in the case of twins) and get two very different outcomes. Complex systems do not lend themselves to recipes or “best practices”. You can’t shoehorn complexity into “right” / “wrong” and either/or positions.

What is interesting about the discussion around Chua’s parenting style, which she claims reflects traditional Chinese behaviour (I am not Chinese so this is out of my realm for comment) is that the focus is on raising successful children, not necessarily happy, well-adjusted, self-determined or even creative children. And success, in the terms referred to means achieving or exceeding certain prescriptive standards for socially acceptable activities. This might mean acceptance at a prestigious school, an error-free performance, or a straight A report card. It is a rather narrowly proscribed form of achievement based upon a particular set of cultural conditions and assumptions.

One of the problems I see in this debate is that people are conflating the two types of outcomes, which is where the complexity comes in. What Chua has done is actually refer to parenting in line with a set of complicated activities and outputs, rather than part of a complex system. She has sought to reduce the complexity in the system of parenting by focusing on issues of tangible measurement and has created a familial system aimed at reducing the likelihood that these objectives will not be met. Her benchmark for success are visible outcomes, not the kind that come from growing one’s self-esteem, building true friendships, or learning to love. This isn’t to say that her children or those raised by “tiger parents” don’t have such experiences, but this isn’t what her method of parenting is focused on. And therein lies the rub and why much of the debate surrounding Chua’s book is misaligned.

If you are assessing the life of a person and their total experience as a human being, Chua’s method of parenting is quite problematic. Success in this situation has many different paths and may not even have a clear outcome. What does it really mean to be successful if love, happiness, and self-fulfilment is the outcome of interest – particularly when all of those things change and evolve over a week, a month or a lifetime? It is the kind of task that one might use developmental evaluation to assess if you were looking to determine what kind of impact a particular form of parenting has on children’s lives. Margaret Wente’s article uses some examples of “tiger parenting” outcomes with those who achieved much “success” using the benchmarks of externally validated standards and found mixed outcomes when “success” was viewed as part of a whole person. Andre Agassi grew to loathe tennis because of his experience, while Lang Lang appears to love his piano playing. Both have achieved success in some ways, but not all.

These two examples also go to show that with human systems, there is little ability to truly control the outcomes and process. Even if one can reduce outcomes to complicated or simplistic terms, those outcomes are still influenced by complex interactions. Complicated systems can be embedded within complex ones or the opposite. So no matter what kind of prescription a person uses, no matter how tight the controls are put, the influence of complexity has a way of finding itself into human affairs.

So is Amy Chua’s method of parenting successful or not, supportive or harmful, right or wrong? The answer is yes.

complexityeducation & learningemergencesystems sciencesystems thinking

Storytelling, Sense-making, and Systems Thinking

Making sense of life through storytelling

I teach a class on systems thinking perspectives on public health. This past week we discussed the role of narratives and storytelling as ways to learn about systems and how to organize diverse information and how to make sense of it all.

For those working in systems thinking and complexity science within a public health context, there is much to be excited about in terms of opportunities, much less to be excited about when it comes to knowledge synthesis. That is, there isn’t a lot out there to synthesize when someone wants to study a problem from a systems perspective. Particularly if one is looking for clues as to what kind of evidence can inform decision making. Indeed, a great deal of the problems that systems thinkers face in many fields have no substantive body of evidence to support decision making.

And even if there was such a body, complex systems are often so dynamic that evidence becomes hard to apply because the contexts in which that knowledge is generated is so particular. Even on the same subject, a study of complexity or system dynamics might only provide guidance on ways to approach other problems, rather than prescriptive strategies. That’s complexity and systems for you.

But knowing that doesn’t mean that we can’t look at the problems in some depth. Those looking to take on systems problems tend to find two main questions (challenges) starting out: what are the boundaries of the system, and how does all the information within those boundaries fit together?

To answer these questions, I had my class consider the story of their problem. As part of the course, each student is asked to concentrate on one subject of personal interest and last week I asked the class to consider the story of the problem that they are wrestling with in their research and health promotion work. These public health problems include issues of workplace wellness, HIV/Hepatitis co-infection in prisons, healthy fathering, the application of design to health, youth engagement, environmental sustainability and resilience and more, so there is much to talk about.

Storytelling suffers from being that thing you did as kids like the photo above or something you do for fun, but isn’t widely considered a valid tool for exploring complex systems. It is this myth that I sought to dispel in my class, because when you start telling the story of system, remarkable things happen and much sense can be made from relatively little information.

I started off with some reference sources from the always interesting and insightful Dave Snowden, drawing on two of his earlier papers on narrative and organizational strategy. Dave’s written extensively on this topic, including role that paradox plays in stories, with many other resources found here. What this did was frame the issue not just of one of stories, but large and small narrative patterns that shape the way that people understand the system they are in.

In the case of the students in my class, they are all dealing with subject material for which there is little material on systems thinking to use as a start point. For most of them, they have little idea of where they are within that system relative to the problem at hand. Storytelling provides an opportunity to cover a lot of ground and organize the information that we already know about a system into a manner that allows us some sense-making opportunity. Sometimes there are large stories and grand narratives to which they belong, but often it is the small exchanges or micro-narratives that we work with. Both provide much fodder for systems thinking.

What makes a story is a coherent organization of information, characters, a plot, tension or conflict, a setting and a point of view. With these elements one starts to provide the context and boundary conditions for imagining a system and thus, the foundations for a model of it.

This can be done through long-form narrative or something simple like a haiku (in fact, one of the learners in the class wrote a series of haikus on her topic).

When you write out your story, notice what gets included and what does not.

  • What emotions are present (if any)?
  • Is there any reliance on past knowledge (or evidence)?
  • Are there characters that are more prominent and, if so, why?
  • What is the tension or unresolved conflict in the story?
  • Why was the setting chosen and what limits does it impose?
  • Are you avoiding parts of the system in storytelling intentionally? Or, are you choosing to tell the story in a manner that hides or obscures parts of it you feel uncomfortable with?

These are some of the questions that a systems thinker can ask of the story that is produced, and the answers provide insight into what the system holds, how its organized, and how you as an agent of inquiry and change intend to influence it. The goal isn’t to create the best model or the right model, for neither of those exist. What is about is creating appropriate, useful models. And as George Box famously said about models:

All models are false. Some models are useful

All stories are fiction, but for systems thinkers, some stories are useful.

** Photo from the New York Public Library via The Commons Flickr pool . No copyright exists.

complexitydesign thinkingeducation & learningsocial systemssystems thinking

Designing Education for Learning

Injecting Knowledge or Foolishness?

Education strives to prepare learners to meet the social, scientific and technical demands of a changing world, yet does so in a manner that seems antithetical to change. We put people in rows, we create arbitrary time horizons and rules, and rely on a model that looks more like a factory than a place of learning. What gives?

As a new academic term begins, the old one closes, and all those year-end lists and year-beginning previews flood the media world I’ve found myself asking the twin questions: what did we teach/learn/discover and what did it matter?

In a previous post I discussed the problem with grades and their lack of fit with learning in complex systems. Here, I want to continue that thread, with a focus on post-secondary education (although it most certainly applies to all forms of structured learning) and knowledge translation in professional practice.

Feedback is critical to adaptation and the emergence of new patterns of order in complex systems. Adaptation comes from the incorporation of this feedback into new cognitive, social or physical structures. This is learning.

Yet consider the manner in which we structure our educational environments. They are not really designed for learning much at all. At least, they aren’t if you believe that people learn at different times, in different ways, using a complex array of media that requires multiple literacies, through interaction with other people, fail and fail often in a manner that is safe, in settings that allow for “mess” and promote ways to structure or unstructure their environment.

A colleague of mine and I were walking back from a meeting of a continuing medical education committee and stopped in front of the hospital to chat about the kind of challenges she faces in professional education in the hospital with doctors.

The only time I can get people in the same room is to do continuing education is 7am. There is one hour when the night shift (which is usually 12 or 24 hours long) is ready to go home and the new shift is ready to start. And we expect people to actually learn? Nearly everyone is asleep and everyone’s mind is on something else. I have to be really entertaining to make this stuff stick.

Is this learning? This continuing education effort is a failure not of the learners, nor the teachers, but of educational design. If 7-8am before/after shift is the only time that the scheduling system will allow for face-to-face learning, then that’s what has to take place first. Shifting the system as a whole must come soon after.

What made this conversation so well timed was that it took place after a meeting in which we spoke for two hours on ways to encourage online learning in effective ways. The problem, as we noted in that meeting, wasn’t that the tools were ineffective, but that they required people to access them from home, in their private time because there were no structured time to do it on the job, and firewalls to prevent access to most Web-based programs in the first place. In this case, the system was designed to thwart learning opportunities except those that require inordinate levels of educational skill, lots of coffee, and an unreasonable level of motivation among learners (the 7am con-ed moment).

The idea of bringing design to education has started to take root. Bruce Mau, who has inspired social design through his Massive Change projects, along with his design firm has teamed with OWP/P Cannon Design and furniture maker VS America to create the Third Teacher collaboration that is aimed at bringing design thinking to education. The work, initially focused on primary schools, has expanded to include the entire Arizona State University campus. The ASU experience has adopted the idea of the purpose-driven university through use of design strategies to help the university and its community find, affirm and commit to their purpose.

The collaboration looks to explore ways to create physical spaces, intellectual spaces, and facilitate the interaction between all spaces to enhance learning. This interaction space creates the feedback potential that ignites creativity, innovation and discovery. This is what an education system for learning could look like.

(Photo credit: Education by smemon87, used under Creative Commons Licence)

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