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.

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