Month: February 2011

art & designdesign thinkinghealth promotioninnovationsocial systems

Designing for Innovation: The Role of Time and Space

The language of design is geared towards birthing products and services, but rarely about their sustainability and life over time. What else might move the dialogue from studio to ecosystem?

The latest issue of Fast Company (the magazine) is focused on the top 50 innovative companies. The list features technology-focused companies, architectural firms, design studios and social innovators. Apple is there, so is IDEO, along with a group of people and concepts that were less familiar.

The focus for the issue was on who was innovating well this past year. On Apple they write:

Forget Apple’s ascension to the most valuable tech business. Forget the iPhone 4’s drama-defying success. If all Apple had going for it were the iPad, it would still be atop our list. Most impressive of all, though, is how Apple’s platforms have enabled an ecosystem of creativity, from gaming to finance to chipmaking.

What stood out here was how Apple was developing an ecosystem of creativity. Here, the focus is on creating an entire culture of innovation within a particular company. Cultural production is not something done lightly, nor easily.

Tony Schwartz, writing for the Harvard Business Review, suggests six ways or “secrets” to building this kind of innovative culture:

  1. Meet People’s Needs. Recognize that questioning orthodoxy and convention — the key to creativity — begins with questioning the way people are expected to work. The more people are preoccupied by unmet needs, the less energy and engagement they bring to their work.
  2. Teach Creativity Systematically. It isn’t magical and it can be developed. There are five well-defined, widely accepted stages of creative thinking: first insight, saturation, incubation, illumination, and verification. They don’t always unfold predictably, but they do provide a roadmap for enlisting the whole brain, moving back and forth between analytic, deductive left hemisphere thinking, and more pattern-seeking, big-picture, right hemisphere thinking. The best description of the stages I’ve come across is in Betty Edward’s book Drawing on the Artist Within. The best understanding of the role of the right hemisphere, and how to cultivate it, is in Edwards’ first book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
  3. Nurture Passion. The quickest way to kill creativity is to put people in roles that don’t excite their imagination. This begins at an early age. Kids who are encouraged to follow their passion develop better discipline, deeper knowledge, and are more persevering and more resilient in the face of setbacks. Look for small ways to give employees, at every level, the opportunity and encouragement to follow their interests and express their unique talents.
  4. Make the Work Matter. Human beings are meaning-making animals. Money pays the bills but it’s a thin source of meaning. We feel better about ourselves when we we’re making a positive contribution to something beyond ourselves. To feel truly motivated, we have to believe what we’re doing really matters.
  5. Provide the Time. Creative thinking requires relatively open-ended, uninterrupted time, free of pressure for immediate answers and instant solutions. Time is a scarce, overburdened commodity in organizations that live by the ethic of “more, bigger, faster.” Ironically, the best way to insure that innovation gets attention is to schedule sacrosanct time for it, on a regular basis.
  6. Value Renewal. Human beings are not meant to operate continuously the way computers do. We’re designed to expend energy for relatively short periods of time — no more than 90 minutes — and then recover. The third stage of the creative process, incubation, occurs when we step away from a problem we’re trying to solve and let our unconscious work on it. It’s effective to go on a walk, or listen to music, or quiet the mind by meditating, or even take a drive. Movement — especially exercise that raises the heart rate — is another powerful way to induce the sort of shift in consciousness in which creative breakthroughs spontaneously arise.

Schwarz’s argument underscores the importance of considering time and space for healthy design. If one is to consider designing for human systems we need strategies that recognize the conditions in which humans have evolved to thrive in. The modern office cubicle is just over a half century old. Fluorescent lights have been in use for twice as long. Our modern educational system with its rows and stiff structure modeled on the factory is just a little older than that.

None of these were designed as human-centred supports for learning, rather they aim at economizing time and space to produce a product. Innovation is not really a product, it’s too complex and not very specific. But, like many of the best things in life, it can bring value beyond what is known in the moment its conceived.

Consider what a design plan might look like if we planned our products for ecosystems, to be a part of a larger complex whole where it was intended to function for a longer time, producing value on its own over that lifecourse. What might that look like relative to a product that or service designed for a very particular time and space that is seen to not evolve? We speak of timeless designs, but those are designs that have an integrity that lasts beyond the moment and a function that reveals greater use or sustainability over successive periods.

In health and social service terms, this might be developing strategies  that address not only the immediate conditions, but create a developmental approach to evaluation and adaptation that supports the adaptation of this program to changing conditions.

By factoring time and space into design, the promise of creating more responsive and sustainable products emerges and the more likely people will take design as something beyond producing the latest trend.

** Photo by alancleaver_2000 used under Creative Commons Licence from Flickr

art & designdesign thinkingknowledge translationresearchscience & technology

Design and Science: An Opportunity for Knowledge Translation and Exchange??

Design of Science or Science of Design

IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown recently observed a renewed interest in design within science, but is that same feeling reciprocated and, if so, what does that mean for both fields?

Tim Brown, author and CEO of the renowned design firm IDEO, recently posted on the firm’s blog some observations he had on the relationship between design and science.

In that post, he asks some important questions of both designers and scientists.

I wonder how much might be gained if designers had a deeper understanding of the science behind synthetic biology and genomics? Or nanotechnology? Or robotics? Could designers help scientists better see the implications and opportunities of the technologies they are creating? Might better educated and aware designers be in a position to challenge the assumptions of the science or reinterpret them in innovative ways? Might they do a better job of fitting the new science into our lives so that we can gain more benefit?

The question of the relationship between designers and the science used to inform the materials or products they us is one that will play out differently depending on the person and context. However, I would welcome the opportunity for designers to challenge much of what science — and I use that term broadly — does, particularly with regards to the application or translation of scientific research into policies and practices. Indeed, this is a frontier where designers have tremendous opportunities to contribute as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

Knowledge translation and translational research are two of the most vexing problem domains in science, particularly with health. Despite years of efforts, scientists haven’t been able to advance the integration of what is learned into what is done at a rate that is acceptable to policy makers, practitioners and the public alike. The problem isn’t just with scientists, but the way the scientific enterprise has been engineered.

Scientists haven’t had to consider design before. Tim Brown asks further questions about what it might be like if they did:

If scientists were more comfortable with intuitive nature of design might they ask more interesting questions? The best scientists often show great leaps of intuition as they develop new hypotheses and yet so much modern science seems to be a dreary methodical process that answers ever more incremental questions. If scientists had some of the skills of designers might they be better able to communicate their new discoveries to the public?

In this case, it might be the chance for designers to step up and consider ways to work with those in science to create better institutional policies, laboratories, and collaborative environments to foster the kind of linkages necessary for effective knowledge translation.

Knowledge translation models, such as the widely cited one conceived of by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, are both process and outcome oriented; ideal for designers. KT is a designed process and the more it is approached through the lens of design thinking, the greater likelihood we’ll get a system that reflects its intentions better than what we currently have.

complexitydesign thinkingeHealthhealth promotionpublic health

Complexity, Interaction Design and Social Media

Social Media Targeting for Head & Heart

Social media, like all human activities, involves designed interactions in a complex environment. How we design for this space is as much about the social — and the complexity that results from it — as it is the media.

Yesterday I participated in a webinar on social media strategy hosted by the Program Training and Consultation Centre’s Media Network. The focus was on how public health professionals can use social media to engage their populations of interest to advance health promotion. Examples of how social media is being used were presented from ParticipACTION, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and my own research group’s Youth4Health initiative to show how these tools could enhance health communications.

What might have caught some of attendees by surprise was the introduction of complexity science concepts and design thinking into the discussion. These terms are not often used in public health, but as I’ve argued many times in this space, they ought to play a much larger role.

The other potential surprise for some might have been the emphasis on relationships, connection and the kind of things that Brian Solis showcases (see infographic above). Solis describes social media as:

Social media is a deeply personal ecosystem that I lovingly refer to as the EGOsystem. As such, there is a “me” in social media for a reason. It is quite literally a world in which we are at the center of our online experiences, a place where everything and everyone revolves around us. – Brian Solis

When a person is at the centre of an experience that is human formed and technology mediated, design is very important. How one engages with others and the opportunities afforded within that environment or EGOsystem is largely a product of design. For example, Facebook provides a great deal of opportunity to bring in your close “friends” into a conversation, but is relatively poor at bringing in strangers. In contrast, Twitter is about bringing anyone into the conversation, particularly strangers. As I like to put it:

Twitter enables you to learn answers to questions you never thought to ask, have conversations you could have never planned, and meet people you never knew existed

In both of these contexts, the manner in which one designs for interactions has a profound influence on what kind of conversations take place. To use Solis’ model above, attention to interaction design qualities of the technological and social space helps amplify the white arrows, dampen the effect of the blue arrows, with an aim of enhancing the power of the red arrow (belevolence).

This attention to these kind of patterns is at the heart (no pun intended) of complexity oriented planning and why social media, design and complexity require mutual consideration in developing strategy. When in complex spaces, the tempo, rhythm, and pattern of information exchange shifts constantly, just like in a regular conversation. So approaching the program from the perspective of a traditional, more linear-focused mindset will inevitably lead to a misalignment between program activities and the outcomes produced.

If you’re expecting to get a firm outcome from a social media strategy, you might be disappointed. If you are looking for surprises, consider more flexible outcomes, then social media may deliver the goods — but only if you design your strategy to suit the complexity of the context. A complex setting is one where there are multiple agents interacting and producing emergent new properties through such interaction. It it therefore fitting that the concept of interaction design be considered in examining how we engage in these environments.

Much of the discourse on social media from marketing and communication leaders hints at these concepts, but doesn’t name them. By explicitly making complexity, design and the social part of social media a focus we can more intentionally create better experiences that will engage our audiences, and in the case of public health, promote health.

art & designbehaviour changecomplexitydesign thinkinghealth promotion

Behaviour and Bodies, Systems and Design

A book of life and interconnections

Drawing connections between our bodies and our behaviour reveals systems thinking in new ways that can lend themselves to contemplating greater ways to consider the relationship between design and its consequences on human health.

One of the reasons cited for not exercising is pain and discomfort, particularly if you are not regularly active. Yesterday I had the chance to confront this head-on as I lay on the table getting Fascial Stretch Therapy at my gym. I exercise regularly and do my best to stretch, but nowhere near enough as my therapist (painfully) pointed out to me. FST is a technique that involves controlled manipulation of your body to stretch your muscles in ways that go beyond what one might do with regular stretches on their own or through yoga.

FST and yoga are attractive not only to my body — which really needs the stretching! — but also my mind, and not just for the mental relaxation and body awareness that they encourage, but also because they inspire both systems thinking and design thinking. In doing so, it reveals to me how these two concepts so often need to be linked to fully appreciate how systems function and how design can contribute to solutions or problems within such systems.

A technique like FST or practice like yoga are systems-oriented in that they fundamentally recognize the interconnections between groups of muscles, biological subsystems, and the environment in which these intersect. Thus, while there may be discomfort in your back, the cause may be located in the hips or legs or feet — or all three — and that only by addressing these other areas can one reasonably hope to address the problem in a satisfactory manner. This is systems thinking about a biological problem.

The reason these problems persist is a matter of design. I am seeking help stretching my muscles because I work in an environment that has me sitting most of the day in meetings, facing a computer screen typing madly, or leaning up against a wall in the hallway. I do keep active by walking to work and taking the stairs and running back and forth between my research group‘s area and my office, but that only does so much. The design of my space, my job, and the social conditions that frame how both of those interact with my body has real implications for my health and wellbeing. The conditions in which my biological system is changed is a matter of design.

This is a system with a design problem and therefore requires systems thinking and design as the solution.

Speaking with my FST therapist, the distinctions between a systems approach to care and the more traditional models became more obvious than ever. I couldn’t think of an area of medicine that would deal with the systems problem I was seeking treatment for. And while there are many who deal with issues of ergonomics, workplace stress, and the architecture of buildings, I can’t think of any person or group that would deal with the design of my work in a manner that would improve my health at a systems level. Instead, there are many who would deal with a component of the problem, reducing the whole into parts, and treat them independently. In doing so, the amount of effort required to get things addressed increases, costs go up, and the effectiveness goes down. This is our modern health care system.

While FST works for muscles and biology, we need something similar for our social and organizational systems.

What would happen if we took a systems and design oriented approach to these problems, looking at our social systems like my therapist looks at my body as a biological system? What can we learn from more holistic approaches to treatment that can be applied to social systems and prevention? And how can design help us bring those together in a cohesive manner?

Until we ask these questions and vigorously pursue the answers to them, tight, inflexible and uncomfortable may be terms used for more than just our muscles.



** Photo (Untitled) by history-art-photos, used under a Creative Commons License from Flickr.

complexityscience & technology

The Myth of (Complex) Decision Making

Can computers contemplate how ridiculous they look in a cowboy hat?

This week Watson, the latest IBM-created supercomputer trounced two of Jeopardy’s greatest champions at their own game. A sign of the dawn of true artificial intelligence or a red herring?

It seems that this was not a great week for human decision making. After much hype, the human race lost its supreme battle for supremacy on Jeopardy to a computer named Watson. Just as it was said when Garry Kasparov was beaten by another IBM product, Deep Blue, in 1997 as a match of chess supremacy, computers are now considered to be nearing the smarts of humans. It sounds plausible when you consider what kind of knowledge that Jeopardy champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings.

The problem is that Jeopardy is about knowledge of facts organized in a catalogue manner. With all due respect to Mssrs Rutter and Jennings, the ability to learn facts is relatively straightforward, even if nearly 99% of the population can’t do it as well as they can. It is a simple input-storage-output problem, whereby data is entered, encoded and stored, and then brought forth upon request. It is the classic example of something that might be simple, but not easy. Clearly, the fact that it took many years of programming to create a computer that could compete with humans shows how difficult the task is.

But the discourse that suggests that Watson and its progeny are about to displace humans is misguided for many reasons, but most notably because of the nature of the problem at hand. Computers are pretty good — perhaps outstanding — at organizing and recalling simple information that is presented in a linear manner. They might also be good at complicated information, the kind that is organized in a manner that has many interlocking components, but still has a relatively ordered manner.

Complexity introduces a whole new realm of problem solving skills that I don’t see computers addressing soon. Complexity adds an exponentially larger amount of information combinations that become contextually bound. Computers are great at processing algothrims, but not so good at reading landscapes like humans are. We’re wired for it.

It’s one thing to ask who wrote the Études-tableaux (“study pictures”),  two sets of piano pieces developed by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and quite another to explain how the piece can be used to understand the mood and spirit of the Fair that was invoked by the piece. The former is simple, the latter is more complex as it is open to multiple interpretations and contexts, which overlap creating a complex scenario.

A complex scenario cannot be broken down into component parts, because we never have perfect information that is complete. In chess or Jeopardy! we do, we can know all of the answers and possible combinations and thus can program something to respond to it. Too often, this model prevails in our decision-making in public health, where we naively presume we know everything. But that is often a fallacy or at best, a myth.

Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow. – Agent K (played by Tommy Lee Jones),  Men in Black

We once knew that health was simple, that research knowledge would always translate into use in a way that researchers intended it to be, and that the problems we faced we would solve using computers. Imagine — to follow Men in Black — what we will know tomorrow?

art & designcomplexitydesign thinkinghealth promotion

Design + Love = Change

Design love, produce change

Sigmund Freud believed examination of life was useful for making people better at work and love. Designers are brought it to support the former, but have opportunities to contribute to the latter in ways that might be better for society than anything cupid has to offer.

It’s Valentine’s Day here in North America. Although the days’ modern expression is clearly commercial, the thought of having a day that is devoted to love is quite appropriate for those interested in design, social change and health.

Love is an uneasy bedfellow (to mix metaphors) with much of what we do in business, design, and health promotion. But not all designers or change agents avoid speaking of a term that may be the most profound expression of the compassion, attention and care that creates products, services and policies that produce healthier, happier societies. As designers, health promoters and change agents, there may be no greater goal than to produce love and no more powerful vehicle for this change than love itself.

Love and power are two of the great forces that underpin social change

Adam Kahane, an organizer and designer who has worked on creating social change on a grand scale, has written and spoken widely about this tension, arguing that we need to design conditions to promote love in partnership with a deep seated understanding of how power is manifest in the change relationship. Kahane uses the tools of design and systems thinking to get communities to visualize possible futures. By walking through various ways in which love and power can be wielded and cultivated, he helps groups struggling to promote change to be more attentive and aware of the role of love in encouraging healthful application of power. Creating scenarios in people’s heads shows how the affairs of the heart can influence design outcomes.

Fast company wrote back in 1998:

Kahane sees scenario planning as an instrument of social change. “I believe that we have a much greater capacity to shape the future than we allow ourselves to think,” he says.

Of the various labels Kahane has, one that he has embraced is that of designer. He uses love and its relationship to power as means of creating dialogue about possible futures on complex topics. This embrace of love also means acknowledging complexity, which just like love, is dynamic, multi-faceted and unpredictable. Power is the means to leverage love into social change.

Milton Glaser has described design as the introduction of intention into the stream of life to produce a specific change. or more broadly:

Design is the introduction of intention into human affairs

Intention is about awareness, focused attention and projection of consciousness to motivate action. In many ways, it is the application of love. Designers who work with the intention to produce healthy outcomes, may be using more than just creativity and social engagement as their tools, they may be employing their heart.

Arthur Zajonc has explored the role of intention and mindfulness as a means of designing greater learning environments and creating cultures of contemplative inquiry. His recent book on the subject, focuses on those points where knowing something — yourself, others, a subject matter — intimately through compassionate reflection produces love. This is the cultivation of intention and the purposeful expression of it to human affairs. Mindfulness and design go hand in hand.

If design is about introducing, provoking and facilitating change, and if such change must be guided by intention, then efforts aimed at social change for health most likely require attention to love. So consider the work that you do to make your community a better place the best Valentine of them all.

** Photo Love by Aunt Owee, used under Creative Commons License from Flickr.

art & designdesign thinkinghealth promotioninnovation

Design and Social Justice

Design employs the language of problem solving and features a great deal of tools that encourage participation in solution generation, yet what problems get solved and what solutions are generated for whom are, too often, left untouched.

Yesterday I had a long conversation with a fellow health promotion designer  that covered much ground, including the importance of making social justice as a focus for our work explicit. That is what makes us health promoters different when it comes to approaching problems of design. Hours later, the tweet shown above appeared in my Twitter stream illustrating similar concern, but from a design students’ perspective.

A colleague of mine recently used the metaphor of teaching someone to swim from a book to illustrate the problems associated with addressing complex topics using theory alone. Indeed, even if Michael Phelps sat down and outlined every single thought, feeling and physical movement associated with swimming and put it to page, it would be of little use to someone who has never, ever been in the water and swam. However, if a person was a swimmer, some of the lessons on this hypothetical Book of Swimming could be useful. In other words, one needs to act in order to make sense of theory.

That is the key distinction. Social scientists refer to the concept of praxis, the fusing of theory and experienced action, as a way of addressing this gap between the idea of something and its realization.

So, I tried to do a kind of semantic clarification in which praxis—if not on the thither side of this divide—was perhaps somehow between the theoretical and the practical as they are generally understood, and particularly as they are understood in modern philosophy. Praxis as the manner in which we are engaged in the world and with others has its own insight or understanding prior to any explicit formulation of that understanding…Of course, it must be understood that praxis, as I understand it, is always entwined with communication. —Calvin O. Schrag. [1]

Design thinking and its potential applications to support social justice is readily apparent to someone with an imagination. The use of combined logical, emotional and abductive reasoning, participatory forms of knowledge generation, the attention to context, and the prototyping of ideas to ensure that what is communicated is heard are all highly consistent with an agenda more familiar to those who work in social justice initiatives and health promotion. Yet is social justice a part of the praxis of design? The above tweet suggests that some designers are questioning that.

The question I have is that has the social justice language been infused with action, or are designers simply talking and not doing?

Observing much of the work by prominent design firms such as IDEO and Bruce Mau Design would suggest that design and social justice are a good fit and that it is being practiced vigorously. Perhaps. But a closer look at a lot of the initiatives that focus on addressing social problems reveals a dearth of questioning about the systems in which these situations are produced. A recent example is the work of IDEO and their collaboration with the Acumen Fund looking at issues of water quality and safety in India.

“There is no silver bullet to the world water crisis. Addressing the crisis certainly is not simply a matter of better product design — we will need a range of options that accommodate for the myriad varying climatic, hydrological, terrestrial, and cultural dimensions of the problem,” noted Jonathan Greenblatt of “New players like IDEO can offer highly useful lessons from the field of design that, when adapted to the water sector, could yield interesting results.” – From IDEO.

And indeed they have. In a webinar yesterday from Stanford’s Social Innovation Review, IDEO’s lead in that area, Joceleyn Watt, used this project as an example of ways to apply design thinking to social problems and how this approach led to a deeper understanding of why women in India were often not choosing water from a treatment plant over water from a polluted well. The answer had much to do with the design of the size of container of water that the treatment plant required the women to use (it was too big), the cumbersome hours the plant was open, and pricing models that required women to buy much more water than they needed each month.

From a designer’s perspective, this problem was addressed quite well. But from a perspective of social justice, it could be argued that much less was achieved. Did the process call into question why the treatment plant opted to use 5 gallon jugs (too big for women to carry) in the first place? Did it probe into the rationale for pricing models that clearly encouraged waste in a system that can ill-afford it? Were the power dynamics that were established when the treatment facility was created looked at in how it affected those people most likely to benefit from it? Although women provided insight into the problem, were they given opportunities to develop skills that would encourage them to address future problems without a designer on hand?

When IDEO and Acumen leave, the community may find itself facing new problems of the same nature, yet without the designers around, those problems may go unsolved.

The answer to some or all of these questions may be yes, but if so, it wasn’t apparent. My review of the design briefs and project reports of most social design projects suggest that “no” is the more likely response.

There is an opportunity for designers to make a bigger impact beyond the product. It follows what Jane Winhall writes on Core 77’s blog more than 5 years ago:

Designers must find new ways of working that enable them to apply their skills where they are most needed – to tackle problems such as chronic health care, climate change and an ageing population.

I would argue that this new way of working should consider a praxis focused on social justice as a vehicle for sustainability.