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.