Month: September 2011

knowledge translationpublic healthresearchsocial media

Knowledge Translation Lip (Sync) Service

Dancing for a Cure

Researchers and policy makers wring their hands and wrack their brains at ways to get people to take up the knowledge generated through scientific research and use it for social good and further invention. Some, stop doing this and just make it happen and YouTube and the Internet are showing us how.

Designer, strategist and broadcaster Debbie Millman, host of the Design Matters podcast, signs off each episode with a great quote:

We can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both

It seems when talking about knowledge translation, there is a lot of talk about how to do it better and then there are some who just do it better. McGill University and some of the researchers associated with the Goodman Cancer Research Centre have partnered up with filmmakers, volunteers and a medical supply company to ‘dance for cancer’ as a means of promoting their work and raising funds for cancer research. (The company, Medicom, has offered to donate per click so if you’re interested in donating and being entertained, click the link below).

Besides being catchy (Taio Cruz‘s club hit, Dynamite, is the song that these researchers and cast are dancing to) and well-produced, the video unscores the potential that video and some creative use of the arts can offer the scientific community in showing the world what it does and how it does it. The video shows what life is like (in a singing-and-dancing way) in a lab and showcases some of the people who do it, making them real humans rather than some mysterious “scientists off in the lab”.

They are designing a knowledge translation opportunity that (so far) has been viewed nearly 30,000 times as of this writing. I suspect that number will triple in the coming weeks. When some of the best, most cited research articles in the world are read (viewed) by maybe hundreds of people, the attention of thousands in such a short time should give pause.

Further, of the thousands that view the video, it is safe to say that most are non-scientists. For many, but certainly not all, of the studies we do in public and population health, the audience for this video is almost the same as ours — or at least includes many of the same people. Not all studies or research projects will yield the kind of data that are video-worthy or inspire photosharing, but some are. Many more than we acknowledge. And if we want the public engaged in science, if we want to reach practitioners and inspire policy makers and researchers alike to pay attention to the evidence being generated, this video might offer some suggestions for a way forward.

While you think of that, enjoy the choreography and lip sync skill of McGill’s brave super-translators and support a good cause in the process:

complexitydesign thinkingsystems thinking

Systems Thinking and the Design of Empathy

Leadbeater's Systems Thinking - Empathy Grid

Scalability is an issue that faces practitioners in systems and design. How do we design systems at scale and if so, what might they look like.

Charles Leadbeater has been on a mission to find ways to make large organizations — particularly those in the social sector – more innovative. Leadbeater, like many social innovators, is hard to pin down to a single title or role. He is at once a researcher, a designer, a systems thinker, and a urbanist. Like most innovators, all and none of these descriptors truly fit.

Leadbeater was in Toronto earlier this week to speak on the issue of innovation in cross-sector collaboration for public good at the MaRS Discovery District. If you’ve seen Leadbeater speak (consider the talks on TED here or elsewehere), you’ll know that you’re in for some English-style self-depricating humour alongside of much about the manner in which people engage in change actions within a system. You’ll also get a lesson in social design, the kind that Victor Papanek advocated for.

To my delight, Leadbeater did not disappoint. Unlike other talks, the value came less from a focused “take home message” and more in a way of conceiving social systems through the combined lens of systems and design thinking (my terms, not his). At the heart of his talk was the challenge we face with building systems and empathy at scale. When things interact, eventually they become understood within a set of boundary conditions and interact, thus making a system. The system in turn begins to establish rules (or rather, the rules determine the system). These emergent properties thus shape the way the system operates or, in social situations, governs or guides the actions of those within it.

The problem is that at certain scales the very factors that create positive social relations, that is those that yield tangible emotional, resource, or informational benefits for one or more parties, get warped under the changes in that scaling. Thus, we have the countless stories of a beloved small business grown in a confined community that becomes a multinational corporation and, in doing so, loses the intimacy and connection to its customers in the process. Companies do this, government organizations show this, and so do cities.

The more one designs for the humans within the system in ways that create meaningful engagement, the greater the empathy. Yet deep empathy is often founded upon intimacy, which is something that is difficult to scale. Leadbeater illustrates the various ways in which firms and cities have addressed this on the graph above. In each case, there are examples that fit. In business for example, there is Ryanair, which embodies a highly structured system with low empathy (top left corner).  Opposed to that is the local farmer’s market where one gets to know their grower, experience high mutual empathy, but in a manner that is unique, idiosyncratic and non-systematic in most ways. The challenge is how to design organizations at  scale from the cosy-ness of the Farmer’s Market without becoming a Ryanair.

It struck me that the food service industry might be one of the areas where the scalability can be achieved. For example, Starbucks is a gigantic corporation with shops worldwide, yet it still manages to create a very homey, local feel at each one. In the mornings I go to the gym I stop by a location to get a smoothie and my server always remembers my order. At the location near where I take classes, they gave me a free drink because they couldn’t get the computer to take off my 10 cent reusable cup discount. In each location, the benefits were not just in customer service, but in the chit-chat and relationships that I develop with the staff. It’s not like I am speaking to owner-operators at some of the great independent coffee shops around my city, but it is close.

The Starbucks experience was thought through, intentional and thus, by design. We can do this with other systems. The key is whether or not the systems themselves are aware enough to know when they have, indeed, become systems. Starbucks today could not be empathic in exactly the same way as it was when it was a one-shop place at Pikes Market in Seattle. But it can create something similar, which is parallel to Simon’s notion that design is about the science of the artificial.

I’ve been developing and advocating for an approach to creating scale — in time and scope — that I call developmental design. A developmental design approach means shifting and changing over time and designing things in a manner that adjust to the complexities associated with dynamic systems. It brings together complexity, systems, design and the detailed feedback mechanism that comes through developmental evaluation. Leadbeater’s grid helps add to this concept by giving a focus to the development, from one level of empathy to another and one systemic scale to another.

Through thinking in systems and acting through design, perhaps then we can create the kinds of services and organizations that respond to the challenges we face.

And designing for empathy will help us know when we’ve achieved it.

complexitydesign thinkingsystems sciencesystems thinking

Quid nunc cogitat? In search of a definition of design thinking

Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a concept that has gained much purchase in the creative industries and beyond, but what does it mean and does it matter?  Determining an answer to this question might mean the difference between advancing it further or ending the concept’s use altogether.

The Latin form of the question of “what is design thinking?”, quid nunc cogitat?,  asks about what is design thinking now? It implies a sense that design thinking is a moveable, dynamic concept and might better illustrate its true nature than trying to develop a singular definition.

I’ve been struck by the concept of design thinking for some time and this week I began a two-year journey towards a Masters degree in design at OCAD University in Toronto where the concept will be placed at the centre of the curriculum. Perhaps not surprisingly, the first course of the program is Business and Design Thinking. This was the first week of classes and after spending a few days with my classmates it might be expected that this group of mid-career professionals interested in design thinking might have a clear idea of what it is that sits at the centre of their studies, but that hasn’t been the case.

Nor was it the case a few weeks ago at the Design Thinking unconference that I posted on earlier where people from across North America (and beyond) gathered to spend two days discussing the subject. It seems that no matter where I look, whatever books I read, the answer to the question of what is design thinking seems elusive. All these design thinkers and no definition to unite them.

The simplest answer to the question of what it is might be : it is what designers think about when they work.

And a designer might be: anyone who creates something with a conscious intent.

While these might suffice for cocktail parties, they are unsatisfying to those of us who seek to explore the concept of design thinking further than the hors d’oeuvre tray.

Among the best examples of what design thinking is about are conveyed through metaphors, like the Periodic Table of Design (twice!) or the design enzyme, both by social designer Andrea Yip. Roger Martin and others have considered design thinking to be a form of abductive reasoning around complex problem solving. Richard Buchanan suggests that this is the kind of thinking that is applied to wicked problems.

These examples either illustrate the concepts in specific terms or generalized ways of thinking, but do not in themselves provide a definition of design thinking. It seems we are very good at delineating the key elements of design thinking (Andrea Yip), the ways of approaching design problems (Roger Martin) or defining the types of problems that design thinking works best at addressing (see Richard Buchanan), but we are less good at saying what it is.

Perhaps we are left with the paradoxical answer and question posed by Faith No More

What is it? It’s it.

Sudhir Desai has argued that we need terms that have little or no prior meaning to define what design thinking is, lest we risk creating more confusion resulting from pre-conceptions like the words “design” (design what?) and “thinking” (isn’t it about ‘doing’ things too?). Taken further, this argument suggests that we will not find a suitable definition using the existing terms.

I am not so sure. There is another road to take. Consider DT’s close peer, systems thinking. Although not uncontested, many systems thinkers and scientists agree that systems thinking refers to a class of theories, methods and tools that address systems-level issues in a coherent manner. Complexity science, system dynamics, soft-systems methodologies, and cybernetics are among the fields that fall under the broader systems thinking rubric. This organization is best articulated in Michael Jackson’s 2003 book on Systems Thinking, cited in the Censemaking library.

Another good example (also in the library) is the work by evaluators Bob Williams and Richard Hummelbrunner on systems concepts in action. In this concise and articulate work, the authors illustrate the various concepts that fall within the larger realm of systems thinking in a manner that allows people to appreciate the breadth and depth of the concept and its multiple ways of understanding systems.

Design thinking may be ready to make the leap to this style of conceptualization. Rather than seek to kill the term and replace it with something else, as some have argued, perhaps its time to expand it while putting the effort forward towards articulating its components and the relations between them rather than seeking to come up with a gold-standard definition that suits everyone. The latter idea is one that has already suggested its doomed to fail.

Using this example,  design thinking might be ripe to be re-defined as an umbrella term to support concepts like human factors design, plan-do-study-act approaches to change, and strategic foresight. Rather than design thinking be conceived of as a specific thing, it might be better off described as a set of things of which design and thinking are two of the central, unifying features.

Leaving my first full day of school, I walked a classmate to the subway and we discussed this fuzziness with the term and, prior to us parting said “it really is making things with some intent behind it, isn’t it?” to which the response was “yeah, pretty much “. Behind what seemed like a pat answer on both of our parts is a sense that we know design thinking is real and offers something of value that other concepts do not. That is the reason why the search for a definition is important and why this is not just an academic exercise in semantics, but a larger journey for understanding the role creativity plays in finding and addressing problematic issues and how we can better tackle them all.

So perhaps the new definition for design thinking now is: it is what creative people seek to find a definition for.


The Poetics of Insight and Innovation

Communicating more or communicating more deeply

It’s probably rare that you have asked for more information in your work if you’re a health promoter, scientist or designer. Information is everywhere and, too often, in professional worlds, this information is presented in volumous tomes that are devoid of much of the energy that went into creating the knowledge in the first place. This is a problem for knowledge translation.

Poetry offers us insight to worlds that few other means of orality — written or otherwise. In 21st century Western countries, poetry is far less something considered worthy of serious study and is much more a tool of the romantics. We may learn about poetry in English class, but few of take it seriously enough to pursue beyond the halls of academe or a hipster-infused evening of spoken word at a local club once in a while.

That’s too bad.

Catholic scholars have used a process called Lectio Devina, a meditation on a specific phrase, to gain insight.  Lectio (or Lexio) Devina involves taking a single phrase and meditating on its meaning at length. What is remarkable is how much information one can get from a single sentence or phrase. After considerable reflection, the multiple-layered storylines emerge and the options for

Consider what kind of knowledge we could glean is we took a more poetic approach to our work. By crafting it in depth, soaking into a single section, we have the ability to derive a more intense picture of what we are looking at.

Take a research paper. A published report or manuscript typically represents years of effort in conceiving an idea, gathering resources, undertaking a study and doing the work to transform data into information and into knowledge. Yet, the final product — the manuscript — is over viewed with relatively little appreciation. How often have we truly pondered and soaked up an article in depth? Really crticially questioned its contents and marvelled at the methodology, findings and recommendations in a manner that gave us the pause we took? This means going beyond p-values, ’N’, or saturation points to the heart of what the meaning is behind the article.

Or what about re-imagining what the paper could look like from the very start, much like Andrea Yip did with a recent paper of ours transforming a standard manuscript into a more artful work.

As authors, how often have we written something that was worth pondering and not just reflecting the minimum requirements or social conventions for publication?

As editors, do we encourage the kind of writing style and narrative formation that allows research and evidence to be displayed in a manner that encourages deeper reflection and not just represent an addition to the evidence that will be used without broader appreciation for the context from whence it came?

As publishers, do we create a space where these stories can be told? Or are we simply trying to add to the volume of literature, getting the kind of quick-bite science published without a sense of what it might mean beyond the study being reported and in the present moment?

As managers, teachers, researchers, and scholars are we taking space when offered and encouraging others to do the same?

How does our work pass when viewed from the perspective of Lexio Devina? Imagine if the research we did was greater, richer in its depth that begged us to question the phenomena of study in sufficient depth that we wouldn’t have to resort to reading hundreds of articles to gain what feels like a small crumb of knowledge.

There may be much in poetry, with its ability to say so much in so little space, that we can learn from. I don’t see haiku’s on randomized controlled trials anytime soon, but imagine staying up late at night reading and contemplating a research paper not because you had to go through it, but because you wanted to. You wished to savour the content, feel the words and enjoy the poetry of understanding? What would your work look like?

What might it produce differently than we produce now? Might it also reduce the overwhelming volume of information that we are simply unequipped to fully contemplate and synthesize?

Let’s try and find out. As we start a weekend devoted to celebrating labour, let’s contemplate what it might mean to labour differently and value what we’ve done a little more than we do now.