Month: May 2013

art & designbusinessdesign thinkingsocial systemssystems thinking

Fashionably Thinking About Systems and Consumption

Denim Fashion

In April 2013 the world was horrified to learn that more than one thousand people were killed in a Bangladeshi factory used to make largely low-priced clothes for Western fashion houses. As the stories of sadness, loss and survival emerged from that rubble so too did cries of indignation and disgust from human rights groups, business leaders, and the media about the true cost of cheap, fast fashion.

Some of this push has to do with greater social demands for “more of everything” .

We can speed up our supply chains and reduce the design-to-line time while producing desirable goods cheaply so why don’t we? When it is more convenient to get something new than take something old and refurbish it, why not do it?

The Cost of Fast and Cheap Fashion

This mindset of fast and cheap has enormous costs that are often hidden from view. Speaking about his own field of clothing manufacturing, Flint & Tinder CEO Jake Bronstein wrote in his company’s blog about the Bangladesh incident that killed more than 1100 workers . His words (caps in original) were:


Bronstein has a stake in this game. His company is employing a business model that is centred on producing goods that last a long time, not ‘fast fashion’, even when the concept of an $8 T-shirt dominates the mass market. His company sells only a handful of products to begin with (rather than succumbing to fast fashion trends), are made in the United States in their entirety and meant to outlast their competitors, not just outsell them. This business model looks to create sustainable fashion, not fast fashion, which is more about disposable, quick response designs than durable products.

Bronstein makes a strong point and is trying to do something about it by creating an alternative option for consumers. There is a flourishing make-it-yourself/make-it-local market and movement that can be seen from Etsy through to the return of crafting and the growing popularity of the maker culture as seen in enormous events like the Maker Faires. This is changing the market landscape.

The Complexity of Change

At the same time there are also many myths about what the true cost of our choices are. Writing in the Huffington Post (Canadian Edition), Anne Theriault explores these in some depth pointing to the often classist, simplistic ways these issues get defined in talk about global manufacturing. Theriault challenges the idea that global outsourcing is all problematic, pointing to the jobs that are created often at relatively high standards for each region (and how there are relatively few others available), the comparable absence of affordable clothing selections for many of our poorest citizens at home, and the lack of manufacturing capacity in North America to provide alternative options for those on small budgets.

Theriault is not specifically defending globalization and off-shoring manufacturing, instead pointing out that simply stopping production in places like Bangladesh isn’t as simple as it looks without harmful consequences at home and abroad. The systems created to sustain the current models of economy, consumption, and product innovation are not easily halted without serious ramifications across the globe.

However, these models are also not sustainable. This is a hallmark wicked problem in the short term, but unlike true wicked problems this is one that can be potentially designed for change in the long term.

Designing Fashionable Change

Fashion is largely about design and thus its appropriate that design thinking might be useful in bringing about change in the way that the fashion industry operates (and how consumers support that industry).

Design thinking is employed in three key phases: problem finding, problem framing and problem solving*. We have a problem, that much is clear. But what is the frame of the problem? As both Jake Bronstein and Anne Theriault point out, fashion is about people before products to different ends. Neither highlighted aesthetics and identity when speaking about fashion; they spoke about livelihoods and values. They have framed the issue as one about human wellbeing and social and economic sustainability.

If that is the frame we start from, the next phase is to design a system that supports this expression of values. I surmise that wellbeing is about aesthetics and identity as much as the values behind it, even if we like to imagine we are above being pushed by such things (decades and volumes of social psychology and marketing research proves the point).

In a complex system it is more important than ever to distinguish oneself through markers and fashion is one of many that can do this. It’s not a surprise that complex societies with high levels of diversity are where the seeds of fashion emerged. It’s not just that fashion could emerge through this intersection of ideas, its that it necessarily had to.

If we accept the premise that fashion is useful and necessary, that it brings considerable social and economic benefit, but that the costs related to fast fashion and consumption are intimately tied to these benefits we can start to imagine new ways to design a system that supports personal expression, creativity, environmental sustainability, and social benefit simultaneously. This is only likely to happen once there is an embrace of the two sides of the current fashion industry.

Unfreezing the Mindset and Business Model

Social psychologist Kurt Lewin‘s planned model of change has been applied to complexity and found to be a useful way of viewing these kinds of issues. The planned component to change might seem at first seem at odds with complexity, but is very much at home with design.  From a design perspective, Lewin’s concept of ‘unfreezing’ a mindset around a problem opens up possibilities to create a new one in its place. The current mindset is set against tensions related to cost, employment, supply chain management, sustainability, and ethics.

Unfreezing this mindset opens up the possibilities of seeing spaces for synchrony. It also creates new space for business model innovation.

Bronstein’s recent initiative with Flint and Tinder to create the 10-year hoodie through Kickstarter is one result of unfreezing an innovation development model and creating a new market for a product that is normally designed to last far less than 10 years.

Crowd Supply is another venue that has sought to use values, quality, and local production as a driver of new product development by creating a hybrid funding model that marries Kickstarter with a conventional online retailer. The recently funded Wild Park Place jacket and Freelance backpack are some of the early funded fashion projects launched through this platform.

Another model is being implemented by denim manufacturers Gustin, who have taken a similar approach of crowd-funding production, but on a model-by-model basis within their product line. Gustin recognized that there was a lot of waste and costs to the traditional retail model of selling clothes to resellers and having to supply them with a set group of sizes and colours, only to have some returned, the costs raised, and much wasted. Now they take orders for specific pairs of jeans in batches, which allows them to fit somewhere between custom tailoring (one person, one product) and mass market (thousands of people, many products), reducing waste and lowering costs.

None of these are perfect (and its likely no model can be), but they all change the way the business model is set and offer some examples of ways to change the system as a whole, piece by piece. What makes these promising from a systems perspective is that these models can easily be replicated globally or potentially scaled up. There could be an Asian Crowd Supply, or a clothing maker in South America who could do the same thing. Crowd Supply is introducing new projects each month and denim maker Gustin has seen its runs increase over time as some evidence of the success of these models.

These do not fully address consumption — which is a big systems issue for our planet — but as large companies like Patagonia have shown, it is possible to create demand for products that can be repurposed, re-imagined, and redesigned to be less harmful to the environment, sustainable, high quality and economically rewarding. These start-ups are adding to that field.

Design is not just about fashion, it is about making sustainable, healthy, and ethical business models fashionable.


* These conventional phrases are somewhat misleading when dealing with complex phenomenon as problems are often not solved, but rather addressed in a manner that provides some optimal option for action that minimizes unwarranted negative side effects.

Image source from Pinterest; owner unknown.

complexityeducation & learningsystems sciencesystems thinking

A toolkit for toolsets, skillsets and a mindset


For the last few years Censemaking has been a forum for exploring ideas around complexity, systems, design and social innovation. It has been a space for ideas and considering some of social and evaluative ramifications of complexity as it plays out in human systems.

This long-form blog has allowed for in-depth reflection on the issues that influence innovation and health in human systems.

Today I am launching a sister blog on the CENSE Research + Design site dedicated to exploring the methods and tools that can help us understand how to impact these systems. This new blog will feature short-form, practice-oriented articles that are aimed at building or augmenting the toolkit of the social innovation practitioner.

Censemaking will continue to explore issues in depth and will occasionally refer readers to the CENSE toolkit blog as a means of building the mindset, skillset and toolset of those readers interested in navigating complexity and designing innovation. The focus will be on systems science methods, design and design thinking tools, strategy, behavioural and applied social science techniques, and program evaluation.

I look forward to engaging readers through both venues and learning from you and with you.

Thanks for reading.

Photo Toolkit by Nick Farnhill used under Creative Commons Licence from Flickr.

design thinkingknowledge translationpublic healthsystems thinking

Design (re)Thinking Health Systems


How might we design health systems to promote health and wellbeing and not just treat illness and disease and manage infirmary and chronic conditions? What if health systems were about health?

If we were to apply design thinking to health systems, what might be do?

In a previous post, I suggested that knowledge translation is too important to be trusted solely to health professionals, partly because they  have largely failed to take up the charge. Taking a step back — a systems thinking perspective — one realizes that to design better knowledge translation, we need to design better health systems.

Julio Frenk, Dean of the School of Public Health at Harvard, believes this too. In a 2010 paper published in PLOS Medicine, Frenk comments on the state of health systems and examines how we might re-think them in light of global health challenges.

Health systems are the main instrumentality to close the knowledge–action gap. To realize this potential, it will be necessary to mobilize the power of evidence to promote change. Yet all too often reform efforts are not evaluated adequately. Each innovation in health systems constitutes a learning opportunity.

Frenk’s article is an invitation to engage in systems and design thinking about health. Both approaches invite pause to consider what the problem is in the first place. For design thinkers, problem scoping is the first step.

For systems thinkers this is akin to setting the boundaries around the problem.

Once we set the boundaries and find the appropriate problem, we then frame it appropriately for design. Problem definition is something often over-looked or under appreciated, but is the core of effective problem solving and design.

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions – Albert Einstein

Health systems are typically defined in light of professional services and policies aimed at making the sick well. They are essentially illness and disease (sick care) systems.  This conceptualization, still dominant in the professional and policy discourse in many Western countries, places medicine at the centre of health services with the allied disciplines working alongside, but rarely ventures its gaze beyond the institutions of care or the conditions such institutions are designed to treat.

Frenk, writing in PLOS Medicine, suggests its time to expand our view of what makes a health system if we are to truly promote and sustain global health and see three key points as provoking such re-thinking:

First, health has been increasingly recognized as a key element of sustainable economic development [1], global security, effective governance, and human rights promotion [2]. Second, due to the growing perceived importance of health, unprecedented—albeit still insufficient—sums of funds are flowing into this sector [3]. Third, there is a burst of new initiatives coming forth to strengthen national health systems as the core of the global health system and a fundamental strategy to achieve the health-related Millennium Development Goals.

In order to realize the opportunities offered by the conjunction of these unique circumstances, it is essential to have a clear conception of national health systems that may guide further progress in global health.

Frenk offers some suggestions:

Part of the problem with the health systems debate is that too often it has adopted a reductionist perspective that ignores important aspects. Developing a more comprehensive view requires that we expand our thinking in four main directions.

First, we should think of the health system not only in terms of its component elements (like human resources, financing, hospitals, clinics, technologies, etc.) but most importantly in terms of their interrelations. Second, we should include not only the institutional or supply side of the health system, but also the population. In a dynamic view, the population is not an external beneficiary of the system; it is an essential part of it.

It’s important to note the mention of the role of the population and its dynamical impact on the system. As populations change dramatically in their composition and form of residency within countries, including a greater movement to urbanization, so too will the myriad factors that influence health systems. The people are the system and thus it will change as populations change. While Frenk lists this as one point of many, it is a radical departure for reductionists or those who see health systems as being about care, not people.

A third expansion of our understanding of systems refers to their goals. Typically, we have limited the discussion to the goal of improving health. This is, indeed, the defining goal of a health system. However, we must look not only at the level of health, but also at its distribution, which gives equity a central place in assessing a health system. In addition, we must also include other goals that are intrinsically valued beyond the improvement of health. One of those goals is to enhance the responsiveness of the health system to the legitimate expectations of the population for care that respects the dignity of persons and promotes their satisfaction. The other goal is fair financing, so that the burden of supporting the system is distributed in an equitable manner and families are protected from the financial consequences of disease.

Frenk’s third challenge is to affirm the very point of health systems at all.

While not explicitly speaking of systems thinking or design thinking, there is much that both fields have in common with Frenk’s argument. Design thinkers might ask: What have we hired our health system to do?

Frenk argues that our health systems must go well beyond just making gains in measured health outcomes towards dignity, respect and social justice.

Finally, we should expand our view with respect to the functions that a health system must perform. Most global initiatives have been concerned mainly with one of those functions, namely, the direct provision of services, whether they are medical or public health services. This is, of course, an essential function, but for it to happen at all, health systems must perform other enabling functions, such as stewardship, financing, and resource generation, including what is probably the most complex of all challenges, the health workforce.

Frenk did not identify specific solutions, but did pose some key questions for health systems design.

If we were to take this challenge up as designers and systems thinkers, what might we do? Here are some suggestions for inquiry:

  • Consider new definitions of health like the one posed in the British Medical Journal that emphasizes looking at the social and environmental influences on health beyond just the absence of physical symptoms. Further inclusion of a psychology of human flourishing might add to this definition.
  • Map out a new system visually with people at the centre, not professionals or institutions. What does that look like? Tools like a Gigamap might provide the kind of multi-media, multi-sensory visual way to conceive of the interrelationships that make up health system. System dynamic models can help this out as well.
  • Engage people across this system to validate this map and co-create possible future models that could serve to shape discussion at multiple levels and  mobilize civil society to support healthy environments.
  • Create small scale, safe-fail / fail-forward, prototypes of small-scale innovations that can be tested, developmentally designed, and rapidly re-developed as needed to start shifting the system as a whole.

Designing health requires designing health systems. Applying new thinking and envisioning a system that is dynamic, comprised of people and just institutions is a start.

Photo: Bartolomeo Eustachi: Peripheral Nervous System, c. 1722 shared by brain_blogger used under Creative Commons Licence