300: Crises in Complexity, Opportunities in Design

Designing ideas

Designing ideas

In 2009 Censemaking was launched as a platform to explore issues in complexity and ways we can make sense of it to design for better futures and a sustainable world. After 300 posts it has become evident that there is much more to write as we see ever-new crises from complexity and ever-greater design opportunities to deal with it all.

As I was reflecting on what to write for my 300th post  for Censemaking I found myself — as I often do — drawing some connections between disparate experiences as I started my daily reading and listening. Within moments of sitting at the table with materials, turning on the radio, and scanning online I found the following semi-related stories:

  • On the Stack, the Internet radio show about magazine publishing on Monocle 24, panelists were exploring the crisis of reporting that comes from citizen journalism and the generally lower quality of photography and detail that comes when professional work gets pushed out for reasons of economics and expediency;
  • This followed a profile of Ghost Lab – a hands-on architecture program that runs every summer to teach architects ways to link what founder Brian McKay-Lyons calls “the world of ideas and the world of things”  – a space that many designers are surprisingly disconnected from;
  • In the Globe and Mail newspaper (tablet edition), a column by Kathryn Borel, writes on reading both Miley Cyrus and Syria and the sanctimony that comes when we judge what is worthy reading;
  • The brilliant web comic The Oatmeal has circulated an insightful, funny and sad piece looking at what it takes to draw people’s attention to Syria’s conflict and the crises it promotes;
  • An email exchange from a group of colleagues — journalists and scientists — on how to collectively present the state of research and journalism to an audience of policymakers and peers at the upcoming Canadian Science Policy Conference;
  • Thumbing through two new magazine options that seek to bridge the gap between science, design, and public affairs by relying on quality content and publishing than advertising (The Alpine Review and Nautilus – below)
Premiere Issues of Nautilus & The Alpine Review

Premiere Issues of Nautilus & The Alpine Review

Within each of these categories is a reflection of some form of crisis — an unstable situation affecting many people — particularly the worlds of science, journalism, politics, publishing, policy, and design.

Patterns of complexity

This motley collection of tidbits loosely connects science, design, public affairs, knowledge translation and communication, and the complexity that comes when they intersect. It seems fitting that this greeted me as I sat down to write post #300.

The Censemaking name is a riff on both the name of my social innovation consultancy (CENSE Research + Design) and the term sensemaking that is a trans-disciplinary field / practice of making meaning from complex, divergent data points and experience (which is what I help my clients, collaborators and students do). It has been a vehicle that has allowed me the freedom and pleasure to explore the knotty intersections of these disparate areas of practice and scholarship that don’t fall under any particular umbrella, yet are things that are wrestled with in health promotion, industry, publishing and media, social services, policymaking, the military and social enterprise (to speak of a few).

And as I often do, I find the strangest threads are often the most useful in understanding complexity and our world.

Taking Miley Cyrus seriously

That I would even put those four words above together above might have already turned you off, but stick with me. While the Miley Cyrus reference in the above list of media notes might be the most disparate of them all, complexity science teaches us that there is often gold in looking at weak signals and Miley Cyrus might be the best example of that in this list.

In a week where the once Hannah Montana actor and singer has garnered enormous attention in the media for her moves, her behaviour and her attitude at last weekends’ MTV Video Music Awards, particularly her performance with singer Robin Thicke it seems there is little left to discuss. Or not.

Some media sources commented on Ms. Cyrus’ actions as a tasteless media ploy.

Others jumped on the fact that it was Miley Cyrus who got all the flack for the acts performed while Robin Thicke, a married father, gets away with little public condemnation despite being the main performer of a song with a deeply sexist, near misogynistic lyrics, message and related video.

The Belle Jar Blog points to how Miley’s appropriation of black culture is a racist and patriarchal act that deserved the real condemnation as much as any sexual act that it was associated with, something that only adds to the slut-shaming says the Washington Post who nevertheless seek to question the fuss.

Reading and contemplating Miley’s performance could at once be seen as juvenile, offensive, and racist, while also represent shrewd marketing, behaviour not inconsistent with previous VMA awards and its time-honoured practice of female sexualization to draw eyeballs (and commentary) , and a situation reflective of a woman growing up at a time and place where the lines between activities rooted in a particular racial, ethnic, geographic, socio-demographic heritage are — no pun intended — quite blurred and may be genuinely obscured to her.

This is a rather banal, yet clear example of the way complexity and wicked problems rise up from an interconnected, multimedia, 24/7, global culture of communication that we’ve created for ourselves. Miley is at once a perpetrator, a victim and a bystander all at the same time. She is a social construction and a real person who is accountable for what she says and does (but to whom and for what?). That is complexity in the modern age of public engagement, expression and media.

It’s one example. We are facing similar thorny, hairy issues with vaccination, big data, chronic disease, community planning, social media, journalism’s independence and viability, educational policy and the structure of learning, private-public partnerships for social benefit and beyond. There is no simple answer or simple problem. Sensemaking is a way to understand complexity and then determine what it means.

Designing compelling futures

When you know better you do better – Maya Angelou

Better knowing is the biggest step towards better doing. Sensemaking complexity means looking broadly and deeply, consulting widely and taking the time to reflect on what it means. Being mindful of our time, and its disruption, is critical.

What comes from that is the possibility not just to understand our world, but to shape it into something we deem to be better for us all. This motivation to shape is what makes us human. We are the one species that creates for enjoyment, expression, and practical need. We are makers and designers and often both at the same time.

Design is the conscious intent to shape things while design thinking is a means of engaging complexity to foster more effective designs. We cannot control complexity, but we can design for it (PDF) and work with the emergent patterns it produces. This process of design for emergence and developmental design, which brings together sensemaking, structured feedback through ongoing developmental evaluation, and foresight methods allows us to take account of complexity without letting it take hold of us. It helps us make the world we want, not just accept the world we get.

Thank you

Thank you to all of my readers — the tens of thousands of people who have come to Censemaking since it started and the many of you who come regularly and share it with the world. In a world of attention scarcity, I am deeply appreciative of you spending some of your time with my work.

I am a believer in what popular math video-blogger Vi Hart says about blogging: do it for yourself.

Create your own audiences.  I am honoured to have been able to create the audience I have; thank you for being a part of it. I hope to continue to provide you with things to contemplate and help you make sense of.

I look forward to the next 300 posts and finding new ways to navigate and contemplate complexity and design for innovation.

Image: Thinkstock used under license & Cameron Norman

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