Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is a nod to the future and the past and both perspectives illustrate how citizens everywhere are struggling with how to best make their world – and to what extent that’s possible. These are design choices with systems implications that will be felt far beyond those who are making such decisions.
We only understand systems from a perspective, because where you sit within a system determines the relevance of properties that are of that system. These properties look different (or may be wholly imperceptible) depending on the vantage point taken within that system. This is what makes understanding and working with systems so challenging.
This morning the world woke up to find that the British people voted to leave the European Union. For the Brits this was a choice about where they wanted to place a boundary around certain systems (political, economic, geographic) and how they perceived having control over what took place within, around (and indeed the very nature of) those boundaries. Boundaries and constraints are principally what defines a system as that is what shapes what happens inside that system. For Britain it was a choice to redefine those boundaries tighter with a hope that it will bring greater good to that nation.
Boundary critique in complex systems
There is a guide for systems thinking that says if you’re trying to understand a system and find yourself lost you’ve probably bounded your systems too loosely and if you’re finding yourself constantly seeking explanations for what happens in a system that occur outside those boundaries than you’ve bound it too tightly.
The choice of millions of Britons about their own country, their boundaries, has influenced the world as stock markets shake up, currencies are devalued and entire economies rattled — not just now, but potentially for a period to come. Oil prices have fallen sharply in the wake of the decision, which will impact every part of the economy and further delay any shift away from carbon-based fuel options. The European Union and the entire world is feeling the effect from 51% of Britons who voted (of about 17M citizens) deciding they would be better off outside the EU than within it. Consider how a small number of people can have such an enormous impact — a perfect illustration of complexity in action.
And as England seeks to re-draw its boundary, already there is discussion of another Scottish independence vote in the wake of this, which may re-draw the boundary further. These votes are intentional acts and perhaps the most straightforward expressions of intention and self-determination within a democracy, but their impact and outcomes on citizens and the world around them are far from straightforward making such direct-democracy far more problematic than those in support of such votes make out. This is not to say that such votes are necessarily good or bad, but they are certainly not simple.
Co-design and its problems
The Brexit vote invites memory of a quote from one of Britain’s famous leaders who famously quipped that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Democracy creates the opportunity for co-design of our political systems, policy choices and boundaries. By having an opportunity to voice an opinion and engage in the act of voting we citizens have a role to play in co-designing what we want from our country. The downside is that we are engaging in this exercise from where we sit in the system, thus the design I want might not be the same as someone else in my country, nor may we see the same information the same way or even consider the same information relevant.
It’s for this reason that we’re seeing strange things in politics these days. The volume of information available to us and the complexity of the layered contexts in which that information applies makes a simple decision like a vote for or against something far more challenging. Complexity is created by volatility, lack of certainty, an absence of predictability and dynamism. Co-design introduces all of this and, on a national scale, amplifies the impact of that complexity.
This is a massive challenge for everyone, but in particular those who come from the design and systems science realms. For design, co-design has been touted as a desired, if not idealized, principle for guiding the making of everything from learning experiences to services to products to policies. In systems thinking and related sciences, too often the focus is less on what is created, but how it impacts things — offering more description and analytical insight than guidance on what ought to be developed and how. Bringing these two worlds together — systemic design — may have never been more important.
Systemic design, boredom and critical making
Roseanne Somerson, President of the Rhode Island School of Design, recently wrote about the importance of boredom in spurring creativity in design. In it she speaks of the term ‘critical making’ instead of using design thinking. I love that term. It does a better job of reflecting the thinking-in-action praxis that is really at the heart of good design. In this article she refers to the insights and bursts of creativity that come from her students when she allows them — rather, forces them — to be bored.
What boredom can do is prompt a form of mindfulness, an emptying of the thoughts allowing the opportunity to escape the rush of stimulation that we get from the world and permit new insights to come in. It is a way of temporarily freeing oneself from the path dependence that is created by an entrained thought pattern that seeks out certain stimulation (which is why we tend to re-think the same thing over and again). This is an enormously useful approach for supporting organizations and individuals operating in complex systems to see things differently and not to get swept up in the power of a prevailing current without being fully aware that such a current exists and evaluating whether that is useful or not useful.
Creating the space to be mindful and to understand better ones place in their system as well as the potential consequences of change within that system is one of the key contributions that systemic design can offer. It is about engaging in social critical making and perhaps, it may be away out of the trap of creating simple binaries of stay versus leave or yes vs no. Surely no Britons thought that membership in the EU was all bad or good, but to divide the choice to be in or out might have been a case of taking a simple approach to a complex problem and now we will see how a simple choice has complex reverberations throughout the system now and into the future. Time will tell whether these — and the resulting choices of other nations and regions — will bring us closer together, further apart, or something else entirely.