Ethics and Systemic Change


Systems change is a goal for many social advocates — whether aimed at politics, climate change, social norms or beyond — because often it’s only through changes to the interrelationships and boundaries that contain a system can lasting shifts be noticed. With great potential and power comes a responsibility to ensure that change yields more benefits than drawbacks and that’s not as simple to determine as we might desire. 

In the week after the historic Brexit vote we’ve seen massive destabilization in the United Kingdom, Europe and markets worldwide as the British populace seeks to understand what happened and what happens next for them. In the wake of the vote we’ve seen the sitting Prime Minister David Cameron, and Remain vote advocate, announce he will be stepping down and two of the most prominent leaders of the Leave campaign — Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage — announce they would not be seeking to lead or be heavily involved in what comes next.

The resignations by Mr Cameron, who’s decision to hold the referendum in the first place, and Mr’s Johnson and Farage, who led the winning side, stung many on both sides. The argument is that they were largely responsible for what has been described as a mess and yet have opted not to take responsibility for implementing what they created. It is something of a Mary Shelley novel.

Great Britain (and Europe) will be forever changed by Brexit and it will remain to be seen what balance of positives and negatives will come from it. While even dark decisions can yield positive outcomes (that silver lining we often look for in the clouds) there is a responsibility that must come from our actions and design choices to ensuring they minimize harms.

Ethics and Systemic design (thinking)

For a field that is literally shaping the world, design discourse is remarkably devoid of conversations on ethics. Only recently did the first book appear that took ethics in design research as its topic. Yet that is design research, the amount of work on design ethics — how we choose responsibly about what to create along with how to create it (and what role, if any, designers choose to take once something has been sent into the world) is painfully thin. While there’s been a growing movement towards sustainability and environmental responsibility in product design, there’s not as much on social system design.

One area where we are seeing these discussions starting is in the area of systemic design. Systemic design is, as its name suggests, a systems-focused, design-oriented approach to changing human systems. Systemic design is not just about changing social conditions in an ameliorative approach to change, but shaping the very conditions in which those conditions arise. In many ways is it the design manifestation of community psychology. Systemic designers seek to transform the world. However, much like the (mostly) men who led the Brexit Leave campaign, there is a need to have one’s intentions clear and ensure that what is designed is responsible and responsive and that’s not what we’ve seen in that case.

This might be because motivation for change is often very blunt — perhaps based on fear or dissatisfaction — that might not have a specific focus. This is the challenge for systemic design. Systems thinking is a powerful vehicle in systemic design, however its often a tool to determine where to intervene and what could transpire if certain actions are taken once chosen, but not as good as determining what actions are best suited. This is where design thinking comes in and together the two approaches inform systemic design.

Peter Jones, a systemic designer and professor at OCADU (and colleague of mine), has written on this and draws on his experience with healthcare and the Occupy Movement as part of his work in advancing systemic design research. In his paper on systemic design principles (PDF), Jones points to the limits that design thinking approach — that solution generation aspect of systemic design — can present:

Design thinking has been influenced by rapid prototyping culture. When virtual trials and failures are cheap, multiple prototypes are less expensive than in-depth analysis and research. However, this design thinking bias leads to a short-term bias that rewards immediate responses to prototypes.

Jones adds that this approach is suitable for certain products (and arguably, system types), but that this approach can fail to address systemic problems if not critically applied:

For industrial products, those bias’ risks are minimal. However, for complex social systems a prototyping mindset evaluates component subsystems (at best) selected by a saliency bias. This bottom-up approach fails to acquire a system-level understanding and even erodes a holistic view. New system relationships are formed through iterative trials and informal sample evaluations, but current relationships are not necessarily discovered, leading to significant gaps in systemic understanding.

From design thinking to conscious creation

Systemic design, if not carefully done, can end up creating these gaps as we saw with the ‘grassroots’ movements in both the Leave and Remain campaigns in the Brexit debate.

A powerful, simple technique to determining causes and consequences of current behaviour is to ask the question ‘why’ as many times as possible. Five ‘whys’ asked on any issue will likely lead to a revelation about fundamental drivers behind a particular activity. Systemic design seeks to address change at this level as much as possible by creating, with intention and purpose (i.e., by design), structures that support and shift behaviour and thinking to transform the situation and context that can lead to a more profound and sustained change.

A corollary to this approach to understanding root causes might be the five whats? What might happen if we do X? What might happen after that takes place? And then what? And so on. This is similar to The Future,Backwards technique that Cognitive Edge has developed based on research into foresight, strategic planning and systems thinking. Just because we can change something doesn’t mean we should and wise design informed by systems thinking, strategic foresight and ethics can help us understand what ought to be done rather than simply highlight what can be done.

To that last point, a fair criticism of design is that it too often focuses on possibility without responsibility. Even on social issues we see design jams, hackathons, and ideation sessions that produce more ‘stuff’ (too often an ‘app’, as if the only solution to the worlds’ problems originate from a handheld electronic device) that is cool, sexy and disruptive without paying attention to what kind of disruption comes with that ‘solution’. A recent story on CBC Radio on the future of farming considered this as it explored how robotics are shaping how food is being produced. One of the comments made was that the ‘savings’ that often is incurred by having robots do more work is the kind of ‘lock in’ that it produces as farmers now get committed to buying, maintaining and upgrading technology for the long-term.

Conscious creation and technology adoption is something that groups like the Quakers and Amish have mastered and might be worth more of a look by more people — particularly designers. For design — and particularly systemic design — the ethics of what we make, maintain and adopt affects not only us, but all of those around us. For that reason, we need to build in ethics to our design work, by design.

Note: If you’re interested in learning more about systemic design consider attending the 2016 Systemic Design conference (RSD5) in Toronto, Canada October 13-15. Registration is open until the spots are filled.

Photo credit: Sea Ice Patterns by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks NASA — as always, you rock (and space and sea and space and….) 🙂

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