Systems of Influence: The Hidden Forces Shaping What We Do

Our social and physical systems exert great influence on our behaviour; design them with care.

Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets

The above quote attributed variously to E.M. Deming, Paul Bataldan, and others speaks to a truth about human behaviour: what we do is shaped by the systems we’re a part of.

While much attention is paid toward changing behaviour through increasing knowledge, shifting attitudes and beliefs or enhancing motivation, the evidence shows that systems constrain these choices and actions far more than anything at an individual level.

The Case of Physical Distancing

Consider the challenges that we are facing with people maintaining some form of physical distancing in a time of COVID-19. Cities recognized the problem with physical distancing right away because they were designed primarily to facilitate physical closeness. Cities are considered to be attractive to live in because they offer close proximity to people, services, and opportunities. Streets, once principally the domain of automobiles, are being transformed into spaces for pedestrians, bikes, and even cafes to allow physical distancing. Without these adaptations, there would be little places for people to go.

Across the world there have been complaints about people violating social space etiquette in the pandemic by crowding bars, overwhelming parks and beaches, even invading neighbouring countries that have more relaxed rules. These are social reasons and (most) humans desire to congregate, but they also structural systemic reasons.

One of these is tied to how we design cities for living. The global shift toward greater urbanization and corresponding upward shift in the price of housing and decrease it its availability and affordability has led to an emphasis on high-rise, high-density buildings with small units and little to no private outside space. Because land is at a premium and cities are under-resourced, there is a further trend toward using urban land for private housing and commercial real estate rather than public parks and green spaces, creating a public health and built environment crisis.

It becomes little surprise that, when given the opportunity to leave a home environment that is small and offers little access to natural elements that humans take the chance when it’s given. Consider further that urban neighbourhoods are designed around two things: streets and commerce.

Streets shape the way city life is laid out more than anything else. Rather than parks or public spaces, new buildings are often mandated to include space for commercial use at street level. The most popular spaces in most cities are where there is a populated, vibrant retail, restaurant, and entertainment sector.

At Your Fingertips

Another factor that’s influencing the re-opening plans of our cities is less outwardly visible, but no less important as a system influence: availability of goods and services. The online economy and just-in-time service sector has bloomed since COVID-19. With Amazon Prime and many other services offering same-day, next-day, or short-term service and with an abundance of offerings people are able to get what they want when they want it.

So if you can’t go out to a bar, just create the bar environment in the park or on the beach. And why not? In parts of Canada (for example) its already shaping up to be the hottest summer on record. This on-demand ability to get what you want as part of a cultural norm changes the way we interact, buy, and use products.

The math looks like this: time quarantined by regulation + small spaces + absence of green and public space + closed retail all around + high temperatures = congregation.

Nearly all of this is about systemic issues, not individual ones. Most of these are design-related. We could have designed our spaces differently. We could have been motivated to shape our buildings, neighbourhoods, and communities differently in ways that could better absorb the pressure that might come from a natural disaster, pandemic, or economic collapse, but we haven’t.

The choice is ours. Some places have done a better job of creating healthy systems than others. The Netherlands have one of the most densest populations in the world, yet also invest in social space and a design ethos that invites healthier living as one example. This is also a case for systemic design.

Design systems, not motivators

The takeaway is that we need to consider systems first, behaviour second. The latter is pointing to the former.

While behaviour change is important, it cannot be done apart from systemic efforts to transform the systems that shape our lives otherwise we will find ourselves stuck fighting the smallest battles and ‘little fires everywhere’ to make change that stick.

This is the time to examine the hidden assumptions behind our systems (see here for a guide to finding invisible rules that shape systems) and design for something different.

There is a science and established practice for systems change. If you’re interested in learning more or need help, reach out.

2 thoughts on “Systems of Influence: The Hidden Forces Shaping What We Do”

  1. Donna Berthelsen

    Excellent information. Your blog draws together such inspiring informative material.

    1. Thank you for the kind words and feedback, Donna. I am grateful for you taking a moment to share your thoughts with me and glad that I can provide something provocative or at least interesting for you. – Cameron

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