Knotted-Up Systems Design

The design opportunities for a post-pandemic world require untangling many knots in our systems.

With so much of the world locked down, shut in, or at least restricted in what they can do, there’s been some time to reflect on the state of things and imagine what might come next.

The creation of this next brings a potential to shape a generation intentionally. Consider two major disruptions that had global reach: World War 2 and the financial crisis of 2008. One of the designs that came from WW2 was the US-led Marshall Plan, which provided an intentional, focused program of support to help rebuild Europe’s infrastructure – including Germany — after years of destruction and decay brought by war.

The financial crisis of 2008 produced a number of bail-outs and a few reforms, but little structural change. As Tim Brodhead writes, that crisis and the opportunity to create meaningful structural and system change was squandered.

While there are lessons from both examples on how to lead, organize, and deliver systemic change, the real lesson might be in understanding knots.

Historical Untanglements

As any parent trying to deal with a child’s long hair after a week at camp or fishing net pulled from a shed after being hastily put away the season before knows: knots are hard to deal with. They require a set of skills that are a true chimera: you need to see the big and small picture at the same time, look downstream and upstream (or along the full length of the thread), and be able to act with precision and at a holistic level simultaneously.

Untangling a knot requires we recognize them in the first place, lest we create more of them. It requires diligence, patience, and perseverance and persistence. It also requires us to recognize when things are so knotted up that we need to cut everything out. The latter strategy is tempting, but only if we avoid the things that created the knots in the first place so they don’t just re-appear.

This is a metaphorical means of saying: the time to consider what kind of problems we face and the knots associated with them is now. Some are already reaching for the scissors as we eagerly seek to get back to ‘normal’ while others are so busy focusing on the single knot in front of them that they fail to see the interconnections between things.

Why does any of this matter? We are all in knots because the industries, social environments, and culture that we belong is affecting what comes next and we are at that historical point where we can create a Marshall Plan and transform a generation or fall to the squandered opportunities that Tim Brodhead writes about.

(More than) Social Innovation & Systemic Design

Our current situation is similar to what happened before, but amplified because of the speed, connectivity, and scale of our networks of information, structural integration, and technologies. We have far more decisions made by non-human actors (e.g., AI), we have larger players (e.g., Amazon, Google, Facebook) that control their markets that so much of us rely on, and we have a constantly widening gap between those that have resources and those that don’t.

Both the Marshall Plan and the actions to mitigate the financial crisis served to widen all of these (minus the AI in 1948, of course). One built infrastructure that many could build on (even if it tilted toward certain interests) the other entrenched mechanisms to allow those most at fault for the problem to recreate those problems in new ways. Neither are perfect and both are examples of system designs and innovations.

Now is time to consider what a socially responsive approach to designing our own version would look like. I don’t have an answer and am actually quite leery of large, grand designs. But I do think we need to consider how to socially innovate and design our systems in a way that is grand in its reach, small in its ambition. It is at a human scale — it needs to be where the knots are.

New Language for New Action

Designing for humans requires new language — or perhaps a new means of understanding our current language. Systemic design, for example, is typically done at a certain scale. While useful for looking at the big picture, for many of us that picture is either not perceptible or is changing at a speed that makes it impractical to design for. This is not to dismiss the idea of systemic design, rather it’s to acknowledge that for a wide-scale reach it needs to reflect ways of organizing that are from the system we’re a part of.

Social innovation also is necessary. Yet as Tim Brodhead (who knows as much as anyone about this) points out, that didn’t accomplish much due to issues of knots (my term) that were not addressed, leading us into designing for a system that was, not a system that could be.

Operating a human scale — one where individuals feel a sense of real agency and where they have connections to others (community) — is a complicated, but necessary means to fueling real, systemic change. It’s a reason why addressing climate change is so hard to organize for — it paradoxically is a deeply human issue and yet exists at the least human scale possible (the planet).

Climate change action doesn’t account for knots very well; it’s about bringing out the scissors.

This is the design challenge before us: how to design for a next step that has reach, impact, and human scale?

That’s a knotted up, systems problem (and that’s what future posts are going to look at).

Photo by Kristin Snippe on Unsplash and Kristian Strand on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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