Design For Humans’ History

Only by understanding our past can we properly design for a future that’s different from it.

When we think about the past there’s a tendency toward thinking about things that are often unpleasant, even old-fashioned. Future-thinking is exciting, filled with possibility, and is characterized more by optimism, technology, and ‘shiny things’ at its most cartoonish.

This attraction to the future is an orientation that many designers take. After all, it is the future that our designs will live so why not design for it? What we miss when place our gaze toward the future are the paths that shape how we see that future based on our past.

To see the future we need to consider what we bring with us from our past and what shaped how we got to the present.

Past Pathways and Future Journeys

Path dependence describes pattern establishment and habits of practice that emerge over time and shape how choices are perceived and what actions are taken. It’s about past choices lived out in the present landscape.

Consider the image below. This pathway is worn, even supported by a wooden bridge and relatively clean. If you were to arrive at this meadow and choose how to get across it and over the hill it’s very likely that you would take the pathway that is already laid.

If that pathway had not been there you might have chosen another way over the hill. Once the first traveller made a mark in this meadow by dampening down vegetation it made it slightly easier for the next person. As more people traversed over this original ‘path’ taken, the more worn the grass becomes and the less difficult it becomes.

This continues to the point where it would seem strange for someone not to choose that path to walk on.

Yet, it’s possible that this path isn’t the most optimal for the task we’re seeking from it. The choice to traverse this particular route may have been guided by weather, the presence of an animal, a rock or other natural element that might have drawn a person left instead of right, a particular interest in something that drew that traveller in a particular direction, or maybe just a preference for that landscape.

It’s in those preferences and the arbitrary actions that came from the choices made that have shaped what’s come later. The entire future journeys along this land have been determined largely by choices made from the first travellers who walked across it and the time and timing of that journey. Those that made a mark are followed.

This pathway was designed, it just wasn’t designed consciously. This is the power and peril of path dependencies. What looking to the past does is determine what went into the designs of the present so we can better design for the future.

Tracing Our Steps Forward

Designers are not psychologists, but it wouldn’t hurt to work with them because understanding the self — whether as an individual, organization or community — is vital to designing for path dependencies. Sometimes we need to look back and understand what it is that got us to where we are in terms of our choices, our reactions, and the habits we’ve built from both.

A psycho-social and structural look at what we’ve been through and where some of our systems were established is important to know what kind of invisible patterns are shaping the choices we make (or acknowledge) in the present. If we don’t even realize we’re making a choice how can we choose differently? How can we expand our options when we’re not aware of what constraints we’ve placed on what’s before us?

As you consider what ‘next’ looks like first take stock of what was in times past. Trace back your steps to see how the choices you made and the constraints and circumstances that shaped those decisions led you to where you are today. Now consider what choices, constraints, and circumstances might look like going forward.

This is how we begin the journey toward shaping something new without unconsciously replicating the old.

Photos by Photo by Guillermo Riquelme on Unsplash, Jonathan Klok on Unsplash, and Mike Erskine 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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