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Design and the Cautionary Tales of Path Dependence

As millions of people shift their work patterns back to offices and shops from their homes the chance for renewal is high. The risks of creating path dependencies that will cause harm is also high. The design choices we make now will determine what comes next.

The anxiousness of heading back to the office is palpable.

The language of a ‘return’ obscures what’s really happening or at least misleads us. Things have changed substantially enough that recreating the same patterns that existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic is impossible. The global shift in ways of working, living, and relating to each other has been enormous and still evolving.

These are systems effects. The systems we are a part of are transforming before us and that means any effort to create a stable, constant work environment that resembles what we had before is likely to fail. Even if you wish things to stay as they are you will need to change in order to do it.

Dynamic Design

There is no single solution to the return-to-work problem set. Issues of physical space redesign, the establishment of psychological and physical safety protocols, and the related IT support required to manage variants of mixed or hybrid work are necessary.

How do we do this?

This is a design challenge that requires thought to avoid creating an unhealthy path dependence moving forward. This is a way of saying we ought to be concerned about ‘baking in’ unhealthy habits. Systems have memories and what we do today will carry on moving forward.

The lesson is that we should design in what we want to take forward.

Another lesson is: don’t design for permanent, when designing for the moment will do.

And at this moment, things have an enhanced level of volatility, instability, and uncertainty that it makes sense to design something that helps navigate through it, rather than seek to install a new normal.

Path Dependencies

Path dependence involves creating patterns or habits that are near to the ‘default.’ These paths shape behaviour and are why we ‘do the things that we’ve always done’ because the pathways to doing them require far less energy to follow than shaping a new one.

These paths create efficiencies, they also create traps.

With so much disruption over the past two years, the opportunity to set new paths has been given to us. We have the chance to design a better next for us..

Transitional designs can help bridge this. Try something that might work with an intention to keep it as a placeholder. Evaluate and study the effects of this decision and its implications and apply a design thinking methodology to adapting, trimming, and deleting the policy as needed over time.. This developmental design approach avoids baking in something that is suited for the temporary into the permanent.

It’s also a way to make the return to the office or whatever context we might find ourselves back into a little easier to manage. It’s better to not have to ‘return’ and instead design what it is that we want to create next.

Photo by CJ Dayrit on Unsplash

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