The Design Paradox of Democracy


The series on paradox continues as the matter of politics, democracy and the power of the people get puts under the spotlight as we consider what it means to empower, express power and re-claim power in this post-liberal, globalized, information age and how we can do better, by design. 

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time – Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill’s often paraphrased quote was uttered in the British House of Commons at a time when Britain (and Europe) was literally and figuratively rebuilding itself after horrible continental war that killed millions of people and left an echo that is still firmly felt today. The European Union and its various associated trade and cooperation agreements were, in part, a designed solution aimed at bringing the continent closer together as a means of preventing the kinds of conflicts that had ravaged Europe for centuries. And yet the European Union is just one of many examples of a situation where enhanced cooperation through democracy is creating some of the conflicts it was meant to solve.

Democracy has different forms, but ultimately is about individuals having the freedom and means to choose their own path on collective matters. It sounds fair and reasonable, but as Churchill knew too well: it has a lot of problems associated with it and they are ignored at our peril

On matters of complexity, these problems become all the more clear.

Complexity by referendum

Earlier this month we saw what many thought would be the end to the 50-year war between the FARC rebels and the Colombian government as a peace agreement was made and put before the people for a vote, where it was defeated to the surprise of the world. How could this happen? many asked after so much effort when into the agreement — something that many thought would never become reality. The answers can be found looking deeper into the rationale why people who consistently and uniformly wanted peace also demand fairness and justice and for many that wasn’t seen in the agreement. Add in real-world issues of weather, logistics, voter turnout and you have something that may have partly earned Colombia’s president a Nobel Peace Prize disintegrate before the world’s eyes.

Referenda are blunt instruments used to shape complex social phenomena. On matters of identity politics we’ve seen relatively narrow defeats of proposed separatist/independence referenda in Quebec (Canada) in the mid-1990’s and in Scotland (United Kingdom) in 2014 . This year, we saw another separation-focused referendum put before the Scots and the rest of the United Kingdom and it was narrowly voted for, hence ‘Brexit‘.

No matter what your perspective on any of these initiatives, there were substantial costs and benefits to be weighed for each decision and those were all bundled under either “for” or “against”, which is part of the problem. We have a very complex set of issues treated using a tool that is both inappropriately simple and rational when neither of those conditions are (solely) present in the problem itself.

Complexity tools: the heart and the brain

In the United States presidential race, Donald Trump is showing that facts, truth, ethics, morals or integrity don’t matter as much as many think when it comes to who should lead the nation. That he is even the Republican candidate for president in itself should be shocking to anyone, no matter what your political leaning is, when you consider the vast litany of things he says (and has said) and does (and has done). Yet, this man who recently admitted to statements caught on tape that confessed to assaulting women, still has support among 38 per cent of decided voters two days after the video of that confession was released — a number that is just four points lower than Hillary Clinton, his opponent.

Do Americans not care about all these things? Do they love Trump so much that they are simply blind to his flaws, perhaps thinking he’s just misunderstood? Are they stupid? The answer is: (mostly), no. So why? Canadian newsmagazine Macleans ran a cover story on Americans who had thrown their support behind Donald Trump and found surprisingly nuanced thinking underlying their choice architecture on the matter. But what struck me was this reported felt sense that something was wrong, had been that way for a long time, and that Donald Trump brought an entirely new way to approach an old problem

What often comes through in these accounts is a feeling that something isn’t right and a resonance for a person or group that is reflecting something that comes closer to mirroring that feeling. We respond strongly to mirroring as a form of social persuasion and relating to one another. Human behaviour is this complex weave of social, cognitive, biological and inter- and intra-personal influences and too often we focus our energy on just the cognitive (rational) parts of this relating when it comes to change-making. The thinking is that if we just convince people of things using the best evidence, we’ll win the day.

You see this with Trump. “Surely this is will sink his campaign” or “he’s done, now” and phrases of that kind have been uttered now for 18 months and he’s still here with nearly 2/5 of the polled population behind him.

What Trump is doing is bringing to light a manifestation of that felt-sense of injustice that people are experiencing and they see a shock to the system as a remedy for changing that system.

Systems change: shock and awe vs slow and steady

As a recent cover story in the Economist in a defence of globalization pointed out “Since the 184os advocates of free trade have known that, though the great majority benefit, some lose out. Too little has been done to help these people“. Trade deals are a mix of both shock and awe and slow and steady, which make them very tricky things to evaluate. The shock comes with the rapid change in policy from one day to the next, the slowness comes with the impact on the system as certain industries fade, others emerge and yet others adapt. Whether one agrees with any particular deal or not, it’s undeniable some benefit more than others and what hurts is when people feel they lose, unfairly.

This is a matter of justice. This feeling of justice is what these referenda — and elections, which in the case of the United States’ political system is ultimately a referendum on the candidate for President — are all about.

justice |ˈjəstəs| , noun

1 just behaviour or treatment: a concern for justice, peace, and genuine respect for people.

• the quality of being fair and reasonable: the justice of his case.

On social matters, justice isn’t black and white. Social issues are multilayered, contextual, and dynamic and referenda treat this complexity more as static. It’s why change in complex systems is better done through a slower, less dramatic, but persistent set of actions connected together than through a dramatic shock. In the case of Brexit, Colombia and the US election the issues that people are complaining about are large, persistent ones and those aren’t easily rationalized, but they are felt. This is the emergence of slow change, and its powerful and is often disguised as a shock. The two are siblings and live together when it comes to complexity and paradox.

Even on matters of crime and punishment, there is a real disconnect between the logic of a a sentence or decision and the experience of those around them. Those who commit a crime and their victims may have their lives completely transformed because of one moment of poor decision making that isn’t greatly changed after ‘justice is served’. There is still that cauldron of emotions — regret, anger, loss, confusion, resentment — that can linger well past the term of sentence or the financial compensation, if any is received. Yet, justice is often viewed as a decision, a single event, meted out through rational argument, application of law and rules, deference to evidence.

This isn’t how people experience it.

Getting out of our head

This need to feel and not just think about the issues one of the reasons an approach like sociodrama, used by change leaders like John Wenger, can be a useful tool as it allows not only for thinking about an issue, but feeling it and doing so within a social context. Another approach is the dialogic design method that my colleague Peter Jones has been undertaking through his design practice and DwD events in Toronto.  Bodystorming is another approach that makes design feel more real and less ‘in the head’ and more ‘in the body’.

Designers at their best know this connection between heart and head and body well. The bodymind is a guide. Legendary Finnish product designer Alvar Alto designed a three-legged stool that by most rational accounts is one of the worst ideas ever for a piece of furniture, yet it’s style and utility was embraced and is still made today more than 80 years after it was created. Alto’s approach was rooted in how people saw themselves, their lives, their environments and that philosophy was what contributed to the design even if there are many other ways of doing a stool that are more stable and functional. He got his designs out of his head and into the world he was designing for.

If we are to expect to do anything about our democracy our designs have to be better  at allowing us to communicate, decide, and influence the world around us that ensures the heart and head are heard and justice not just served, but lived. In doing so, we may still find ourselves wanting to make similar choices about staying or leaving or on certain other policies, but we might be better at asking the right questions at the start and also avoiding decisions that risk putting someone like the man pictured above into positions of global power.

Photo credit: Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore. Thanks for offering your images to the world, Gage.

Our Paradoxical Age


If there was a word we could use to define the current times, paradox would certainly have to be a leading candidate. Can we learn to love this seemingly maddening force or are we doomed to accept this emergent complexity? This first in a series looks at some of the paradoxes of the day, what they might mean for our society and how we might live with them. 

paradox |ˈperəˌdäks|


a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory: a potentially serious conflict between quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity known as the information paradox.

• a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true: in a paradox, he has discovered that stepping back from his job has increased the rewards he gleans from it.

• a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities: the mingling of deciduous trees with elements of desert flora forms a fascinating ecological paradox.

If you think we’re living in strange times you’re not alone. Technology and its influence on our social world has produced things, ideas, encounters that only a few years ago would seem utterly preposterous if not impossible. Self-driving cars, drone delivery, digital social networks and video telephony, as remarkable as they are, have been somewhat pre-saged by science fiction and in a Jetsons-esque manner seem somewhat plausible to those who’s imaginations are sufficiently rich or their attenuation to popular culture sufficiently robust.

What I am talking about are the less dramatic or technologically sophisticated , but powerful shifts that have come from new products and services that are moving from the occasional ‘once-in-a-blue-moon’ kind of occurrence to something common and regular. This is producing paradoxes in droves, which is presenting conundrums for social scientists, policy makers and citizens alike.

Pokemon Go and the case of the walking dead-or-alive(?)

The above photo was taken July 11th in Toronto, Canada. I was walking upon a square when I noticed nearly everyone — dozens of people (with more coming every minute) congregating at the square to look at their phone. Unbeknownst to me at the time, five days earlier a game called Pokemon Go was released in Japan and the United States (a game that would not be released in Canada for another six days so these individuals were all using a version they’d obtained through some kind of digital work-around). These people were all chasing Pokemon characters who happened to “be” in that square.

The Pokemon Go craze had just ignited and the phenomena wouldn’t hit the mainstream news for another day or two so I was left wondering what was going on and thinking how sad it was that one of the nicest days of summer to date was being spent by so many standing looking at their phone. I took some pictures, made some inquiries and was left amazed, confused and slightly depressed all at the same time.

To call Pokemon Go a game seems misleading. So does calling it a community, a phenomenon, a technological marvel, a marketing coup, a social convener, a public health risk, a public health benefit or a waste of time. It’s something completely new and it brings with it a number of puzzling, odd and paradoxical qualities as noted in the piece below from The Pipe Dream Meme.

As one man reports: “I’m not the most physically fit person, obviously, but I have walked more since this game has come out than I have in my entire life” He goes on to talk about how he knows more about his city than ever did before thanks to Pokemon Go, a video game that involves a person being focused on their screen, not the actual city around them even though what is on the screen is based on the physical city (and country and cemeteries and…) that is the foil for the hundreds of Pokemon characters to live through a handset.

Whether you consider the thousands of people walking around your city staring at their handset the walking dead (as disconnected from the world) or the living (as engaging with the world, differently) is a matter of perspective.

Paradox thy name is Pokemon.

Extensions of humanity to what?

Marshall McLuhan wrote (PDF) that the medium is the message and that the tools and technologies embedded in that media initially extend our humanity then culturally envelopes humanity by making us an extension of it. A simple look at capitalism and the use of money as a means of negotiating our sense lives illustrates this as McLuhan points out.

“Money has reorganized the sense life of peoples just because it is an extension of our sense lives. This change does not depend upon approval or disapproval of those living in the society.”

McLuhan cites the work of Carl Jung to support his thesis by drawing on a quote that illustrate the insidiousness of system of paradoxes and what they can have on a society:

Every Roman was surrounded by slaves. The slave and his psychology flooded ancient Italy, and every Roman became inwardly, and of course unwittingly, a slave. Because living constantly in the atmosphere of slaves, he became infected through the unconscious with their psychology. No one can shield himself from such an influence (Contributions to Analytical Psychology, London, 1928).

Thus by enslaving others we ourselves become enslaved.

Perhaps no better example of this paradox is in the way we’ve created tools to learn, exchange information and automate activity — making our work much more efficient — and finding ourselves either overworked or out of a job entirely. We’ve created a capitalist consumption system that relishes in efficiency in order to provide us with more of what we want and need to survive, thrive and be happy and we seem to put ourselves out of work; create stressed over-work for many of those who have jobs; destroy the planet (which is the only place to live), disconnect us from society and ourselves; and in a manner that contributes to mental health disorders along the way.

Things ought to be amazing — and in many ways they are — but the horrors created along with this are as notable and significant not only for our life today, but the future of the planet. This is the paradox of plenty.

Creating stupidity through knowledge

The problems we’ve created from consumption would be manageable if it was simply an issue of lack of knowledge. Solving knowledge-based problems is pretty straightforward: you find the right information, package it appropriately to the right audience, and ensure you deliver that message at the right time and place. This is the basis behind the knowledge transfer model and second generation of knowledge-to-action theories. Ask any marketer and they’ll tell you that while there’s no one way to do this and it does take work and experimentation, the mechanics are pretty straightforward.

Yet, knowledge (and truth, which is linked to this knowledge), is losing its power to sway people in the information society, which is based largely on the production / consumption / use of knowledge. As we have more access to more knowledge about something we are often less informed and more likely to discount the very thing we are using to make decisions. Paradoxical, isn’t it?

The ascendency of Donald Trump from real estate developer/reality TV show host/beauty pageant promoter to Republican candidate for the President of the United States is as good of an example as you’ll ever find. Irrespective of whatever policy positions you might hold, it’s impossible to deny that his track record of outright lies is beyond the pale. Or maybe it’s not impossible and that’s the problem.

Clay Johnson wrote about this phenomenon and drew parallels between our obesogenic culture and that of information consumption. He was inspired by an encounter with a protester in the early days of what would become the ‘Obamacare’ movement who had a sign saying “Keep your government hands off my Medicare” and recalls the circumstance in his book The Information Diet:

I spoke to this protestor about his sign. He seemed rather well educated — sure, he was angry, but he was not dumb, just concerned about the amount of money being spent by the current administration…This man did not suffer from a lack of information. Yet he had failed to consider the irony of holding a sign above his head asking government to keep its hands off a government-run program. To him, it made perfect sense.


So what’s to be done? Anything? That’s what I’ll explore in the next post.

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….)🙂

Diversity / Complexity in Focus


Diversity in focus?


As cities and regions worldwide celebrate Pride the role of diversity, understanding and unity has been brought to mind just as it has contemplating the British public’s choice to leave the EU with Brexit. Both events offer lessons in dealing with complexity and why diversity isn’t about either/or, but more both and neither and that we might learn something not just from the English, but their gardens, too. 

It’s a tad ironic that London has been celebrating its Pride festival this past week, a time when respect and celebration of diversity as well as unification of humanity was top-of-mind while the country voted to undo many of the policies that fostered political and economic union and could likely reduce cultural diversity with Europe. But these kind of ironies are not quirky, but real manifestations of what can happen when we reduce complexity into binaries.

This kind of simplistic, reductionist thinking approach can have enormously harmful and disrupting effects that ripple throughout a system as we are seeing with what’s happened so far in the United Kingdom, Europe and the world in the past week.

Complexity abhors dichotomies

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t

The above quote (which has many variations, including one attributed to author Tom Robbins that I like) makes light of the problem of lumping the complex mass of humanity into two simple categories. It abstracts variation to such a level that it becomes nearly meaningless. The Brexit vote is similar. Both are lessons in complexity lived in the world because they reflect a nuanced, mutli-faceted set of issues that are reduced into binary options that are clustered together.

It is no surprise that, in the days following the Brexit vote in the UK, that there is much talk of a divided, rather than a united kingdom.

Diversity is difficult to deal with and is often left unaddressed as a result. The benefits to having diversity expressed and channeled within a complex system are many and articulated in research and practice contexts across sectors and include protection from disruption, better quality information, a richer array of strategic options and, in social contexts, a more inclusive social community.

The risks are many, too, but different in their nature. Diversity can produce tension which can be used for creative purposes, liberation, insight as well as confusion and conflict, simultaneously. This as a lot do with humans uneasy relationship with change. For some, change is easier to deal with by avoiding it — which is what many in the Leave camp thought they could do by voting the way they did. The darker side of the Leave campaign featured change as an image of non-white immigrant/refugees flooding into Britain, presumably to stoke those uncomfortable with (or outwardly hostile) to others to fear the change that could come from staying in the European Union.

Staying the same requires change

The author Guiseppe de Lampedussa once wrote about the need to change even when desiring to keep things as they are, because even if we seek stability, everything around us is changing and thus the system (or systems) we are embedded in are in flux. That need to change to stay the same was something that many UK citizens voiced. What was to change and what was to stay the same was not something that could be captured by a “Leave” or “Remain” statement, yet that is what they were given.

It should come to no surprise that, when presented with a stark choice on a complex matter, that there would be deep dissatisfaction with the result no matter what happened. We are seeing the fallout from the vote in the myriad factions and splintering of both of the main political parties — Conservative and Labour — and a House of Commons that is now filled with rebellion. Is the UK better off? So far, no way.

This is not necessarily because of the Leave vote, but because of what has come from the entire process of mis-handling the campaigns and the lack of plan for moving forward (by both camps). Further complicating matters is that the very EU that Britain has voted to leave is now not the same place as it was when the Brexit vote was held just five days ago. It’s also faced with rising voices for reform and potential separation votes from other member states who saw their causes bolstered or hindered because of the UK referendum. This is complexity in action.

Tending the garden of complex systems

The English know more about complexity than they might realize. An English garden is an example of complexity in action and how it relates to the balance of order, disorder and unordered systems. A look at a typical English garden will find areas of managed beauty, wildness, and chaos all within metres of one another.


What also makes a garden work is that it requires the right balance of effort, adaptive action, planning and compensating as well as the ability to let go all at the same time. Gardening requires constant attention to the weather, seasons, the mix of diversity within the system, the boundaries of the system itself (lest weeds or other species seek to invade from outside the garden or plants migrate out to a neighbours place) and how one works with all of it in real time.

Social systems are the same way. They need to be paid attention to and acted upon strategically, in their own time and way. This is why annual strategic planning retreats can be so poorly received. We take an organization with all it’s complexity and decide that once per year we’ll sit down and reflect on things and plan for the future. Complexity-informed planning requires a level of organizational mindfulness that engages the planning process dynamically and may involve the kind of full-scale, organization-wide strategy sessions more frequently or with specific groups than is normally done. Rather than use what is really arbitrary timelines — seen in annual retreats, 5-year plans and so forth — the organization takes a developmental approach, like a gardener, and tends to the organizations’ strategic needs in rhythms that fit the ecosystem in which it finds itself.

This kind of work requires: 1) viewing yourself as part of a system, 2) engaging in regular, sustained planning efforts that have 3) alignment with a developmental evaluation process that continually monitors and engages data collection to support strategic decision-making as part of 4) a structured, regular process of sensemaking so that an organization can see what is happening and make sense of it in real-time, not retrospectively because one can only act in the present, not the future or past.

Just as a garden doesn’t reduce complexity by either being on or off, neither should our social or political systems. Until we start realizing this and acting on it — by design — at the senior strategic level of an organization, community or nation, we may see Brexit-like conditions fostered in places well beyond the white cliffs of Dover into governments and organizations globally.

Photo Credits: The London Eye Lit Up for Pride London by David Jones and Hidcote Manor GardenHidcote Manor GardenHidcote Manor Garden by David Catchpole both used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks to the Davids for sharing their work.

(Re) Making our World


Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is a nod to the future and the past and both perspectives illustrate how citizens everywhere are struggling with how to best make their world – and to what extent that’s possible. These are design choices with systems implications that will be felt far beyond those who are making such decisions.

We only understand systems from a perspective, because where you sit within a system determines the relevance of properties that are of that system. These properties look different (or may be wholly imperceptible) depending on the vantage point taken within that system. This is what makes understanding and working with systems so challenging.

This morning the world woke up to find that the British people voted to leave the European Union. For the Brits this was a choice about where they wanted to place a boundary around certain systems (political, economic, geographic) and how they perceived having control over what took place within, around (and indeed the very nature of) those boundaries. Boundaries and constraints are principally what defines a system as that is what shapes what happens inside that system. For Britain it was a choice to redefine those boundaries tighter with a hope that it will bring greater good to that nation.

Boundary critique in complex systems

There is a guide for systems thinking that says if you’re trying to understand a system and find yourself lost you’ve probably bounded your systems too loosely and if you’re finding yourself constantly seeking explanations for what happens in a system that occur outside those boundaries than you’ve bound it too tightly.

The choice of millions of Britons about their own country, their boundaries, has influenced the world as stock markets shake up, currencies are devalued and entire economies rattlednot just now, but potentially for a period to come. Oil prices have fallen sharply in the wake of the decision, which will impact every part of the economy and further delay any shift away from carbon-based fuel options. The European Union and the entire world is feeling the effect from 51% of Britons who voted (of about 17M citizens) deciding they would be better off outside the EU than within it. Consider how a small number of people can have such an enormous impact — a perfect illustration of complexity in action.

And as England seeks to re-draw its boundary, already there is discussion of another Scottish independence vote in the wake of this, which may re-draw the boundary further. These votes are intentional acts and perhaps the most straightforward expressions of intention and self-determination within a democracy, but their impact and outcomes on citizens and the world around them are far from straightforward making such direct-democracy far more problematic than those in support of such votes make out. This is not to say that such votes are necessarily good or bad, but they are certainly not simple.

Co-design and its problems

The Brexit vote invites memory of a quote from one of Britain’s famous leaders who famously quipped that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Democracy creates the opportunity for co-design of our political systems, policy choices and boundaries. By having an opportunity to voice an opinion and engage in the act of voting we citizens have a role to play in co-designing what we want from our country. The downside is that we are engaging in this exercise from where we sit in the system, thus the design I want might not be the same as someone else in my country, nor may we see the same information the same way or even consider the same information relevant.

It’s for this reason that we’re seeing strange things in politics these days. The volume of information available to us and the complexity of the layered contexts in which that information applies makes a simple decision like a vote for or against something far more challenging. Complexity is created by volatility, lack of certainty, an absence of predictability and dynamism. Co-design introduces all of this and, on a national scale, amplifies the impact of that complexity.

This is a massive challenge for everyone, but in particular those who come from the design and systems science realms. For design, co-design has been touted as a desired, if not idealized, principle for guiding the making of everything from learning experiences to services to products to policies. In systems thinking and related sciences, too often the focus is less on what is created, but how it impacts things — offering more description and analytical insight than guidance on what ought to be developed and how. Bringing these two worlds together — systemic design — may have never been more important.

Systemic design, boredom and critical making

Roseanne Somerson, President of the Rhode Island School of Design, recently wrote about the importance of boredom in spurring creativity in design. In it she speaks of the term ‘critical making’ instead of using design thinking. I love that term. It does a better job of reflecting the thinking-in-action praxis that is really at the heart of good design. In this article she refers to the insights and bursts of creativity that come from her students when she allows them — rather, forces them — to be bored.

What boredom can do is prompt a form of mindfulness, an emptying of the thoughts allowing the opportunity to escape the rush of stimulation that we get from the world and permit new insights to come in. It is a way of temporarily freeing oneself from the path dependence that is created by an entrained thought pattern that seeks out certain stimulation (which is why we tend to re-think the same thing over and again). This is an enormously useful approach for supporting organizations and individuals operating in complex systems to see things differently and not to get swept up in the power of a prevailing current without being fully aware that such a current exists and evaluating whether that is useful or not useful.

Creating the space to be mindful and to understand better ones place in their system as well as the potential consequences of change within that system is one of the key contributions that systemic design can offer. It is about engaging in social critical making and perhaps, it may be away out of the trap of creating simple binaries of stay versus leave or yes vs no. Surely no Britons thought that membership in the EU was all bad or good, but to divide the choice to be in or out might have been a case of taking a simple approach to a complex problem and now we will see how a simple choice has complex reverberations throughout the system now and into the future. Time will tell whether these — and the resulting choices of other nations and regions — will bring us closer together, further apart, or something else entirely.


Photo credits: Brexit Scrabble by Jeff Djevdet and Sad Day #brexit from Jose Manuel Mota both used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks Jeff and Jose for sharing your art.

Collective action, impact, intelligence & stupidity


Collective impact is based largely on the concept that we can do more together than apart, which holds true under the assumption that we can coordinate, organize and execute as a unit. This assumption doesn’t always hold true and the implications for getting it wrong require serious attention. 

Anyone interested in social change knows that they can’t do it alone. Society, after all, is a collective endeavour — even if Margaret Thatcher suggested it didn’t exist.  Thatcherites aside, that is about where agreement ends. Social change is complex, fraught with disagreements, and challenging for even the most skilled organizer because of the multitude of perspectives and disparate spread of individuals, groups and organizations across the system.

Social media (and the Internet more widely) was seen as means of bridging these gaps, bringing people together and enabling them to organize and make social change. Wael Ghonim, one of the inspirational forces behind Egypt’s Arab Spring movement, believed this to be true, saying:

If you want to liberate society all you need is the Internet

But as he acknowledges now, he was wrong.

Ghonim’s beliefs were not illogical as he discusses in the Ted talk above. He espoused a belief about collective action that echoes what leadership consultant and author Ken Blanchard proclaims:

None of us is as smart as all of us

Blanchard’s quote is meant to illustrate the power of teams and working together; something that we can easily take for granted when we seek to do collective action. Yet, what’s often not discussed are the challenges that our new tools present for true systems change.

Complex (social) systems thrive on diversity, the interaction between ideas and the eventual coordination and synchrony between actions into energy. That requires some agreement, strategy and leadership before the change state becomes the new stable state (the changed state). Change comes from a coalescing of perspectives into some form of agreement that can be transformed into a design and then executed. It’s messy, unpredictable, imprecise, can take time and energy, but that is how social change happens. 

At least, that’s how it has happened. How it’s happening now is less clear thanks to social media and it’s near ubiquitous role in social movements worldwide.

Complicating complexity

The same principles underpinning complex social systems hasn’t changed, but what we’re seeing is that the psychology of change and the communications that takes place within those systems is. When one reviews or listens to the stories told about social change movements from history, what we see over and again is the power of stories.

Stories take time to tell them, are open to questions, and can get more powerful in their telling and retelling. They engage us and, because they take time, grant us time to reflect on their meaning and significant. It’s a reason why we see plays, read novels, watch full-length films, and spend time with friends out for coffee…although this all might be happening less and less.

Social media puts pressure on that attention, which is part of the change process. Social media’s short-burst communication styles — particularly with Tweets, Snapchat pictures, Instragram shots and Facebook posts — make it immensely portable and consumable, yet also highly problematic for longer narratives. The social media ‘stream’, something discussed here before, provides a format that tends to confirm our own beliefs and perspectives, not challenge them, by giving us what we want even if that’s not necessarily what we need for social change.

When we are challenged the anonymity, lack of social cues, immediacy, and reach of social media can make it too easy for our baser natures to override our thoughts and lash out. Whether its Wael Ghomim and Egypt’s Arab Spring or Hossein Derakhshan and Iranian citizen political movement or the implosion of the Occupy movement , the voices of constructive dissent and change can be overwhelmed by infighting and internal dissent, never allowing that constructive coalescing of perspective needed to focus change.

Collectively, we may be more likely to reflect one of the ‘demotivation’ posters from Despair instead of Ken Blanchard:

None of us is as dumb as all of us

Social media, the stream and the hive

Ethan Zuckerman of the MIT Media Lab has written extensively about the irony of the social insularity that comes with the freedom and power online social networks introduce as was explored in a previous post.

The strength of a collective impact approach is that it aims to codify and consolidate agreement, including the means for evaluating impact. To this end, it’s a powerful force for change if the change that is sought is of a sufficient value to society and that is where things get muddy. I’ve personally seen many grand collaboratives fall to irrelevancy because the only agreements that participants can come up with are broad plaudits or truisms that have little practical meaning.

Words like “impact”, “excellence”, “innovation” and “systems change” are relatively meaningless if not channeled into a vision that’s attainable through specific actions and activities. The specifics — the devil in the details — comes from discussion, debate, concession, negotiation and reflection, all traits that seem to be missing when issues are debated via social media.

What does this mean for collective impact?

If not this, then what?

This is not a critique of collective activity, because working together is very much like what Winston Churchill said about democracy and it’s failings still making it better than the alternatives. But it’s worth asking some serious questions and researching what collective impact means in practice and how to we engage it with the social tools that are now a part of working together (particularly at a distance). These questions require research and systemic inquiry.

Terms like social innovation laboratories or social labs are good examples of an idea that sounds great (and may very well be so), yet has remarkably little evidence behind it. Collective impact risks falling into the same trap if it is not rigorously, critically evaluated and that the evaluation outcomes are shared. This includes asking the designer’s and systems thinker’s question: are we solving the right problem in the first place? (Or are we addressing some broad, foggy ideal that has no utility in practice for those who seek to implement an initiative?)

Among the reasons brainstorming is problematic is that it fails to account for power and for the power of the first idea. Brainstorming favours those ideas that are put forward first with participants commonly reacting to those ideas, which immediately reduces the scope of vision. A far more effective method is having participants go off and generate ideas independently and then systematically introducing those to the group in a manner that emphasizes the idea, not the person who proposed it. Research suggests it needs to be well facilitated [PDF].

There may be an argument that we need better facilitation of ideas through social media or, perhaps as Wael Ghonim argues, a new approach to social media altogether. Regardless, we need to design the conversation spaces and actively engage in them lest we create a well-intentioned echo chamber that achieves collective nothing instead of collective impact.

Photo credit “All Power to the Collective” to Mike Benedetti used under Creative Commons licence via Flickr (original artist, Graffito)

Frogs, Pots, Blogs and Social Media


Our information landscape has been compared with our diets providing an ample opportunity to compare what we ‘consume’ with how we prepare food and perhaps draw on the analogy of the frog and the boiling point of water. Are we slowly killing our ability to produce independent thought through vehicles like blogs as we draw our gaze to and focus on the social media stream?

Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan was one of the few who opposed the state-imposed media messaging about what was (and has been) happening in Iran. For that, he was jailed. Writing in the Guardian news service, Darakshan, once referred to as Iran’s ‘Blogfather’, discusses how blogging enabled him to be this voice and how he’s become increasingly concerned with how that option is getting slowly silenced not necessarily by governments but by social media.

Darakhshan’s perspective on social media is made all the more interesting because of his role as a prominent blogger before his arrest and the 6-year prison term that disrupted that role, offering something of a time-travel experiment in social media that he illustrates with a story from the Qur’an (known as the tale of the Seven Sleepers).

Upon his return online, Darakhshan noticed that the patchwork quilt of perspectives that were present in the blogosphere was being replaced by ‘The Stream’ that social media provides.

This stream is no longer about a diversity of perspectives, but rather something custom-tailored to meet our preferences, desires, and the needs of corporations seeking to sell advertising, products and services that align with their perception of what we want or require. This stream also allows us to shield ourselves from perspectives that might clash with our own. Groups like ISIS, he suggests, are enabled and emboldened by this kind of information vacuum:

Minority views are radicalised when they can’t be heard or engaged with. That’s how Isis is recruiting and growing. The stream suppresses other types of unconventional ideas too, with its reliance on our habits.

The Stream & our information diet

What’s interesting about The Stream is that it is about bits and bites (or bytes) and not about meals. Yet, if we consider the analogy of information and food a little further we might find ourselves hard-pressed to recall the snacks we had, but (hopefully) can recall many memorable meals. Snacking isn’t bad, but it’s not memorable and too much of it isn’t particularly healthy unless it’s of very high-quality food. With no offence to my ‘friends’ and ‘follows’ on social media, but most of what they produce is highly refined, saccharine-laden comfort food in their posts and retweets, with a few tasty morsels interspersed between rants, cat videos, selfies, and kid pictures. To be fair, my ‘offerings’ aren’t much better when I look across many of my recent Tweets and posts as I am no more than a box of sugar-topped Shreddies to others’ Frosted Flakes. (Note to self when composing New Years Resolutions, even if they are likely to fail, that I need to add less sugar to my stream).

Yet, we are living an age of information abundance and, like food abundance (and the calories that come with it), we are prone to getting obese and lethargic from too much of it. This was the argument that political communicator Clay Johnston makes in his book The Information Diet. Obesity in its various forms makes us slower, less attuned, more disengaged and often far less mindful (and critical) of what we take in whether it’s food or information. And like obesity, the problem is not just one of personal choice and willpower, it’s also about obesogenic systems that include: workplaces, restaurants, communities, markets and policies. This requires systems thinking and ensuring that we are making good personal choices and supporting healthy, critical information systems to support those choices.

The Stream is actually antithetical to that in many regards as Darakhshan points out. The Stream is about passing content through something else, like Facebook, that may or may not choose to pass it on to someone at any given time and place. I’ve noticed this firsthand over the holiday season by finding “Getting ready for Christmas” messages in my Facebook feed on Boxing Day and beyond.

The problem with The Stream is that everything is the same, by design, as Darakhshan notes in an earlier post on his concerns with his new post-imprisonment Web.

Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it’s an entire era online. Writing on the internet itself had not changed, but reading — or, at least, getting things read — had altered dramatically. I’d been told how essential social networks had become while I’d been gone, and so I knew one thing: If I wanted to lure people to see my writing, I had to use social media now.

So I tried to post a link to one of my stories on Facebook. Turns out Facebook didn’t care much. It ended up looking like a boring classified ad. No description. No image. Nothing. It got three likes. Three! That was it.

An information food web

Diversity of perspective and content is critical for healthy decision-making in complex systems. Our great problems, the wicked ones from terrorism to chronic disease to mass migration to climate change, will not be solved in The Stream. Yet, if we push too much toward creating content in social networks that are no longer controlled by users (even if the content is produced by users) and designed to facilitate new thinking, not just same thinking, our collective capacity for addressing complex problems is diminished.

Wicked problems will not be solved by Big Data alone. We cannot expect to simply mine our streams looking for tags and expect to find the diversity of perspective or new idea that will change the game. As Ethan Zuckerman has pointed out, we need to rewire our feeds consciously to reflect the cosmopolitan nature of our problems and world, not just accept that we’ll choose diversity when our information systems are designed to minimize them.

Much like a food web, consideration of our information ecosystems in systems terms can be useful in helping us understand the role of blogging and other forms of journalism and expression in nurturing not only differences of opinion, but supporting the democratic foundation in which the Web was originally based. Systems thinking about what we consume as well as produce might be a reason to consider blogging as well as adding to your social media stream and why more ‘traditional’ media like newspapers and related news sites have a role.

Otherwise, we may just be the frog in the boiling pot who isn’t aware that it’s about to be cooked until it’s too late.


It is interesting that Darakhshan’s piece caught my attention the day after WordPress delivered my ‘Year in Blogging’ review to my inbox. It pointed out that there were just 4 posts on Censemaking in 2015. This is down from more than 90 per year in past calendar years. Clearly, I’ve been drawn into the stream with my content sharing and perhaps it’s time to swim back against the current. This blog was partly a response. Stay tuned for more and thanks for reading.

Image: Frog & Saucepan used under Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Foundation.

Systems Thinking and Design: A Case for Egypt?

Politics provides a great analogy for why systems thinking and design fit together and how effective “design” and systems thinking work so closely together. It’s time that our politicians and policy makers start considering the role of design and systems thinking a little more and Egypt provides a great example of what happens when those areas come together.

Designing (Building) a New Egypt?

Over the past month I’ve done a lot of reading on the role of design and the culture of designers. The reasons are many, but mostly because I see the challenges that we face as a society as ones of poor design and an inability to see systems, think about them clearly, and translate that into action. This last part is really where design comes into play.

Take the current situation in Egypt, that is in many ways a design problem. Many years ago, Egyptians were comfortable — if not always happy — to accept a government designed to be under the heavy influence of one person. Despite the flaws of that leadership, there was acceptance and general, if somewhat muted, support for that model for the last part of the 20th century and the early start of this century. The recent events in Tunisia showed Egyptians that there were alternatives to their current model of politics and that the people could design a new leadership. The past few days have seen a remarkable chain of events that represent the culmination of desire of Egypt’s people for change.

Design thinking provides a lens for viewing problems and developing contextual solutions — or new situations. The exploration of the problem and developing new solutions using design thinking involves a number of steps. This usually includes such steps as:

  • Define the scope, scale and context of the problem at hand;
  • Research the problem and determine causes, consequences, alternatives and opportunities related to that problem;
  • Start working on developing possible options — ideate — in ways that include the wild and outlandish to ensure that there is sufficient opportunity to build on ideas that might encompass the fullest possible perspective on the issue, even if such ideas may seem impractical;
  • Prototype some new options. In the case of political systems, perhaps trying some new ways to organize parts of the government, shift the leadership structure or conduct local experiments to try new models of governance in relatively safe environments;
  • Evaluate the implementation of the prototype and incorporate the findings into successive models and then re-implement them in the form of new prototypes. This rapid-cycle prototyping on small scale experiments enable a safe-fail culture to form rather than aim for the impractical fail-safe models that almost never work in complex systems;
  • Implement and repeat. Take the lessons learned from taking a utilization-focused evaluation (PDF) approach or a developmental evaluation approach (or a combination), implement the necessary changes and repeat.

The manner by which the outcomes and implementation of the new model are assessed can be viewed by taking a systems thinking perspective, largely because what is being designed is indeed a system. By considering the boundaries, the interconnections between civil society and government, and by articulating intention in guiding the change, it is possible to design a new political system for one of the world’s oldest societies in a manner that honours the past and creates a compelling, healthy future.

Change isn’t usually so straightforward, but that’s often because there isn’t the planning and process in place for change. Now is a perfect time to bring that about as Egyptians struggle along with their Northern African neighbours in Tunisia to find ways to bring their intention to bear on the way their country is governed and, in doing so, create one of the most significant opportunities for design and systems thinking in either of those nations’ histories.

Social Insularity and the Not-So-Wide World Web

iPhone 4 by Yutaka Tsutano (Used under Creative Commons License)

When we type ‘www’ as part of a URL, we refer to the World Wide Web, this vast expansive network of data and information that provides a universe of information possibilities and the ability to learn about almost anything from nearly any point of view.

But we don’t.

Indeed, we might just focus on some very narrow things and actually make our world, psycho-socially at least, a little smaller. Although I don’t think Marshall McLuhan had this in mind when he referred to this web as a global village.

Take today’s announcement by Apple on the state of the iPhone 4 in addressing ‘antennaegate‘. At issue is an under-performing cellphone transmission antennae in the iPhone that has caused a huge stir in the tech media world – which, if you read enough of it, assumes is important to the world at large.

One might think that this antennae problem is significant enough to derail a company like Apple and that people, outraged at what the tech pundits and media types have exposed, would abandon the newest iPhone in favour of something else. As mentioned elsewhere, the numbers, as reported in Fast Company, tell a different story:

During the presentation Apple wasn’t afraid to air some dirty laundry: Including the return rate for its premier device, the iPhone. The 3GS had a return rate of 6%, and so far the iPhone 4’s is running at 1.7%. Jobs thinks this illustrates that the end user is pretty satisfied with the phone, and that there’s no real problem with the antenna in day to day use. Ignoring the spin on this point, the fact Apple was prepared to share this internal business data at all is very unusual–and those figures will become used and referenced as new industry standards. Also unusual: Normally super-calm Steve Jobs swore on stage when answering a question about the now famous, and discredited, Bloomberg report that alleged an Apple engineer gave Jobs an early warning about the antenna. Apple is serious about defending its iPhone 4, folks.

Apple also shared one more statistic: Three million iPhone 4s have been sold in three weeks. That’s an amazing, sustained, million units a week folks. And if you think that’s just the early blush of success and excitement, then you need to remember that at the end of July 17 additional nations will start selling the iPhone 4. Which means that sales rate is going to soar past two million per week, and then stay there for a long time yet. No matter that Apple loves its customers … this is proof its customers love it right back, and aren’t worried about the antenna

Judging by the media firestorm, which included tech blogs to mainstream publications like The Economist, this is a significant issue. But to consumers, it isn’t…at least not enough to stop making the iPhone 4 the fastest selling device ever. Here, we have a very vocal, connected and articulate group of passionate media advocates in the tech world making a small issue and gigantic one. While such mis-steps are rare for Apple, it is probably fair to say that the iPhone issue was minor in real terms to the average person. The problem here, is that this highly connected group of writers seems connected to itself, and not the wider public who, by their actions, are far less concerned about this issue of the antennae.

This insularity is not just a media issue, it might be an Internet issue as a whole. In a recently published TED talk from Oxford, journalist and internet commentator Ethan Zuckerman, pointed to data that showed that people are pretty much keeping to themselves online, within some varied social boundaries. More importantly perhaps, this insularity is distorting our perception of the world we inhabit, making us think the world thinks and acts a lot like us. But as Zuckerman states:

The world is much wider than we generally perceive it to be

In the text and slideshow of his talk, Zuckerman points to the fact that Brazil has one of the highest rates of Twitter usage in the world, something of a surprise to most of us non-Brazilians. He adds:

About 170 million people visit Twitter each month, and 19m (11.2%) are Brazilian. More than one in ten Brazilian internet users visits Twitter each month, which is a higher proportion than in most nations – of the big internet using nations, the only one with a higher percent of people using the tool is Japan.There are millions of Japanese and Brazilian people on Twitter. If that seems surprising to you, it’s because most of your friends online aren’t Japanese or Brazilian. Twitter conducted a phone survey that revealed a quarter of their US users are African American… which was pretty surprising to most American users, who assumed that Twitter was just used by nerdy white guys.

What Zuckerman points out is that we’re not getting out as far as the Internet can take us because we’re choosing to socialize in places we find comfortable (my words, not his). We’re not venturing further from where we sit — physically, psycho-socially, politically or anywhere, really.

In another TED talk, psychological Jonathan Haidt spoke about the moral differences between conservatives and liberals, pointing to the same idea in politics about how much distance there is between those who might be Democrat vs. those who identify as Republican in the United States.

The social networking technologies we have right now offer the opportunities to see the world and communicate with its residents. But it is the everyday social and psychological tools that require deployment if we are to do anything more with these networks than we could have done without them. Is the Internet really creating a World Wide Web or is it more of a louder, more convenient clique at a high school party?

Perhaps Jaron Lanier is more right than we first thought.

When Change Potential is Embedded in Bigger Systems


Yesterday I was part of an examination committee for a student discussing issues of health promotion, policy change and advocacy for a population that has been widely viewed as marginalized. The challenge that this student was wrestling with was balancing issues of collective and individual empowerment and where the appropriate action needs to take place (and then determining how to evaluate the impact of such action). Drawing on the work of Isaac Prilleltensky and his brilliant work on empowerment theory, the student’s project hopes to foster change that fits somewhere between the individual and community. But how to evaluate the impact?

An empowerment approach, as conceived by Prilleltensky, involves both personal and societal shifts simultaneously to be most effective. If individuals are motivated to change, yet the system is not prepared to adapt to these changes, the value of empowerment is diminished and so is the effect on society. The question shifts to looking at a place to start or determining what the is chicken and what is the egg. This question is less useful than one that considers ways to understand the embedded nature of change agents and change itself within systems shaped both by structure and time.

Barack Obama was elected in a manner that greatly changed the way we look at politics. While he made enormous strides in shaping an electorate, his success at governing has been more muted. Obama’s potential to do well in governing is embedded in the policies and practices that came before him, whether he likes it or not. This is illustrated to full comic effect in a recent Ron Howard ‘Presidential Reunion’ short on Funny or Die. George W. Bush built his policy agenda in a manner that was positioned with Bill Clinton’s, which was positioned with George H.B. Bush’s and so on. Yes, there are some clear departures based on incidents of massive, abrupt change such as September 11th attacks which led to major reactive shifts in policy like the creation of the U.S. Patriot Act , creation of new governmental bodies, and the initiation of two wars abroad. But these are the extremes. A closer look at most non-revolutionary government shifts shows that policy evolves and gets tweaked, but rarely exhibits radical change from administration to administration. Even though the rhetoric around health care reform in the U.S. has spoken of ‘radical change’, the bottom line is that no matter what policy emerges, it will bear closer resemblance to what came before than it will differ.

The embedded structure of social systems is akin to Russian Matryoshka dolls. Our ability to change hinges upon where in stack of dolls we lay and how tightly those dolls are stuck together. I would argue that Obama’s electoral success had a lot to do with a system where the fit of the dolls was loose. There was a clear process to getting nominated (e.g., primaries), but the manner by which interest gets generated and people get out to vote was loose at the time of his campaign. Obama succeeded primarily because he got people to vote who had never come out before, the population that most had given up on trying to reach. In government, the fit is much tighter. Everything has a protocol, a history, and receives an intense scrutiny in that even the smallest shift is noticed, dissected and critiqued.

That leads to a lot of information and feedback, much of it contradictory. Hence, the inertia. With more information than ever at our disposal, the risk that this inertia will persist is high. Jaron Lanier, who I wrote about in my last post, migh attribute this to ‘lock in’ : the dominant way of doing things. Obama succeed because he found a new model of campaigning, captured nicely in three recent books (Harfoush / Plouffe / Sabato). We don’t yet have a new way of governing.

From an evaluation perspective it becomes critical that we understand both these structures and the fit between these variables, or the degree to which the dominant design or ‘lock in’ plays in mediating the impact of change if we are to understand the impact that our efforts to create change are having.

The student who just defended her comprehensive exam, her challenge in using health promotion to instill change will depend on how locked in our society is in its attitudes towards vulnerable populations and the fit between the individual and community with regards to empowerment. I hope, like Obama campaigning in 2008, that fit is loose.

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