Tag: research

behaviour changeinnovationsystems sciencesystems thinking

Social Innovation Laboratories

Social Innovation bottled up

What’s inside the lab?

Zaid Hassan’s new book The Social Labs Revolution provides a look at the messy world of social change making. While far from being a how-to guide, the book provides a rare glimpse at the thinking behind the lab concept and some stories that illustrate how challenging, complex, and contradictory social change can be in its making. 

Zaid Hassan‘s newly released book looks at a concept that has become increasingly popular in the world of social innovation and design: the social laboratory. These labs are sometimes referred to as a design lab, solutions lab, or social innovation lab, but the general point is that they represent a combination of think tank, research unit, social action planning group, convener, community mobilizer and system change architect rolled into one entity.

These labs are focused on social issues at the systems level (at different scales) and tackle large and small issues that are generally complex in nature. Some have real, physical homes and others are located wherever their audience is or some combination.

At the crux of this concept of a social laboratory is a desire to integrate the spirit of discovery one expects to find in a traditional scientific laboratory complete with an emphasis on experimentation with a social mission, social engagement and a focus on complex problems.

The social labs revolution

The Social Labs Revolution
The Social Labs Revolution

The book is an interesting read and is well-written, but contrary to what some readers might desire, it is not going to provide a how-to guide in enough detail to start one up. However, it will inspire some foundational thinking in what labs are about, the theories and models that guide the work that Hassan and his partners at Generon and later Reos Partners founded the labs on and that is a significant contribution alone.

Labs are trendy and thus are vulnerable to hype and lazy thinking and one thing readers will soon learn is that Zaid Hassan is far from lazy. If anything, he’s exhausted from all the work he’s done.

The greatest strength of the book is in its very real account of the challenges that the work of labs involves. Hassan is forthcoming about the contradictions, tensions, hypocrisies, and strengths that get embedded in social labs as they try to realize fuzzy goals in ever-changing environments. It’s tiring work. That Hassan has been so forthright in his honesty about the experience of running social labs is truly commendable at a time when there is an enormous amount of hype around labs. It is a story of frustration, hope, possibility and uncertainty rolled into one.

Solutions and their laboratories

Another of the great strengths of the book is the discussion of the complexities that social labs face in their genesis and execution and Hassan does an excellent job of highlighting the evolution in thinking that has taken place between the original labs and what he calls the Next Generation Social Labs.

Alas, there is little in the book that will aid the reader in setting up a next generation lab or even recognizing one if they came across it. Chapter 8 outlines 7 How-to’s that feel like something an editor insisted on adding to the book and sadly does a disservice to the nuanced recollection of experience of labs that comes before it.

The 7 How-to’s are:

  1. Clarify intention
  2. Broadcast an invitation
  3. Work your networks
  4. Recruit willing people
  5. Set direction
  6. Design in stacks
  7. Find cadence

These points are rather vague and, with some exception, could be applied to almost any social venture. There is also little clarity on what they mean in practice. For example, the ‘design in stacks’ recommendation is supported with a single page of text, hardly enough to build a lab on or consider the design qualities such a lab needs to be successful. Not that the book necessarily claims to be a textbook for setting up a social lab, but its easy to see that the marketing team behind the book is OK with encouraging some hyperbole that suggests one might be able to use the book as the vehicle to change the system (see the back page for quotes and endorsements that illustrate this point).

What is missing from the book is the kind of qualities one might expect to find in a venture called a laboratory. There is little attention to data, to curiosity, to methods of inquiry and to knowledge translation. There are some numbers offered that account for some of the work that was done in the lab examples, but there is little in the way of causal or attributional linkages made that would satisfy an evaluator. To be fair to the author, this is missing from most other accounts of social labs I’ve seen. Much discussion of their impact and how they continue to “work” is made without attention to the very science-inspired concepts that are at the bedrock of a laboratory and that is a shame. It’s not to say that good work wasn’t done, it’s just hard to know exactly what it was and how that was determined to be connected to the program.

Now one might argue that the lab is metaphorical and thus it’s not worth getting too nit-picky about the details and how social labs resemble scientific labs. But this is not just a language issue, because if we are not careful we may make the same mistakes of association with causation that bedevil accounts of many other strategies for social change. In complex systems, causation is not linear and is rarely (if ever) predictable or controllable. Yet, there are ways to rigorously account for what was done, where things went, and what kind of patterns of activity are connected to others. It’s not all numbers, but its also more than stories.

A scientific approach to the social lab?

Social labs may not be able to prove cause-and-effect in a clean, neat manner, but they can document what they did from the lens of a system. They can show how their roles led to joined-up activities that manifest throughout a system in many ways. But most importantly, social labs can play a role in stimulating learning for the systems they engage. Learning is very often non-linear, associative, punctuated, and dynamic just as the complex systems in which social labs work and it would have been wonderful to have seen how the 7 recommendations were generated, supported and realized in the examples provided. We can be more scientific about our labs even if that means using the science of systems and complexity.

It also would have been useful to have seen how the lessons could be realized within the context of the design of the lab, which should flow through each of the seven steps. Perhaps that is for the next book.

The Social Labs Revolution is an important contribution to the literature and our collective understanding of what social labs look like from within, not just without. I recommend it for anyone who thinks this is something worth considering for it will caution you against any belief that labs are simple tools for solving simple problems, simply. Quite the opposite.

Cover Image: iStockphoto, used under licence.

behaviour changecomplexitypublic healthsocial systemssystems thinking

The New Zombie

Zombie stare

They are among us and hungry for brains

Zombies are attacking us; not for brains, but for attention. The consequences of this is that they are everywhere and sucking the intelligence out of human systems. 

Forget orange, zombie is the new black.

Zombies are hot. TV shows, books and films about zombies are more popular than ever, and this time of year the public’s attention to the undead is at its nadir. The CDC in the United States even got into the act by using zombies as a health promotion vehicle to support emergency preparedness. From zombie walks to art shows, the staggering brain-eating, brain-less are everywhere.

Yet, there is a new breed being formed that doesn’t eat brains and has them, but may not be using them well and they are all around us everywhere.

They walk among us

Look around and what do you see? People online, on the phone, texting and walking and driving, being everywhere except where they are. Examples of people walking into fountains or falling into a sinkhole while on the phone are often seen as comi-tragic, yet they belie a remarkably powerful trend towards disengagement from the world around them. Charlene deGuzman and Miles Crawford‘s beautiful and disheartening short film I Forgot My Phone plays this for further comic and sad effect as they portray a day in the life of someone paying attention to those not paying attention to anything away from their screen. The film highlights the modern paradox of being more connected than ever, yet overwhelmingly alone.

Emerging research is showing remarkable spikes in risks associated with mobile phone use and injury and mortality. We might laugh at people falling into holes or bumping into things, but only when it hurts the ego and not the body. This is serious stuff. Keep in mind that we don’t see non-reported injuries (e.g., someone bruising their head) and the many near misses between person and object — including cars, which have their own epidemic of problems with texting and attention.

Indeed, zombies embody paradox: a brainless being that is undead seeks brains to stay unalive. Whether they are alive or dead depends on where you stand and that is what makes them a complex character despite their surface-level simplicity.

Brains…need…more…(use of science) brains….

Zombie Science

Zombie Science?

While it might be easy to point to those on phones, zombie behaviour occurs elsewhere in places where the effects are far less comic and just as dangerous. The latest issue of The Economist features a cover story on the problems science is having with it credibility and quality control. Some of this is due to what I would call zombie-like behaviour: mindless attention in a manner that restricts awareness and appreciation of one’s immediate context and the larger system to which that behaviour occurs.

The recent expose by science journalist John Bohannon published in the journal Science exposes zombie-like thinking in how open-access science journals accept and reject papers. Bohannon’s inquiry was prompted by questions about the way fees were charged for open access journals (which is how they can remain open to the public) and the peer review require to advance publication. Presumably, an article has to pass review from peer professional scientists before it is accepted and then the fee is paid. No acceptance, no fee (except for perhaps a small application processing charge).

As profiled in an interview with the CBC radio show The Current

Bohannon wanted to find out whether fee-charging open access journals were actually keeping their promise to do peer review — a process in which scientists with some knowledge of a paper’s topic volunteer to check it for scientific flaws…

…In the end, what he concluded was that “a huge proportion” of the journals were not ensuring their papers were peer reviewed.

Even in cases where peer review happened, it didn’t always function correctly. For example, the Ottawa-based International Journal of Herbs and Medicinal Plants clearly sent the paper out to be reviewed by real scientists, who pointed out some flaws, Bohannon recalled. Even so, when Bohannon submitted a revised version of the paper without correcting any of the flaws, it was accepted.

Bohannon’s approach and findings are not without some problems of their own, but they don’t much change the conclusion that there are deep problems within the scientific enterprise.

Much of what Bohannon found can be attributed to greed, but a great deal of it is due to bad scientific practice. As a consultant who is also a publishing researcher and ‘recovering’ academic I know the enormous amount of energy that goes into publishing an academic article in a scholarly journal. As one who is sent between 4 to 5 manuscripts to review from legitimate journals per month I know the demands that are placed on reviews. We also publish far too much for the system to handle. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher EducationMark Bauerlein and colleagues look closely at the ‘avalanche’ of publishing and shed light on many reasons why the problems that the Economist and Science occur (Note: I’d strongly encourage you to read through the comments as it is as instructive as the article itself).

They are everywhere

To add to the examples of zombie culture I need only look to my own daily life outside of science and  mobile phones. Just the other day I witnessed the following example at a community meeting that was organized in part to discuss the expenditure of funds to make a better living area for people in a building:

Presenter: “…and I am pleased to conclude that the new furniture for the outdoor spaces is going to be made by a company that created the same products at [place] out of recycled materials. We will expect to have the new furniture here in 6 to 8 weeks. Any questions?”

First question: “I love the work you’ve done. Can you tell me when the furniture will be here?”

Sadly, I have many other stories that show that many people are not paying attention. They are sitting through workshops and not picking up basic concepts (even after having asked for it and having been given it multiple times over), asking for materials that were already shared on multiple occasions, suggesting ideas that were already discussed and agreed upon over because that person didn’t engage in the discussion and so on. This happens not because people are stupid, but because they are disengaged.

A simple search through statistics compilations finds enormous material on what kind of inputs we expose ourselves to and its impact on attention. There is more coming at us in quantity and context and that is undoubtedly influencing quality of processing and engagement. I can speak of this personally and through observation. The amount of times I find people not hearing what is said, processing it effectively, or even remembering something said is staggering.

It’s not surprising. We are alerted everywhere: a text message, a phone call, a Facebook message, an email, an app alert, someone coming by the office, external noise outside, and visual noise everywhere. The explicit and ambient signals we are exposed to in a day is staggering. Clay Shirky suggests it’s not that we have too much information, it’s that our filters are failing. I think it’s now both and one reinforces the other.

Coming back…a look at systems

While individuals are distracted, they are products of distracted systems. To look at one part of the science zombie situation, professors are now asked to publish more than ever, get grants from a dwindling pool, teach more students than ever and in more crowded conditions and with greater social needs, and to find ways to make their research more accessible to different audiences while engaging more with the communities of interest affected by that research. All of this takes time. Add to that the probability that the professor her/himself has to raise their own salary and that the only way to do this is to be very successful at the above-mentioned tasks and you get someone who is stressed and overtaxed.

Mindfulness-based approaches do not change any of that, but they can help strengthen the filter. By being more individually mindful, but more importantly create mindful organizations. Building resilient tribes of social innovators and the leadership communities to steward them is another. Granting ourselves the time to reflect, sensemake and listen to the systems we work in is also key. By listening better, we are better able to design systems that are innovative, responsive and humane by building them to human scale.

All well and good you might say, but how? That’s what’s to come in some future posts as we look at designing better systems and making them more attractive so people stay engaged.

Stay tuned….and watch out for zombies.

Photo credit: Zombie Walk 2012 SP by Gianluca Ramalho Misiti used under Creative Commons License

art & designbehaviour changedesign thinking

The Literacy of Change

Making Change

Making Change

It has been said that change is the only constant, yet for something so pervasive change is a remarkably thorny and poorly understood concept. One reason is that change is often approached as a set of facts about a static state of affairs instead of as a literacy, which at change in a far more dynamic context that reflects human systems more accurately. 

A summary of the literature on behaviour change research shows an enormous push towards cognitive rational models of thinking and acting. In brief, a cognitive rational approach to change posits that we acquire information; process that information’s relevance, timeliness, (possible) completeness*; and fit with our personal context and then usually make plans to change. These plans, as described in the Transtheoretical Model and related theories include a series of stages of change:

  1. Precontemplation: We are not even thinking about making a change
  2. Contemplation: We are considering making a change in the next 6-months
  3. Preparation: We are currently planning to make a change in the next 30 days and are taking some steps toward making that change a reality
  4. Action: We are actively working to make the change happen
  5. Maintenance: We are strengthening the new changed state

To the rational mind, this makes sense. Like other cognitive rational models of change like the Health Belief Model, Theory of Reasoned Action and Planned Behaviour, and others, this model assumes change is linear, straightforward and planned for. While some changes are planned, many are not. In a review of the literature on smoking cessation, Robert West and colleagues found that more than half of smokers quit without going through these stages or having any quit plan in place.

West and colleagues have since developed a model called the Behaviour Change Wheel that aims for a more nuanced, less prescriptive model for understanding change.  The Wheel is a refreshing model within a sea of linear stage or stepped approaches, yet still is an approach that encourages behaviour change to be deconstructed into parts first, then assembled to a whole. Complex systems — like much of what humans create individually and socially — are highly resistant to having linear frameworks imposed on them.  This is why many approaches to change fail to meet expectations.

Viewing change as a literacy

What if we stepped back and took a look at change a little differently.

Language is among the most adaptive, dynamic, change-oriented system we engage with on any day thus, it might provide a model for considering change. If I am trying to explain something to you there are myriad ways to do it. By using my words in different combinations, with different tones and cadences, and add some visual thinking to the mix and I create a potent method for communication.

Learning a language requires a lot of failure, many awkward phrases, and a complex array of trial and error, repetition, and luck we eventually learn how to communicate. Depending on the task at hand, we learn the language skill that matters. For someone looking to learn how to navigate a tourist area in another country, a set of basic phrases might suffice. For someone else, getting a technical job in a global organization might require a far deeper understanding of the language. In our efforts to change ourselves, our organizations and our communities we will find ourselves requiring different levels of skill and ‘good enough’ will look different from situation to situation depending on who we are talking with.

Frequently, we are talking to different audiences at the same time to take the metaphor further.

Design (thinking) change

We learn languages much like designers apply design thinking. We scope out our intended purpose, craft a strategy, prototype, evaluate and redesign accordingly until we get something right. Over time we get enough feedback to understand deeper patterns that allow for more sophisticated experimentation. If the feedback quality is high, we learn faster and more deeply.

Learning is by its very nature change. Language is applied learning; you can’t ‘theoretically’ learn a language — it’s useless without application.

Language learning also requires attention to learning on multiple levels simultaneously. It involves small, moment-to-moment interactions, something I call ‘micro-feedback’. This is akin to mindfulness-based approaches to innovation. By establishing a sensitivity to the situation, creating the means to reflect often on what is happening while it is happening without judgement, we create the means to observe ourselves behave and make modifications as we go. It allows us to provide the kind of rapid prototyping of our learning as we go.

It also requires macro-feedback mechanisms that focus on the bigger picture. Language is not just about words and sentences, but a larger way of phrasing that separates being ‘well spoke’ for just ‘speaking well’.

Viewing change developmentally

If change is a constant, viewing change as a persistent, ongoing process changes the way we look at it. By looking at change as a core feature of a complex system — one that brings together linear and non-linear elements, is constantly evolving, and involves random, planned and hybrid elements – we can see change in a manner that fits with complexity, rather than works against it.

Just as our language develops over time, so does the way we change. Viewing change as something that parallels the way we approach language might just be truer to the way we really change the way we want change to happen.


Bridle, C., Riemsma, R. P., Pattenden, J., Sowden, A. J., Mather, L., Watt, I. S., & Walker, A. (2005). Systematic review of the effectiveness of health behavior interventions based on the transtheoretical model. Psychology & Health20(3), 283–301.

Michie, S., van Stralen, M. M., & West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation Science, 6(1), 42.

West, R. (2005). Time for a change: putting the Transtheoretical (Stages of Change) Model to rest. Addiction100(8), 1036–9.

* The argument for completeness of information is based on the often flawed assumption that we know what is missing from an informational context and how it fits with the other data we have before us.

Photo taken at the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, MI by Cameron Norman. Original art by Tyree Guyton.

education & learningevaluationsystems thinkingUncategorized

Scaling Education: The Absurd Case of the MOOC

Theatre at the Temple of Apollo

Theatre at the Temple of Apollo

The Chronicle of Higher Education (online) recently reported results of a survey looking at faculty teaching on MOOC’s (massive open online course) and found much interest and expectation around this new format.

The survey, conducted by The Chronicle, attempted to reach every professor who has taught a MOOC. The online questionnaire was sent to 184 professors in late February, and 103 of them responded.

Hype around these new free online courses has grown louder and louder since a few professors at Stanford University drew hundreds of thousands of students to online computer-science courses in 2011. Since then MOOCs, which charge no tuition and are open to anybody with Internet access, have been touted by reformers as a way to transform higher education and expand college access. Many professors teaching MOOCs had a similarly positive outlook: Asked whether they believe MOOCs “are worth the hype,” 79 percent said yes.

The survey of professors was not scientific, particularly because it was of those who are already teaching MOOC’s, but it paints a picture of enthusiasm among those — many who were initially reticent about the potential of online education at that scale – engaged with the medium.

Global Potential vs Global Hype

NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman, never one to resist enthusiasm for global movements, speaks of the MOOC as a revolution. Friedman suggests how a MOOC-driven education system could potentially change foreign aid given its promise to do good things.

Anant Agarwal, the former director of M.I.T.’s artificial intelligence lab, is now president of edX, a nonprofit MOOC that M.I.T. and Harvard are jointly building. Agarwal told me that since May, some 155,000 students from around the world have taken edX’s first course: an M.I.T. intro class on circuits. “That is greater than the total number of M.I.T. alumni in its 150-year history,” he said.

Yes, only a small percentage complete all the work, and even they still tend to be from the middle and upper classes of their societies, but I am convinced that within five years these platforms will reach a much broader demographic. Imagine how this might change U.S. foreign aid. For relatively little money, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.

For Friedman and many of those writing on MOOCs, the potential for this new format to bring the world’s best higher education to anyone, anywhere, in any country is enormous. It is an example of taking an innovation to scale on perhaps the most extreme. With the click of a mouse the entire world can learn together easily.

Except, it is a lie.

Writing as a guest on the Worldwise blog as part of the Chronicle of Higher Education, professor of writing and rhetoric Ghanashyam Sharma  puts truth to the lie of the modern online education movement’s hype. In an article called A MOOC Delusion: Why Visions to Educate the World Are Absurd, Sharma illustrates the faulty thinking that underpins much of the MOOC enthusiasm for transforming global education. His critique is less about MOOC’s as an educational vehicle in itself, but the global, culture-free scale at which they seek to operate.

There is a dire need for some healthy skepticism among educators about the idea that MOOCs are a wonderful means to go global in order to do good. For our desire to educate the whole world from the convenience of our laptops to be translated into any meaningful effect, we need more research about how students learn in massive open online platforms, and a better understanding of how students from different academic, cultural, social, and national backgrounds fare in such spaces.

Education at Scale

Drawing on his own personal experience with teaching in different contexts, beginning with Nepal and then moving to the University of Louisville and now SUNY Stony Brook, Sharma points to the subtleties in cultural learning styles that did not translate from space to space. He speaks of enormous challenges and, fortunately, the opportunity to meet these with resources to aid him in adapting his teaching from context to context. In doing so, he points to the myth that the global classroom will be filled with people all learning the same way, from a compatible perspective, and using the same language. Even simple differences in the way he presents as a teacher can change the manner in which students learn – and those differences are rooted in culture.

As a teacher myself, I know much of what he writes. Even a ‘simple’ face-to-face graduate course presents considerable pedagogical challenges for me. As an instructor  in public health I need to consider things like:

  • Disciplinary background. Each discipline has communication ‘sub-cultures’ and traditions that differ. A student with a sociology background might be used to rhetoric while one from the basic sciences may be used to communicating through technical reports. Each discipline also uses language in different ways, with terms unique to that discipline.
  • Cultural backgrounds. Students from around the world will present differently in the way they approach the material, the presentation of arguments, and the level of participation in class. Even within a narrow band of cultural contexts that present within my classroom (usually there is perhaps 10-20 per cent of students are international) I am always amazed at the nuances that play out in the classroom. Race, gender and language all add additional complex layers that would require volumes to unpack here.
  • Personality and motivation. Students that are more reserved in class will experience each lesson differently than those who are outgoing. Personality and motivation change the type of discussions learners engage in and shape their interactions with other students. This is not to say that one personality style is better than the other, but whether you’re introverted or extraverted, confident, clear spoken or highly social shapes the classroom. Face-to-face encounters allows for some modulation of these effects to encourage participation with those of different needs.
  • Literacy. Whether it prose, numeracy, or discipline-specific language use, the literacy of students is tested when they have to take in material — whether through lecture, small groups, video, audio or text — and convey arguments.

These are constraints (and opportunities) in most modern universities, whether the course is delivered face-to-face or online. The amount of effort to engage a room full of eager learners is enormous if I attend to these various issues. As an educator, it is effort that I believe makes for a good experience for everyone and is a joyous part of the job. But I am speaking to a room of about 25 graduate students at one of the best universities in the world who are all present and sharing the same environmental context even if it is as a visiting student.

What happens when we are teaching to a ‘room’ of 150,000 people from all over the world?

Understanding scale

I do believe that we can learn much from online courses and that much can be conveyed via the MOOC that brings content to the world in ways that are appropriate and useful for a general audience. I am not against the MOOC, but I do think we need to carefully consider what it means to take education to scale and ask some deeper questions about what the learning experience is intended to achieve.

We need to design our educational experience using the same principles or design thinking we would apply to any other service of value.

The lie is in believing true education of a global audience in the rich way that a university or college intends is not only possible, but appropriate. What is being lost in the effort to make a common experience among a global classroom? Are we just sending out information or are we creating a learning environment? To what degree does the MOOC serve this purpose well. That is what a designer might start with as they move to asking how might we bring learning from one context to another.

Ghanashyam Sharma points to the folly in those who think the jump from culture to culture can be easily made when teaching the world at one time. The MOOC offers enormous potential to re-shape the way people learn and promoting access to content and expertise that many in this world could have only dreamed of years ago. But the naivete that such learning can be done in an monocultural way without losing something special about the context in which people learn and use what they learn might lead to some expensive lessons.

Sharma is right to ask for more research. Thomas Friedman is right to inspire us to think of creative ways to bring the wealth of the west’s educational treasures to the globe. The key is to figure out what parts of this global vision are real or possible, which are illusions, and which are delusions.

Unlike the auditorium at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (pictured above) the audience for what we teach now are not from one place, time and shared cultural perspective; they represent the world. Without an understanding of what scale means in education we might be producing more ignorance than knowledge.

Photo: Cameron Norman

education & learninghealth promotioninnovationpsychology

Reflecting on Gratitude and Going Beyond Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving grace 1942

Today is the day that Americans come together to celebrate Thanksgiving, a day dedicated to gratitude (in Canada, we celebrate Thanksgiving in October, to traditionally align with the harvest).

What a wonderful holiday concept: spending time focused on gratitude for what one has.

There are many good reasons for giving thanks. Psychologist Robert Emmons and other researchers working within the emergent field of positive psychology  have looked intently at the psychological effects of gratitude and found it positively correlates with well-being and goal-attainment. For example, Emmons and McCullogh (2003) conducted a series of experiments comparing those with a grateful outlook to those who did not and found those who expressed gratitude more often reported higher levels of subjective wellbeing in some of those studies. (For those interested, Emmons’ 2007 book Thanks! is an accessible primer on the research on gratitude).

Giving thanks is a way of introducing a small disruption in the everyday and inspiring reflection on the present moment. Gratitude is a part of many meditiation and yoga practices, as well as mindfulness practice (PDF – example).

So in solidarity with my American friends who are giving thanks on this day and all of us who take time to express gratitude on any day, I offer a departure from the usual post and share some things I am thankful for (in no particular order):

  • To everyone who is willing to fail, get up again, improve and work to succeed and tell others about their story so others can be inspired to fail and succeed in new ways.
  • To teachers (and that doesn’t have to be the person at the front of the class). To those who take the time to help others to learn, really learn, and understand material. This could be trainers, classmates, or grandparents — anyone who cares that I learn something and tries to help myself and others toward that goal.
  • To students of life. Those who are willing to be taught, to learn, to adapt and to innovate when necessary. This includes clinicians and scientists using the best evidence to make decisions and pointing out where it doesn’t exist (and taking action on filling the gaps). It’s people asking hard, but important questions — including those about their own closely held beliefs. It’s those who see learning as fun and seek to infect that sense of joy in their fellow knowledge travellers. It also includes all of those who work in knowledge translation and exchange to help the learning process along in professional and personal life.
  • To the organizers, funders, sponsors and participants behind and in front of TED, Thinkr, the RSA, Google Zietgeist Minds and all the organizations and individuals out there sharing stories of success, creativity, and inspiring us all to think in new ways. It’s easy to take all this for granted so today, I am not.
  • To everyone who takes the time to listen and seeks to understand . We all don’t agree, but if we try to truly understand each other by listening, cultivate empathy, and mindfully reflect on our impact on the world, those differences can be sources of learning and creativity than unproductive conflict, hatred and ignorance. Too much of that and in a world of the 140-character sound bite, it’s too easy to be seduced by quick outrage and self-supported misconceptions.
  • To the individuals who work at inspiring others to be their best selves through compassion and creation. The diverse voices of people like Seth Godin, Jonathan Fields, Brene Brown, John Maeda, and Jon Kabat Zinn who all provide means of making sense of human life and inspiring a greater appreciation of what happens along its journey.
  • To the Internet and every person and organization responsible for developing it, delivering it, and maintaining it and fighting for the rights, freedoms and responsibilities that come with having so much knowledge, information and entertainment at our fingertips. It’s easy to take this enormous treasure trove of knowledge and services for granted.
  • To every administrator or department chair who marshalls power to change the structure of the workplace to make it more humane, by rewarding earnest effort while providing the space to slow time to pause and think, nurture the organization’s collective mental health, and allow everyone to genuinely learn and share their best with those they engage with. Work takes up a lot of our lifetime — imagine if it buoyed us and sustained us rather than trapped us?
  • To every person who says, means and listens to the message that we are all enough. The rat race is for rats and the human race is intended for human beings, not human doings.
  • To everyone who feeds us — from farm to market to fork to the earth. Most of us have little comprehension of where our food comes from, travels to, goes through, or ends up and if we did, we might act a little (or a lot) differently. We have the luxury of ignorance in North America, but should we? Spend time with a farmer and you’ll be amazed at what you don’t know about the very things that sustain us.
  • To every blogger and Tweeter out there who takes the time to share their thoughts and promote positive, critical thinking about topics that inspire new thinking. Thanks to the amazing blogosphere and Twittersphere, I have made a lot of wonderful friends I’ve never met in person, but who inspire me every week.

Thanks to everyone out there making the world better. Today is the day I give thanks to all of you.

What are you grateful for?

Photo By Marjory Collins, photographer for Farm Security Administration. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

design thinkingsystems sciencesystems thinking

Design Thinking: Thinkers, Science and Practice

The Thinker, Auguste Rodin

If to think and be aware of those thoughts (to think about thinking) is a defining feature of what it means to be human, why is it such a challenge to think about types of thinking? An answer to that question might help explain why design thinking is so difficult to translate into action and scholarship and why it continues to be the recipient of intense criticism and boosterism.

The other day a colleague reminded me of an essay on the demise of design thinking that I commented on in an earlier post. The post by William Storage adds further to the growing list of critiques of design thinking and ends this way:

In short, Design Thinking is hopelessly contaminated. There’s too much sleaze in the field. Let’s bury it and get back to basics like good design. Everyone already knows that solution-focus is as essential as problem-focus. Stop arguing the point. If good design doesn’t convince the world that design should be fully integrated into business and society, another over-caffeinated Design Thinking book isn’t likely to do so either.

Storage is right to argue that another book will not convince people of the merits of design or design thinking (which is different), but I can’t imagine it is just because of its merits. There appears to be something that troubles people with picking up metacognitive concepts.

Thinking about (Design) Thinking

Metacogntion is thinking about thinking and concepts like design thinking and systems thinking are, at their most basic, about the thought processes involved in contemplating systems or design. What commentators like Storage and Bruce Nussbaum are railing against is how this more sophisticated concept of design thinking (design metacognition if you will) has over time become synonymous at best, but a wholesale replacement at worst with a set of tools and creativity exercises.

Here we see the gap between the methods and their methodology.

Systems thinking, having had a few decades jump on design thinking seems to be faring better in that its common use is treated more as a metacognitive exercise than just a method, but only slightly. Why does adding thinking to something make it so difficult to communicate?

There is a reductionist push towards making thinking — design thinking, systems thinking, critical thinkingvisual thinking — into a discussion of methods and tools. The concern, not unfounded, is that concepts like design thinking are pitched as a set of very simple techniques to provoke innovation while being stripped of its genuine innovation potential and reflective capacity, ironically removing the “thinking” part of the approach.  These tools are manifest expressions of thinking and facilitators of it, but they are not thinking on its own.

The business and evidence of thinking

Maybe this is our fault for not putting ‘thinking’ into the development of these concepts from the start. For example, the field of design suffers greatly from a lack of scholarship and theory around its methods and approaches. Designers are a practical bunch and seek to create and build things over theorizing and submitting their own processes to research. There are notable exceptions to this of course, but overall it is safe to say given design’s pervasiveness in our world that we know relatively little about it.

Systems thinking (as it applies to human systems) is in a different position, almost an opposite position. Whereas design thinking has come from a long history of practice with little formal research supporting it, systems thinking has emerged largely from academia and has far less empirical support for its applications to social affairs.

Another issue is economic. The drive for innovation-led market advantages in many fields is pushing anything to support such activity — something design thinking can do — into high demand. Markets abhor vacuums so they get filled and early markets favour the swift and bold, not necessarily quality. As my doctoral advisor once told me when I was hesitating on publishing my research: “people remember the first, not necessarily the best“.

Thus, we have entire business enterprises founded on teaching people design thinking without much depth in the processes they use or intellectual foundations to support their work. They are out there in spades and contributing to the reasoned distrust, frustration, and dislike of design thinking by many who could be its biggest advocates.  Whether that’s hopeless or not remains to be seen.

Where to?

So what is to be done? One option, that taken by Bruce Nussbaum, is to consider design thinking a failed experiment and seek alternative terms and concepts that capture the essence of what it does to improve innovative thinking, but in a manner that is less distorted. The challenge here is that, even if a new term does supplant design thinking, what is to prevent that concept from being co-opted and distorted as well with the same innovation-related market drivers in place?

Some argue that by formalizing design thinking into accredited programs, designations, certificates or degrees can assure quality just as we’ve started to see creep into the field of evaluation,. This presumes that have an empirically supported or widely agreed definition of what design thinking is and what are its core competencies. It also presumes we have the faculty with these skills and in positions to train people using methods tested to produce specific outcomes. Neither of these is true at present. This is the equivalent of suggesting that artists must have art degrees. Some artists do, but many do not and there is little to distinguish the difference in the quality of the work between them.

A third option, the more complicated one and the most flexible, is to consciously build a community of practice around design thinking aimed at improving the scholarship, research and communications about design thinking to enable the wider world to learn about it, debate it, and apply it. This is already starting to form through such venues as the Design Thinking LinkedIn group and the Design Thinking Network. To that end, we could see a tremendous opportunity for professional organizations such as DMI and AIGA to contribute to this by opening themselves up to the wider community in the focus of their events and training options. By increasing commitment from those doing design and design thinking to education and contemplative inquiry into their craft, we are naturally developing a field of practice that forms an attractor basin for better thinking and action.

Some further suggestions to support this point:

  • Follow what psychology did after the American Psychological Association President George Miller suggested they “give away psychology” to the world. Psychology was once an elitist, opaque field of therapy and science and now is widely taught, incorporated into nearly every human-centred discipline, and is founded on a strong scientific and practice base. Democratize design thinking.
  • Enlist creative professionals from fields like environmental studies, public health, social work, and education into the design thinking fold beyond traditional design disciplines. Get those living the spirit of Herb Simon who are trying to actively change current conditions into preferred ones — the social innovators, the public servants, the entrepreneurs of every stripe — to contribute their stories and insights on design thinking and get those into the public sphere for debate and dialogue.
  • Fund and support more research programs beyond examples of my own modestly-supported Design Foundations project, which has sought to study design thinking by interviewing those experts that do it and the literature on its practice across disciplines. And rather than proclaim design thinking’s success and power, prove it and document it.
  • Evaluate the programs that teach it, the processes used and determine what works, under what context, and document what happened along the way so we can learn more and be better at advocating for the power of design than simply proclaiming its worth.

Let’s contemplate more, study more, and reflect more about design thinking and maybe we’ll become better design thinkers.

What are your thoughts? Comment below.