Tag: wicked problems

food systemsjournalismpublic healthsocial mediasystems science

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.

complexityinnovationpsychologysocial systemssystems thinking

Kindness Confusion in Collaboration and Co-creation

Hidden Love?

Hidden Love?

An emerging look at evolutionary behaviour is suggesting that we are better suited for survival by working together than in competition. This cooperation imperative has been called “survival of the kindness” which risks lumping affective social generosity and goodwill with effectiveness and desirability and, in doing so, risks the entire enterprise of collaboration-based efforts. 

A recent article in Mindfulness Magazine* profiled work of behavioural scientists who’ve looked at the evolutionary patterns of humans throughout the ages and see convincing evidence that the ‘survival of the fittest’ metaphorical explanation for human development is misleading at best or even outwardly wrong altogether. We are socially better off working together than competing.

What I found disconcerting was the term Survival of the Kindest which has been used multiple times in Mindful in its early issues.  As attractive as this idea is, it a lens. In the photo above love is visible if you look for it. Indeed the lens is literally focusing on what the photographer wants you to see – love. That we see love through the trees (and in our work) is notable, but it doesn’t mean that collaboration and co-operation is necessarily a loving act. In the case of the picture, it draws our attention past the man sleeping on the street with his cardboard donation placemat lying beside him.

And that might be the problem. Framing co-work as necessarily imbued with a set of qualities like kindness or love may mean we miss seeing the forest, the trees or the people sleeping beneath them.

Why might this idea of linking the two together so emphatically be problematic? After all, who doesn’t want a little more love in their life?

Cruelty of kindness

There are many utilitarian reasons to cooperate, co-create and work with others, which has a lot to do with the kind of problems we face. Collaboration requires co-labour — working together. For complex (sometimes wicked) problems that is usually necessary. For complicated problems (or very large ones like healthcare [PDF] ) that is also usually required. But for simple problems and small ones — of which we encounter in abundance every day and are often embedded within larger, complex ones — working alone might be sufficient and efficient.

Working together requires a set of skills that are often assumed, but not rarely paired up. Working together requires different motivational structures, leadership and coordination efforts than working independently. These are not better or worse, just different.

Coupling kindness with the ‘co’s’ of working together — cooperation, collaboration and co-creation — takes a human experience of generosity and imposes it on our work situations**. Certain contemplative traditions emphasize the role in kindness, generosity and love in all things and that embracing kindness in our daily lives we are enabling greater equanimity with our world around us. But to equate one with the other is to betray another saying from the Buddhist tradition:

Do not confuse the finger pointing to the moon with the moon itself

Thus, do not confuse bringing kindness to co-work with cooperation, collaboration or co-creation itself.

Another issue is the ‘est‘ part of the term survival of the kindest. By placing kindness on some form of evaluative gradient where one is either more or less kind we impose a very specific set of cultural parameters around our work. Who is the kindest in the bunch? Assuming we had some tool to measure kindness (which I don’t know exists) are we really comfortable rating and ranking people’s ability to be kind in their work? Should we reward the kindest of the bunch? What does it mean if we are not the kindest?

You can see where this might go.

Working smarter is kind

Min Basadur and his colleagues have been studying work preferences for over 20 years doing research on how people work together. His Basadur profile (below) is based on rigorous psychometric tested data and allows teams to see what kind of preferences their members have for certain types of work. These are preferences only, not value or competence judgements and amenable to change over time. It can be a tool to validate the way we like to work and help us guide how we work with others as well as potentially identify what parts of the problem finding, framing and solving process so important to design and complexity that we might be best suited for.

For example, some are more amenable to generating ideas, while others are more comfortable organizing them or putting together plans of action that are useful to those who are ready to act. While everyone draws on each quadrant in their life, there are spaces where they feel more at home and what the Basadur profile does is help us identify those so we can use our talents well and provide guidance on areas we might wish to develop. I’ve used the Basadur profile with my own work, my academic learning and with clients to helpful effect in spotting problems. Like anything that can ‘type’ people it needs to be used with care and like the Buddhist quote above, it is important to remember that this is pointing to something (work preference) as opposed to being those things.

The Basadur Profile

The Basadur Profile

Just as the Basadur profile shows preferences for certain type of work there are also aptitudes for certain kinds of work that leverage these preferences, for leadership, and for social engagement. Some are better working in groups and some just prefer it.

Collaboration and it’s co-siblings are frequently touted as desirable, positive qualities, yet like many forms of work it is the context in which they are used that matters as much as whether they are used. Certain problems — as mentioned above — are more likely to need co-work to address, but not all. Perhaps more importantly, not all facets of problem solving require co-labour; some may simply require coordination.

The personality of creative work

Co-work makes many assumptions about people’s work preferences and capabilities that are often untested. It also places certain implicit value judgements on personality type. In her popular TED talk and book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts, Susan Cain speaks to the often hidden, but large segment of our population of people who draw energy from contemplation, solitary work, or reduced social engagement rather than other people.  As she points out, there are myths and prejudices placed on those who don’t want the attention or are quiet rather than boisterous in this age of social broadcasting. That has enormous potential implications for our work and quietly excludes those who don’t fit the profile of the innovator, the leader, the ideator or whatever archetype we hold in our cultural minds.

Just as the knee-jerk reaction of many in the social innovation community to bringing things to scale, so too is our push to collaborate and co-create everything all the time. And like scaling, there are well-intentioned motives behind this push. Working together brings in many voices to the problem and appears not to exclude people, however if those people we bring in are not as comfortable (indeed, dislike or feel uncomfortable with) working closely together or not skilled at doing so (it is a skill regardless of your personality) we are creating a new set of inequities in the process of trying to fix others.

The point isn’t that we shouldn’t work together; indeed, many of the problems we face demand it. Rather, it’s worth being creative and reflective about what that means in practice and explore ways to work together closely and also apart in a coordinated manner.

How do we honestly, genuinely, and appropriately engage the voices we need and recognize their work styles, personalities, and preferences in a manner that supports the best co-creative aspects rather than imposing a work-together-at-all-cost approach that can sometimes come through in our rhetoric? How can we foster kindness in what we do organically rather than impose it as a value on our work and recognize that co-work is simply working together, not good or bad or kind or unkind?

In being clear about our intentions and how we create the conditions for us to all meaningfully contribute to social transformation efforts in our own way will be more effective in the long run. By allowing all parts of the system — the big and boisterous, the collaborative, the quiet, the solitary — to come together in ways that fit how we actually work and how we like to work we are much more likely to bring about the innovation and systems change we seek.

* link is to supporting ‘extra’s’ not the original article, which is available only through subscription.

**  By work I am referring to any activity that requires some effort to accomplish and not necessarily paid employment

Photo: Cameron Norman

Link: Basadur profile

art & designenvironmentpublic health

Design Space in Public Health

EmabarcaderoFountainIf design is everywhere humans are and shapes our interactions in the built environment, which dictates how we interact with the world around us should it not be considered important enough to be a part of public health?

I recently picked up a copy of the architecturally-inspired Arcade Magazine because of its theme on Science, Art and Inquiry. Inside was a piece by Andrew Dannenberg, Howard Frumpkin and Daniel Friedman. The first two are MD’s and the last author an architect and all are from the University of Washington . In that article, they outline a case for why design and public health should go together. The audience for the piece are those interested in architecture.

Indeed, Arcade’s purpose is to “incite dialogue about design and the built environment”. It makes me wonder why we don’t have something that “incites dialogue about design and public health?”.

Yet, I couldn’t help but think that same piece should be published in a public health space. In the article, the authors outline a few of the key areas where design can contribute to public health.

Among the first of these areas is promoting physical activity and the role that design can play in building and planning for spaces that encourage people to move in healthy ways:

Working together with public health professionals and planners, designers can help remedy what urban theorist Nan Ellin calls “place-deficit disorder,” starting with the basics – stairways, sidewalks, landscapes and contiguous urban spaces – which they can compose to attract greater pedestrian use.

Designing for resiliency is another of the areas where good design can benefit the public by creating a solid urban infrastructure to literally weather the storms that come upon us:

Evidence-based design can help reduce vulnerability and enhance the resilience of buildings and infrastructure, but most importantly, the communities who depend on them.

They also look at the role of design in enhancing sustainability and as a means for assisting environmental health while shaping the demand for sustainable products:

Designers possess the unique skills, knowledge and practices to specify the use of benign materials across scales based on life cycle analysis, energy conservation, carbon management, and environmental and health impacts. As designers expand these practices, they educate their clients, inform the public and shift the market.\

Lastly, they focus on how design can contribute to reducing social inequities by drawing on evidence looking at the connections between space and wellbeing for those in low-income neighbourhoods:

Recent studies demonstrate that links between greater access to green space and lower mortality are more pronounced among the poor than the wealthy. Housing initiatives that offer better homes for low-income persons, workplace design that protects workers, and universal design that improves access for activities by persons with disabilities—these practices benefit vulnerable populations and offer designers unlimited opportunities to help foster fuller, healthier lives.

Expanding the discourse of design and public health

It was refreshing to read a ‘conversation’ between public health and design and some taking the issue of space and health seriously from a design point of view. Some, like Emily Pilloton and her Project H design others have sought to use design as a bridge to social wellbeing by looking at space as being about communities and economics. Her video below explains how she has taken a design-driven approach to her work in promoting new sustainable ways to engage her adopted community of Bertie county.

Both of these examples of design in public health take a place-based approach, however there is much that can be done with designing the experience of health beyond place. Jon Kolko’s group at AC4D looked at design and homeless in their book Wicked Problems.  Andrew Shea has looked at the link between graphic design and social good in his book, which is explained further in his TEDX talk below. The design firm IDEO has been working on social good projects now for a few years through its IDEO.org platform and program.

  Bringing public health in

What seems to be missing and that the article in Arcade did and that was bring public health in. Emily Pilloton, Jon Kolko, Andrew Shea and many other terrific socially-minded designers are changing the way the public thinks about public health. Public health needs to be doing this too. It is striking that we have so few public health professionals — Drs Andrew Dannenberg and Howard Frumpkin as exceptions — doing the kind of design-oriented research and publishing in this area. It is ripe and public health and design both need it.

I don’t expect a lot of public health folks read Arcade, but maybe they should. And maybe we should be reading more about design in public health publications too.

psychologypublic healthresearch

Designing for Empathy and Health

Transparent Contemplation

Seeing Inside Others

When does common sense make little sense? How do we sense-make evidence when it seems to make little sense? The answers could lie in getting inside the heads of those we seek to influence and designing our communications for empathy and health.

Evidence in public / health

Last week there was a brief uproar in the mainstream media and on Twitter created by a tweet from Toronto Public Health to their Twitter followers suggesting they contact the producers of the TV show The View and protest their recent hiring of Jenny McCarthy a a co-host. Ms McCarthy is an outspoken critic of childhood vaccinations in spite of overwhelming evidence to show that they generate enormous benefits over the relative and small risk for many conditions and for promoting the falsified science used to prop up the myths that they cause autism (which is her primary concern).

That post led to much discussion, including posts on Censemaking and the Public Health and Social Media blog (reposted here) and Twitter on the challenges of communicating evidence, engaging the public, and the role of public health in these conversations. Watching comedy duo Penn & Teller offer a humourous if angry take on evidence for vaccinations and health might make the risks and benefits obvious, yet this isn’t the case. Why?

It turns out, that some of these supposed obvious connections still don’t impact those who support the anti-vaccination movement. Indeed, evidence from Australian researchers shows that engaging these audiences does relatively little to influence their behaviour. To some, they may be immune to the evidence (pardon the pun).

In a qualitative study of parents on their pro and anti-vaccination beliefs, the authors found a complex mix of beliefs that governed how information was received and processed. For example, expectations of guilt at the thought that a child would fall ill because of something that could have been prevented due to a vaccine or conversely due to a vaccine side-effect were prominent in the findings.

What arose in the dialogue arising from the Jenny McCarthy / Toronto Public Health flurry was familiar territory: health professionals using the moment to logically persuade the public to choose vaccination, hand-wringing over why people fail to believe evidence or why they believe celebrities, the awful use or mis-use of evidence in the media, and gasps of collective frustration at how out of sync public health is in its engagement with the public on these issues.

What was missing was empathy.

Stories trump evidence

The above quote has been uttered many times in public health circles when the use of evidence in health communication emerges in conversation. Journalists know this and that is why they tell stories in their reportage and not “just the facts”. All one needs is a story about the human experience on one side of an argument and all the evidence to suggest it is an anomaly or rare event gets covered over. It’s why we bristle at news stories of violent crimes  and fear for our safety despite wildly declining crime rates throughout countries in the ‘developed’ world.

A Problem of Perspective

Public health professionals — indeed all of us in any field — need to get out more. It’s easy to scoff at the ignorance of people when you have an advanced degree, spend great amounts of time contemplating or generating evidence, see the health effects of faulty reasoning firsthand, and associate with many others who share the same view. It’s obvious what the right course of action is.

But obvious is a matter of perspective. Health professionals tend to design their materials for themselves. Looking at much of what is developed for health promotion and communication with the public, we might make some assumptions:

  1. People are able to read and understand health related materials (and they like to read in the first place)
  2. They like printed materials and learn best from text
  3. They trust scientists, physicians and health professionals for information on health issues above all
  4. Health is something they think about a lot and always want to learn more about issues
  5. The public is invested in carefully weighing evidence claims to make the right choice
  6. Health behaviour change is a linear, knowledge-driven process

There are more, but let’s examine these briefly. I am not going to dive deeply into the evidence for each of these points (that is for another day) rather ask you to consider how true these are in your observations.

I Want to Believe

These are all assumptions and mostly based on a rational, linear model of decision making and behaviour. They are based on a model that correlates knowledge, expertise and authority and assumes that people respond to such authority. It emphasizes the use of media that is appropriate (and historically priviliged) for academic and technical communications, not public consumption.

On that last point, many educated professionals — particularly academics — are shocked to find people that neither need or want to read. Yet, we propel print materials and websites at people in text form to audiences that we imagine value the same things.

When you study health for a living or treat people with health problems you spend your entire day thinking about health. It may come as a surprise to realize that many others don’t really care much about their health until it’s compromised. They aren’t constantly mired in decisions about evidence, long-term implications of daily decisions, or the social determinants of their wellbeing. Health is just another thing to think about among many.

If we are to be better at communicating with our audiences, we need to empathize more and design our messages, media and services in ways that reflect the reality they perceive and the one they live in knowing that might not be the same thing and nor is it necessarily the same one we live in and perceive.

It also means confronting some big questions about what we are doing in the first place.

What is the destination and the journey we wish to take with the public? Do they want to take it with us in the first place? And if not, what might we do to inspire people to want what we have to offer — and do so in a manner that promotes what they want to accomplish, not just what we want them to.

This avoids us taking the approach to dealing with people who don’t speak our language by talking slower and louder as if they are deaf and stupid rather than unfamiliar with our native tongue.

This is the realm of design and empathic design thinking about communications and perhaps its time to start bringing more of it into our work. Maybe then we might not be so surprised when the obvious answers are no longer so.

Photos: Cameron Norman, Joe Ross (used under Creative Commons License via Flickr)

complexityinnovationpublic healthsystems sciencesystems thinking

Handbook of Systems and Complexity in Health

Handbook of Systems and Complexity in Health

Handbook of Systems and Complexity in Health

A brilliant and comprehensive new book has been launched that brings together the best scholars working in the area of systems thinking and complexity and applying it to health.

The book description can be found here along with a link to the abstract for a chapter I co-authored with Andrea Yip looking at the overlap between design thinking and systems science and complexity. This chapter takes a design lens on previous work developing the CoNEKTR model for engagement in complexity and health.

It’s a big book, but well worth a look if you’re wrestling with complexity and systems thinking in health and social innovation.

design thinking

The Hyberbole and Exaggerated Demise of Design Thinking

Designing better design thinking

Design thinking is hot and under fire. Just as its miracle properties are misleading, so too are the claims that it is dead or dying.

If design thinking didn’t have something going for it no one would talk about it.

In a well-laid out essay on design thinking (and its timely death) William Storage points to the concept’s origins and proceeds from there to point to how it no longer serves a purpose given the panoply of voices arguing its merits.

He writes:

Design Thinking has lost its focus – and perhaps its mind. The term has been redefined to the point of absurdity. And its overworked referent has drifted from an attitude and guiding principle to yet another hackneyed process in a long line of bankrupt business improvement initiatives, passionately embraced by amnesic devotees for a few months until the next one comes along. This might be the inevitable fate of brands that no one owns, spawned by innovators, put into the public domain, and consumed by consultancies who prey on business managers seeking that infusion of quick-transformation magic.

A related discussion on the LinkedIn group devoted to design thinking on this very topic prompted a lively debate. The impetus from that discussion came from the topic of a panel discussion at next week’s DMI conference in Portland entitled: Is Design Thinking Dead?

Bruce Nussbaum’s oft-cited assertion that design thinking is a failed experiment was one of the higher profile critiques. He asserts that the experiment of design thinking has failed, whereas I argue that we haven’t even begun our research in the first place to make that claim.

Returning to Storage’s essay, he concludes:

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.

To the first part of this argument, I agree wholeheartedly. Any concept that catches fire as broadly as design thinking that lacks a definitive intellectual home is bound to be tied to the hype cycle (discussed here and here in past posts). I would suggest to anyone interested in design thinking that they follow anyone’s claim about the idea with a question: what do you mean by that term?

Where I have problems with Storage’s argument is in its implication that good design is its own merit and that its benefits are obvious. To this point, I disagree wholeheartedly. The same foolishness is applied to healthcare around use of good evidence: high quality evidence that is “self-evident” is rarely so and even then inconsistently translates into practice with ease. Were that the case, the field of knowledge translation in health wouldn’t exist and evidence-based practice would be a pointless term.

If the benefits of good design were that obvious, every intelligent manager, strategist, executive and front-line staffer would be working towards it. They don’t.

There is little indication that design thinking in a form that would resemble common practice exists in any of the sectors I work in (and no, use of sticky notes and a white board does not equate to design thinking by itself). There simply is not enough reflective and documented practice in design thinking to provide the kind of wisdom to separate out the “sleaze in the field”, yet that isn’t reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We do not have good research to either venerate or denigrate design thinking based on anything other than the popular use of the term and rhetoric.

Einstein, as he often does, provides words to consider:

The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while. – Albert Einstein

The ideas that lay behind design thinking are powerful, yet the wisdom of the field has not yet flourished enough for us to abandon the idea on anything other than the immature notion that it is popular and therefore can’t possibly be serious. In an age where wicked problems are more commonplace, new ways of thinking, seeing and acting are being required of organizations seeking to survive and thrive and design thinking offers some prospects for how to navigate through this. Not all designers deal with wicked problems.

Which leads to my disagreement with Storage’s assertion that design thinking equals design. Designer’s regularly apply the kind of problem exploration and applied creativity that is central to design thinking, but they alone are not design thinkers. Were that the case, then the concept would have found little purchase outside of that discipline. His argument also implies that good design is evident, another point that I contest (and will save argument for another day). Good design is contextual and thus the standards that make it so must therefore be negotiable. It therefore cannot be claimed outright.

A “good” chair is dependent upon who is sitting in it, where it is placed, and the resources required to produce it and sustain it. By that argument, “good” design thinking may fall into the same lines. But unlike design, which has wisdom and experience broadly dispersed in society and different fields of practice, design thinking has no such equivalent. What is the evidence that it produces more useful or effective outcomes? What are its central theories? How is it linked to other fields of creative thought and action? Are there fields better suited to applying design thinking? What do effective practitioners look like? These questions remain either unexplored or poorly done so. The process of design thinking has received the treatment it deserves and it is that which has garnered the attention, admiration and scorn of the blogosphere and beyond — the space where the “over-caffeinated” books might sell.

Scholars such as Nigel Cross have done much to advance our understanding of what designerly ways of knowing might look like as practiced by leading designers. But few systematic examples exist outside of design contexts alone. This is changing and books like Wicked Problems by the group at AC4D provide one such example.

It is time to pull design thinking from the embers of hyperbole and placed under the microscope and macroscope of reflective practice and research. Once there, we might better comment on what this idea means for business, social innovation, human services and our overall wellbeing by pointing to something other than an exclamation mark to make our point.

design thinkinginnovationpsychology

Innovation, Design Thinking and the Folly of Fads

Designing ideas for flight

Innovation is at once everywhere and elusive. Understanding what it really is, how to inspire it, and how to avoid losing its real value in the hype might be the biggest and most ironic challenge for innovators yet. 

Psychologist, creativity researcher and systems thinker Keith Sawyer recently asked the question: Is innovation just a washed up trend? To support this thesis, he presents the following:

Evidence: The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday May 23, 2012) argues that the term “innovation” is now so widely used, it doesn’t really mean anything anymore–other than a very general notion of “change.” Longtime WSJ reporter Leslie Kwoh says “Businesses throw around the term to show they’re on the cutting edge….But that doesn’t mean the companies are actually doing any innovating.” And then she gives the biggest insult you can give to a trendy business term, in my opinion: she compares the word “innovation” to the washed-up buzzword “synergy.” Ouch, that hurts!

This makes a point. It’s hard not to question the term seeing that it’s almost everywhere. Earlier in the blog he points to how Bruce Nussbaum eventually added an entire section to Business Week on Innovation and Design to match the demand for news on both of those topics. But as Nussbaum himself has written about the term design thinking, the term innovation may also be on shaking ground from over or poor use. Ironically, this all comes at the time when we need what innovation stands for more than ever and the creative problem framing and solving tools that comes with design thinking.

What’s in a name?

The term innovation is generally described as the act of introducing something to new to create positive value. Design is the act of creating something with intent to produce value. It is no surprise that these two concepts go together so well. Design thinking is about applying conscious thought to the act of creating things those products, services, and policies that have value — it is about contemplation and action related to making things that we want and need. These are loose amalgams of definitions that I’ve come across in my research and reading over the past year in support of the Design Thinking Foundations project and capture much of what these words mean explicitly.

However, implicit in this language is a whole other set of values, prejudices and attitudes that extend the concepts beyond the explicit language into something cultural. One of the byproducts of this is found in overuse or adherence to the hype cycle. Now everything is innovative, when really it shouldn’t be. Sometimes what we are doing is working just fine and the need to create something new is unnecessary.

Yet, as change accelerates in many fields and complexity increases, the need to adapt and develop resilience will increase along with it as will the need to innovate in spaces where innovation is not a familiar term. It may not be needed everywhere, but it will be needed in more places more often with increasing urgency as the dynamic complexity of the worlds we’ve created increases. Even keeping things constant will require some adaptation.

To quote from Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s bookThe Leopard:  ”If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

What happens next?

But what if Keith Sawyer’s speculation is right and the term innovation is on the way out? What happens next? In response to his concerns about design thinking becoming a shadow of itself in the hands of organizations and practitioners who see it as a quick fix or a blunt instrument, Bruce Nussbaum has sought to explore and further develop a concept called creative intelligence. Having spoken to Nussbaum personally about this, I got the sense that his concerns were less that design thinking itself was problematic, but that the concept had reached a stasis in its application that no longer reflected the dynamic force it once did when he first championed it at Business Week.

It’s hard not to see parallels to innovation. While I agree with Nussbaum’s charge at what design thinking has become, I also don’t think it’s a lost concept (see the debate on the Design Thinking LinkedIn group to see evidence of this). I also think creative intelligence focuses on something different, not replaces design thinking. (Besides, we still have systems thinking, critical thinking and other forms of problem conceptualizing that have endured much debate). The problem is that it is far easier to talk about something than do it and talking too much can burn something out to the ears. Hence the reason catch-phrases never last long. Innovation is at risk and so, too, is design thinking.

Is this adaptive language use or a case of throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater?

If not innovation (and design thinking), then what?

The concern with throwing these terms out is that much of what passes for judgement on their worth is based on little evidence of effect. While innovation thankfully has enjoyed much research, design thinking lacks much empirical examples. However, in both cases, when the terms are most often written about or discussed in the media and popular social discourse it is rarely about evidence and nearly always on rhetoric. I am guilty of this, too. I often tweet or refer people to articles from blogs like Fast Company and FastCo Design that write heavily on design and innovation, yet present few empirical studies and lots of opinion.

To this, I point to today’s HBR Working Knowledge update from five scholars who have done much research on innovation and summarize their points quite well, including the idea that not all of us can or will be innovators (from Clayton Christensen).

What is the answer? Is it time to move on or shall we try to invigorate the discussion of concepts like innovation and design thinking with dialogue, evidence and (self-referentially) some innovation and design thinking to advance not only the discourse on these topics, but also their adoption, study and adaptation to help us tackle the complex, wicked and pervasive problems that seem to be growing in our world each day.

Photo: Make Art Not War by v_imagine-l used under Creative Commons Licence from Deviant Art