Design Thinking and the River of Problems
Lets face it. This last year has been a difficult one to endure for those of us that consider ourselves idealists. Hope and change have been bogged down by the political process, and crass, bigoted individuals can now campaign on platforms that amount to thinly veiled justifications of white supremacy and religious intolerance. It's hard for some of us to listen to the rationale behind why its not okay to limit the salaries of failing bank executives to a million dollars a year. It's painful to hear intelligent people justify their reasons for not believing in the "climate change hoax". It's difficult not to froth at the mouth and blather on about how the land of the free can restrict people's ability to marry as they please. However, the most painful thing to endure is that all of this yelling and positioning and supposed righteousness has yet to yield a solution to any of these issues. Our collective approach towards problem solving has been influenced by a century of reliance on the scientific method -- as if reductive, analytical thinking is the only useful instrument in our rational toolbox - and perhaps it is this approach that has us so deeply mired in ineffective solutions. "Design thinking" is a generative, ideating approach that has effectively been used by marketing think-tanks for many years to solve some seemingly insurmountable quandaries, and it can be argued that we as a nation have something to learn from this type of approach.
Timothy Brown, the CEO of the consulting firm IDEO, has a long history of using Design Thinking to solve problems. His company has been responsible for the ideas that have culminated in the advent of things like the computer mouse and the concept of PDA's and "pocket-computers". In this video, Timothy Brown explains the process of Design Thinking during a lecture presented at MIT. The key factor in this approach to problem solving is that the process should be generative, rather than reductive. His firm employs roughly 550 people who excel in a wide variety of disciplines and they all contribute collectively to problem solving. The onset of the process that they use assumes nothing about a problem other than that it exists. Through a combination of research, brainstorming, ideation, and collaboration, the company generates a multitude of definitions of the problem, and then it begins to narrow its focus based off an assessment of what all of their brilliant thinkers have put on the table. The process encourages a cross-disciplinary approach and tends to leave political ambitions and presuppositions at the wayside.
In politics here in the United States, we have almost exclusively used a reductive approach to problem solving, the opposite of what is used by IDEO. We have a set of solutions, mores, and principles that long ago dictated a small range of acceptable solutions to our existing problems. What is left is simply a choice about which of these solutions fits best into a preferred political ideology. The result of this approach can be observed as the ideological rift in the nation today. Democrats prefer populists solutions, and Republicans prefer free-market solutions. These approaches are nearly completely exclusive of one another and the debate fostered by the two sides can be likened to shouting at a concrete slab. An analytical, reductive mentality has narrowed the range of solutions used by either party to a small set of mitigated ideas that have effectively tied politicians hands. The only changes that they can effect within the constraints of their ideology amount to what we know as government "programs".
Author Daniel Quinn uses an interesting metaphor to explain the ideology behind government programs. To paraphrase, Quinn asks us to consider a river. Imagine a wide, rushing river moving thousands of gallons of water a second. Now imagine that the river is swelling and threatening to drown a town on its banks. That's a problem, and that problem needs a solution. The reductive approach that we currently use in government would consider the river as the source of the problem, and it would attempt to stop the water by plugging it off. Under this approach, the citizens would first try plugging the river by putting big rocks in it to slow the flow of water. These rocks can be likened to government programs. A few rocks do nothing -- the water just runs around them. So the villagers add more and more rocks until the water slows significantly and the water level threatening the town lowers. This works for a while, but the rushing water slowly eats away at the rocks and the water levels begin to rise again. So, the villagers attack the river more fervently and spend massive amounts of resources to divert the river away from their town all together (another "program" targeted at the water). This works great, until the villagers realize that their crops are drying up because they don't have enough water in the water-table to sustain their agriculture, and they are presented with another dire problem, born of their original solution of attacking the source of the problem directly. A "Design Thinking" approach to this problem would be different. Everything would be laid out on the table, and the thinkers would be free to conclude that perhaps the problem was not in the river, but in the location of the town. The design thinkers would suggest that perhaps the town be moved upriver, to higher ground, where the town could flourish anew, free of concern of the river and its overflowing banks. If the town did not want to move, perhaps it could convert its houses to a new type of dwelling that can rise and float when necessary, and the flooding season becomes a sort of town celebration, a transformative tradition that celebrates life and change. Or something. Quinn's books and essays iterate this metaphor much more completely and they can be found here.
Suffice it to say that "Design Thinking" allows us to approach problems from the outside, spin them around, and analyze them completely, while an analytical, reductive approach is resistant to completely new approaches and emphasizes tweaking methods that may be tired and outdated, or simply ineffective at their core.
Instead of shouting at ourselves across an ideological chasm about which of two solutions is the best way to solve our problems, we should be re-examining the very nature of our problems. We should hit the drawing board and sketch out some wild and ridiculous ideas, some boring ideas, some implausible ideas, and maybe some good ideas, and then we should start to pick from those ideas and develop a malleable approach to solving our nation's problems consistent with what we learned through the ideation process. IDEO has attempted this on a small scale in response to climate change. Their interesting and collaborative efforts can be seen here.