Design thinking and infrastructure ~ Abaster

12 November 2008

Design thinking and infrastructure

The cry for a longer term focus on, and funding for, infrastructure is recurrent and warrants attention, all the more so because it is a mundane yet critical contributor to a nation's competitive advantage. An earlier posting suggested that the nation's moribund physical infrastructure is ripe for design thinking - yet how does one apply design thinking to something as essential, complex and yet ordinary and under-valued as infrastructure?

Part of the challenge is of course understanding what exactly design thinking is. Much discussed, there are few good definitions, although the following are quite useful: Luke Wroblewski's article does a nice job of comparing business and design approaches to problem solving; Tim Brown's blog overs the subject well (albeit in a somewhat diffuse manner); and, David Burnley, Red Hat's VP of Brand Communications and Design, provides a very good overview. In a generic sense, design thinking is 1) about addressing challenges in ways unconstrained by accepted wisdom, existing "solutions" and narrow parameters; 2) looking at challenges as opportunities rather than problems; 3) looking at challenges holistically, taking into account the user and other stakeholders, as well as dimensions and considerations, etc., that would typically be considered beyond those associated with the challenge at hand; and 4) looking at longer term (innovative and value building) solutions rather than short term fixes. When applied in the context of transformation design - which "seeks to create desirable and sustainable changes in behavior and form ... of individuals, systems and organizations" - there appears to be an opportunity for design thinking to suggest innovation in infrastructure development and deployment.

So where does one start? In addition to the resources listed in an earlier blog, this piece by Gregory Fenves, Dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, entitled Innovating the 21st Century Physical Infrastructure is incredibly useful. In it Fenves outlines some overarching themes including sustainability, safety and security, economics and scalability, and then goes on to identify key areas for what he calls "frontier research" including materials, flexibility and adaptability, distributed sensing and control, modeling and simulation and economic operation and risk management. He notes that infrastructure systems are siloed and work to date has been largely on patching what exists, while what is really needed is an interdisciplinary approach that encompasses, inter alia, nano-engineering, the study of socio-economic systems and cyber infrastructure, and one that puts an emphasis on innovation and breakthrough opportunities.

It is hard to get excited about infrastructure, but it is crying out for a more holistic, multi-disciplinary, innovative and longer-term perspective, one that can evolve and meet our needs rather than the current band-aid approach that has resulted in a crippled infrastructure not much evolved from the last great build period between the 1940s and 1960s. What is missing is strategic innovation: consider, for example, the impact of intermodal freight transport and how that revolutionized the movement of goods; or the development of the electric power grid, and how it revolutionized energy provision and use. What new systems are required today? What new systems will be required for tomorrow? Infrastructure also needs to be looked at in the context of some important related issues such as sustainability, climate change (concrete production produces significant green house gases), migration (new centers of population, urban blight, etc.) and local natural resource availability.

Taking a design thinking approach would encourage a truly collaborative multidisciplinary initiative - bringing together engineers, urban planners, architects, social anthropologists, economists, policymakers, transformation designers, etc. - that would likely result in a comprehensive exploration of the opportunities for building an infrastructure that evolves with need and use, embraces innovation in systems, processes, structures and materials, and, most importantly, safeguards global a nation's competitive advantage.