30 March 2009

Systems thinking, design thinking and strategic foresight

When one looks at the most pressing challenges that humanity faces, challenges typically related to energy supply and use, environmental stewardship, health-care and education reform and restructuring, economic development, rebuilding of basic infrastructure, etc., none are simple and most daunting in their scale and complexity. Yet there are strategies available to address these challenges, strategies that can provide the means for the development of new solutions and ways forward. The need for new approaches, or for the combination of different approaches, has become all the more apparent as the financial crisis and recession have shown the fickle nature of the supposedly resilient global economy. Global recession has also pointed up structural weaknesses at national levels, bringing to light failures in financial systems, health-care systems, infrastructure, etc.

Typical linear or reductionist approaches to these challenges no longer work. We have created problems whose complexity now requires different models and new thinking: Einstein said it best when he suggested that "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them". Indeed, many of our problems have been insidiously metastasizing over time, increasing in their complexity, their interrelatedness and their global nature and reach. Old ways no longer suffice.

While "blank slate" approaches are not realistically feasible, there are ways of enabling new thinking and new solutions. Seeing beyond the complexity of these challenges can be best achieved through the systems thinking lens, in which the totality of the challenge and its interconnectedness is revealed. It is only by understanding the relationships (particularly the interdependencies) between the various elements of the challenge that one can begin to assess where the points of focus for "solutioneering" should be. This is when the two other approaches step in: design thinking hand-in-hand with strategic foresight. Design thinking is an innovation-oriented design discipline that applies design methodologies to problem solving, increasingly outside the design field (in business and public services, for example). Strategic foresight comprises methodologies to better anticipate and understand possible future outcomes through scenario planning, forecasting and other tools. A combination of design thinking and strategic foresight allows for a future-oriented solutions-based approach to addressing the critical focus areas of these seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Imagine, if you will, the question of education reform. One cannot look at the education system in any nation without considering, for example, its social, economic and political importance, its relevance to future national development and individual well-being, the focus of the curricula given the evolving nature of society and economy, the physical diffusion of schools and the impact on community, etc. Education reform is not just about fiddling with testing schedules and questions sets... Systems thinking allows for the complexity and interconnectedness of the education system to be fully appreciated and understood, and for its weaknesses to be identified. Design thinking and strategic foresight allow for solutions-based forward-looking strategies that provide for a variety of approaches to implementing actual (and hopefully substantive and future-proof) reform.

Using systems and design thinking and strategic foresight, is, of course, no overnight panacea for the pressing issues related to climate change and our (ir)responsible stewardship of the planet for example. Much more is needed - including, above all, the will to change. But the combination of these three approaches may provide for a new and more capable, comprehensive and solutions-oriented means to understand and address the challenges that nations and humanity face.

For further thinking on the relationship between design and strategic foresight, see here.

29 March 2009

The breadth and depth of innovation

Once in a while one stumbles across an article or commentary that gives dimension and/or context to one's interests and endeavors. For those who interested in innovation in all its facets, and particularly those looking at the changing nature of innovation, a brief article by Lawrence Husick, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, outlining the "25 most important innovations" (of all time) is a fascinating read. The list is broad and varied, and breaks down roughly into 3 groupings: the first directly related to developments in sciences and technology, the second to organizational and skills related change, and the third to developments in ideas and thinking.

Husick's definition of innovation is particularly apropos to today's discussion of the role, value and need for design and innovation. He talks about innovation as "a process of making changes by introducing valuable new methods, ideas, or products. “Innovations” are the things themselves--the ideas, methods, and processes. It’s not simply that better mousetrap; it’s different ways of thinking and doing. Innovations may of course be inventions, but they may also be beliefs, organizational methods, and discoveries."

When one considers developments in the design space it is all about new areas of application - no longer just product/industrial design, but design across services, systems, structures and organizations. Humankind has been innovating and designing in these spaces since the dawn of time (as the list so admirably shows) driving and deriving value from innovations that are not easily traded or bartered. With a 20th century value system (value in the sense of both belief and price) that is based on the individual and not the group (or the community), we have lost any notion of the value of that which is important to society. The systems (e.g. education) and structures (e.g. infrastructure) upon which society is dependent are woefully under-resourced and the time for the application for efficiency and efficacy-driven transformation design approaches, among others, is nigh. After-all, innovation should not just be about "high" technology (a very blinkered 21st century view) but about the evolution of the entire economic, political and societal construct within which we live our lives.

24 March 2009

From Alswider to Abaster

Please note that the blog has been renamed and the address has changed. Many thanks for your understanding and continued support.

17 March 2009

Design elegance revisited

In an excellent article on 3M and design, Mauro Porcini, Director of the 3M Design Center in Milan, Italy, says that elegance in design is not about aesthetics but about “the minimum number of elements that can make the product the best one to deliver the highest level of experience that I want to deliver.” Exactly. See here for more on elegance in design.