Systems thinking, design thinking and strategic foresight ~ Abaster

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.