Design Notes I – “Designing/Re-Designing our world” – a way forward

As the world prepares to live with the pandemic, all of us are questioning everything around us – ourselves, our people, our behaviors, our possessions, our artifacts, our organizations, our residences, our lifestyles, our entertainment, our institutions – public and private, our governments,  our laws, our infrastructure, our systems – physical, digital, manual, social, our ways of work, our approach to live with nature and – more – why, what, how and more. Two key thoughts permeate this quest – what is it about what we knew thus far  – seems to have failed us to combat this pandemic? What should we change to live life in a different way in the future?

Answers to both these questions will broadly require an understanding of – 1) What are the strengths/weaknesses of the designs of our current-day systems? and 2) How do we “Design”  anew everything around us (as reflected in the call to build by Andreessen). You need to design before you build! Given the circumstances, it is imperative to reflect on what this “act of Design is” – and why every well-meaning individual should actively participate in this effort. In this brief note, I will outline some characteristics of this design task and outline a checklist of questions to be asked – by any individual – participating/engaging with – anything engineered around us. Design thinking has become a popular phrase in modern management and intellectual circles but it is unclear how one goes about becoming a “design thinker” or what is the end result of all the “design thinking”.

Before we delve a bit deeper, I review some terminology. The term Design is the name of the activity of designing and also the end result of the activity – the artifact, blueprint, how-tos etc. – both a noun and a verb. Knowing a bit of the etymology suggests the early negative connotation and how the connotation has evolved. When one De-sign’s – what are the goals? It is to create something that aims to overcome the current situation to achieve an end – to solve a problem. Problems that require design solutions are usually wicked problems.  In every field of human activity, there are enough wicked problems! A solution to a wicked problem is a gameplan, a physical or virtual/digital artifact that mitigates or solves the wicked problem to a certain level of usefulness.  A reliable/repeatable solution to a wicked problem cannot emerge by happenstance or evolve organically – it needs to be thought through, engineered, planned for, constructed etc..There is a sense of deliberative decision making that informs the final solution. Now, post-COVID, we see wicked problems everywhere – even a simple everyday commute needs to be designed/planned. I have briefly discussed these nuances in an earlier essay. It is also important to understand the terms designing, planning, scheduling as they get used interchangeably in common parlance. Designing is more oriented towards a sense of structure (physical/digital/virtual) – the solution is a WHAT  – whereas planning is more oriented towards a sense of sequencing/ordering pre-defined tasks to achieve an objective – the solution is a HOW. Planning with timing/resource availability requirements makes it a scheduling problem. Obviously – worthwhile wicked problems require both the WHAT and the HOW -in a solution. While developing a solution one may have to reason with models of the world about the domain of interest. In the context of commute planning – we may have to look up timetables of public services, availability of taxis etc, see if it meets our budgets and so on. This activity is Analysis – a key aspect of developing a solution. If the models are realistic, solutions are realistic, else one needs to revise the design solution.  For example, if the time table is not followed by the public services (which is quite common), your commute plan evolves dynamically. Models are developed based on the science underpinning domains of interest. Some sciences are more well-developed than others – leading to better models and thus better engineered artifacts.

Now, going back to answering the initial two questions – why our systems have failed us and what to do next – requires us to revisit every assumption/belief on which our world and its systems operate – either by design or by convention (social or fiat). As you interact with the world, every interaction is an opportunity to learn more to develop a better solution – a better design/blueprint for our lives/cultures and more. So what are the questions to ask – if one dons the hat of a designer – in everything we do – (considering that all our modern/urban lives are fully engineered – socially/technically -the assumed sign of  a better civilization). It is important to understand the need for these questions from a “designing” perspective – as every other field of technical activity – aims to bound the scope of questioning/reasoning. So as different fields define their boundaries, the actual problem falls in the “gaps” between these so-called boundaries along with potential solutions. One of the casualties of such reductionist thinking has been mis-management of Nature – the wide-ranging environmental and climate concerns coming to the fore now. Furthermore, it is only while designing –  there is a forum to ask these bridging questions. No system stands alone in the realworld. Here is a brief set of exemplar questions.

What are the underlying assumptions underpinning a design/plan in any system we interact with? How does the system enable people to interact or assumptions people need to have to interact with it? What value does it provide? What are the other systems it interacts with? What are the baseline worlds on which these systems are built? (Our baseline is living in the natural world – with minimum technology). What kind of human behaviors does it condition? What are the natural and unnatural ways/practices it imposes on the people? What does it cost to build such a solution? What are the technological and people components of a solution? What resources does it consume? Who/What does it impact – all along its supply chain? beneficially and harmfully? What does it cost to maintain such a system? What happens when the system or its components (people/machines/systems) fail?  How/When/Where can it fail? What can cause the system to fail? How reliable is the system? How can the world operate without the system? What is the baseline way – the minimal needed to run things ? How can a system be manipulated/fudged/faked/attacked? When does the system become obsolete? How do you de-commission an existing system in a phased manner? What happens to all the waste if done properly? What can be recycled?  What happens if systems are left in a state of dis-use?  What are the long-term effects – permanent versus transitory -on people, the physical world, on other systems of using such a system? Is it fair if my country/group gets the benefits whereas somebody else on the other side of the world pays for it? How should we prepare all humanity/stakeholders to live in the new world? What do we keep of the old and what do we discard – physical/operational and more? The number of these questions is not limitless – but finite. A diligent, collaborative, coordinated effort can help us answer these questions for the future.

Considering that we as individuals are embedded/situated in a collection of such systems – we have conditioned ourselves without questioning the status quo. Even asking the aforementioned questions is difficult, let alone figure out an answer. However, to build anew, it is imperative that each one of us- ask these questions of everything we interact with/ participate in or do – in our daily lives. This will enable develop a collective consciousness and priorities as to what the future engineered world should look like. Systems cannot be built and deployed in an haphazard manner – an overall game plan is required – that we collectively agree to – which requires every well-meaning individual to contribute in a participatory manner. Instead of the conventional dichotomous thinking of the arts vs sciences (or liberal vs conservative or any other categorization one can think of!) – we need to develop an integrated world view to develop solutions to the aforementioned questions.

As a technologist/scientist, the pandemic has humbled many of us – we are helpless to even know – what went wrong? where? when? our existing approaches to science (social and physical),  tech, knowledge and more all found wanting on some dimension or the other. We do not even know what we do not know! We do not even know how to collect requisite data and appropriate information to figure out what we do not know! Though there are more questions than answers, it is an opportune time for entrepreneurs/technologists to go about building new solutions with a fresh set of assumptions and oodles of patience to get it done right. Even everything digital may not be the way!

In the meanwhile, I plan to write a series of  blog notes about a number of topics related to design – both the verb and the noun – including key design vignettes, software design, all the everyday systems around us – how do they need to be re-designed – providing a workable/doable – manifesto. Rethinking designs from “first principles” – not just the technological first principles – but holistically is required. Hopefully, these series of notes helps one designer – design and build – for a better future!