Open your mind to a world of complex challenges

Did I mention there is a Canadian Science Policy Conference happening in Ottawa right now? Did you know, hardly any designers ever attend such conferences? Opening night – and I happened on one lone industrial designer from Montreal. When I mentioned my affiliation with the trade, he just stared at me in admiration and I could almost see his eyeballs transform into heart shapes, like in cartoons.

Events like these are a perfect opportunity to connect science and technology into one big pile of innovation strategies. Where else would a designer find an access to information on not only the key challenges and opportunities, but also explore the role of science, technology and innovation that can help address them?

Just several hours earlier, I had a great conversation with John Buschek, the director of Technology, Society, Environment Studies Department. John is a chemist by trade, philosopher by academia, and poet by soul. I peeked into his cozy office on the grounds of a project I’m working on with several of my colleagues, and ended up in one of his remarkably comfortable chairs, being questioned about the whole purpose of the project.

John brought up an excellent point: “designers quite often jump to the solution before ever asking a question of why the solution is needed in the first place.” And he isn’t talking about the need for a product or service, but more about the fundamental question of system that very few designers feel comfortable asking themselves. As a chemist, John engaged in many well funded endeavours of “creating chemistry for the sake of creating chemistry”.

With this, I left for the opening evening of CSP conference to engage in an excellent discussion on the subject of “mundane science”. So, it seems, designers and scientists are really facing the same problem. There is an excellent paper by Daniel Kammen and Michael Dove titled The Virtues of Mundane Science:

The prejudice against research on mundane topics has created a conceptual  cordon sanitaire within many disciplines. In energy and development research, it appears as a disproportionate focus on advanced combustion systems, commercial fuels, and large centralized power facilities, even though more than 3 billion people rely on wood, charcoal, and other biomass fuels for the bulk of their energy needs. […] major obstacles to developing sound environmental practices are not principally technological. Instead, the primary stumbling block is the lack of integrative approaches to complex systems and problems. A mundane example – efforts to improve wood and charcoal burning cookstoves—illustrates the important advances that are possible from integrating scientific, engineering, and social science research with very practical implementation programs.

“Lack of integrative approaches to complex systems and problems”. Here it is. An excellent reason for designers to really get engaged in the making of policies, be it science or technology. There is a great video narrated by Feynman, titled Curiosity:

My favourite phrase from the video: “So much distance between fundamental rules and final phenomena”. We all know about emergent behaviour, spontaneous organization, and collective decisions. But what do we really know about the rich web of interactions within all these phenomena?

John Holland once elegantly compared economic system to a natural one. “There is no master neuron in the brain” he said, “nor is there a master cell within a developing embryo. If there is to be any coherent behaviour in the system, it has to arise from competition and cooperation among the agents themselves.” This is quite true in the economy as well: regardless of how much a CEO is trying to cope with a stubborn recession, the overall behaviour of the economy is still the result of myriad economic decisions made every day by millions of individual people.

More importantly, it’s all about never-ending reshuffling and rearrangement of the said neurons and cells to ensure the resiliency of the system. Thus, an integrative approach and continuous questioning might open a designer’s mind to the world of truly complex problems that need solving. Something beyond safe, easily-accessible, peddled, and ubiquitous challenges that are so tempting to undertake.

Finally, the art of murmuration! Thank you, Barbara.


3 thoughts on “Open your mind to a world of complex challenges

    • Kathy, couldn’t have said it better! It’s funny, during the conference, this one question kept getting repeated: “Is there a formula for effective communication between disciplines to tackle complex challenges?” And the same answer was repeated over and over again: “Not unless you give me a concrete set of variables that causes this complexity.”

      It seems to me, the only way a connection between simple truths and complex contexts can be laid out, is when people living in these “complex contexts” will seize being treated as “subjects” and are referred to as “experts”. That’s one of the simple truths I learned from biomimicry: as soon as I started looking at nature as an expert, I began *really* listening to it and learning from it. Maybe, if communities were treated in the same fashion and with the same respect, there wouldn’t be projects and policies that are ignorant of the traditions/customs/culture/habits/behaviours that define people of these communities.

  1. Hi there,

    I love your post, really inspiring! Collaboration and inclusion of everyone (as a valuable ‘expert’) who has a stake in a process, policy or decision is key. Here is a method we are applying at CfD to projects in sustainability. It is not perfect, but it might start the ball rolling for more effective strategies in solving complex questions, by utilizing design, technology, social science, practice theory, etc, but above all empowering people through their inclusion in the process:

    I hope all is well over in Canada, say hello for Brian (Burns) for me. Ciao, S.

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