Forced to change — overcoming turmoil with strategic design

Sami Niemelä

Sami Niemelä

Creative Director, Innovation Coach

Two months, in what seems like a different world, I had the privilege to talk at IxDA’s Interaction 20 in Milan, Italy. What I wanted to share with the packed room of 300+ people was a collection of ideas and frameworks that illustrate how design can be a crucial tool for transforming our world and society.

In my opinion, the largest obstacle to harnessing the transformative capability of design is our current perception of what design really is, and can be. All we have to do is let go of our desire to control, and start embracing the complexity in the world around us.

After my presentation, COVID-19 has stopped the world and thrown all of us off our rails to adapt to uncertainty and constant change, on the fly. I believe these recent events lend even more weight to what I talked about in Milan — design can be the tool of transformation we now need. If you’re in a hurry, the talk is at the end of this post in video format👇🏼.

Insight & foresight isn’t a project, but a continuous strategic capability to learn

As the saying goes, we can’t solve new problems with old thinking. More and more, design deals with abstract outcomes and processes, which means designers and their craft must adapt and evolve accordingly. As thinkers and doers working largely in digital media, a realm that is constantly shifting and developing, we should already be used to the idea of a fair portion of our skills having an expiration date. Not learning continuously is not an option.

At Interaction 20, a fellow Finn, Marco Steinberg gave an excellent keynote about how the participatory mechanisms with which we govern our societies, cities and other large organisations are mostly based on handling complaints, not progressing through proactive innovation mechanisms. What struck me the most was him saying “What we have in our hands is still 18th-century organisations trying to grapple with 21st-century problems”.

This is true — us humans and our existing organisations are quite incompatible with the change we are now facing. The effects are visible all around us from Brexit to the infuriating slowness of our reactions to the climate crisis, to name a few.There might be a silver lining to the fact that COVID-19 has thrown our societies and behavioural patterns into turmoil: This may be our opportunity to reform ourselves and our ways of seeing, thinking and doing.

Responsive organisations: Easy to nod, but hard to execute with results

Traditional skillsets for creating products and services are still needed, of course, but when it comes to leadership, a new dimension of designing living and evolving systems is emerging. In the past, this used to be the playground of the big five and management consultants building their success on a vast amount of data gathered from previous successes, repeating what works in new and different contexts. As uncertainty and complexity increase, mere qualitative validation isn’t enough anymore, and even if you can afford to test new ideas at the market, the cost of failing to place the right bets is rising.

A system of systems

Resilience is a word thrown around a lot these days to describe a skill or a property one can develop either for an organisation or an individual; the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. The issue here is that the normal we used to know probably won’t exist anymore, making recovery to whatever we had a few months ago impossible. In any case, this is the wrong goal. Instead of longing for a recovery “ back to normal”, we should instead aim toward progress, moving forward to a better place than where we started. After all, the previous normal brought us to this mess to begin with.

In comparison to resilience, a far more relevant concept for me is the idea of Antifragility, a concept developed by Professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book of the same name. He describes Antifragility as a property of systems that increase in capability to thrive as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures. What he means is essentially a living, learning and constantly self-improving system of systems — something that is constantly alive, failing forward, continuously learning and evolving — like a growth mindset, but at a systemic scale.

Systems are at the heart of the matter, as every successful company or entity becomes a system by itself. Political scientists such as David Runciman already argue we reached the first stage of singularity some time ago when we invented corporations and nation-states, self-sustaining superintelligent organisms. According to the idea of panarchy, systems consist of nested adaptive cycles, which become self-sustaining and thus very hard to disrupt from within. The question here is, how might we adapt and reinvent our practices to work in environments as complex, disruptive and long as systemic change?”

Systems thinking, then, is the key to working with and embracing complexity, and very much about us humans and how we really act in our everyday life. Futures are a complex system of systems and there is never one future, but many. Once we truly understand the implications of this, we can start observing, describing and articulating where we want to be in for example 2025 and beyond corona (BC), and why? To quote Canadian futurist Leah Zaidi, “foresight without a system lacks depth but a system without foresight lacks hope”.

This is where this gets interesting: what if the future of what we do isn’t a process but a philosophy?

Sensemaking by making

What does this mean in the context of our practice, then? As William Gibson recently said in an interview, every future is someone else’s past, every present someone else’s future. In design practice, it is important to understand that by default, all design lives in the future, to begin with. All design is designing futures, one way or another. Ergo, futures are mundane by definition. What matters is our intent and understanding of when, where and how are the possible futures we intend to make? To me, this is where the great opportunity lies, at the intersection of insight, foresight, sensemaking and thinking in systems combined with doing with vigour and care. This allows us to connect the whole idea of value with desirable futures, long term business impact and sensemaking — to understand change through making and creating the change we want. Plus the practice scales — for example sensemaking as a practice aligns nicely with how to implement continuous learning at the organisational scale.

What we’ve called “design” for a decade or two now has mostly been consisting of simple, fast physical and digital artefacts as the main output. Graphic design, for example, deals with symbols and their presentations in various media. Industrial design has produced tangible and physical artefacts and objects, some with simplistic physical interaction patterns, some more complex. Meanwhile, the whole idea of interaction and service design has found its way in through the back door, all the way to the figurative board room. All of a sudden, we find ourselves in the business of creating complex services with several dimensions and touchpoints over time and place, and in inter-, multi- and transdisciplinary teams. The catch here is that while the impact of this long design grows, so does the complexity in our environment as well as uncertainty it brings. New materials we deal with consists of dark matter, motivations, narratives and minimum viable experiments we can measure. As the former Helsinki Design Lab designer Dan Hill eloquently writes in his book Dark Matter and Trojan Horses;

With a product, service or artefact, the user is rarely aware of the organisational context that produced it, yet the outcome is directly affected by it. Dark matter is the substrate that produces. A particular BMW car is an outcome of the company’s corporate culture, the legislative frameworks it works within, business models it creates, the patent portfolio that protects, the wider cultural habits it senses and shapes, the trade relationships, logistics and supply networks that resource it, the particular design philosophies that underpin its performance and possibilities, the path dependencies in the history of northern Europe, and so on.

This is all dark matter; the car is the matter it produces.

While our tools shape who we are, the tools and outcomes of modern strategic design practice are, in turn, being shaped by the dark matter, the layers of in-betweens in the system of systems where our designs are born. This means it is possible, and even preferable to not specialise but be ready to produce various output for various contexts. And increasingly, this design is different; abstract, slow and complex. In order to navigate this complexity, we need to heighten the awareness of the qualities of things. Paradoxically, when working with slow, long and abstract ideas, the importance of making the work itself matter, every single piece of visualisation, articulation and artefact we make to communicate, matters.

We must focus on the immediate quality and care towards the things, ideas and narratives we make especially why and when. We need to make the invisible visible, tangible and measurable by design but not drown ourselves into details while working systematically uncover directions and opportunities within the system. We must be aware to change before the environment forces us to. This enables us to become antifragile, and capable of thriving as a through the rough seas, at times like the one we are dealing with right now, globally.

In Milan, my talk was built around three ideas and I think these three skills needed are more relevant than ever. Improvisation and strategic foresight to build right props, probes and frameworks of what’s to come, sensemaking and systems thinking to… well, think in systems to make sense and understand the impact of our work, how to apply them, and continuous learning and reflection for growing as human beings, professionals and teams building towards antifragility.

Like stated in the beginning, this is a game of perception as well. The largest obstacle to harnessing the transformative capability of design is our current perception of what design really is, and can be. In the following weeks, I’ll explain more about what this means — watch this space. Meanwhile here’s the presentation in Milan’s Interaction 20.

Forced to change — overcoming turmoil with strategic design was originally published in Future is Present Tense on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.