Category Archives: policy design

Why design needs a critical reality check

I havent had much time to think about blogging lately, especially since i have burrowed into a methodological ditch for the past few months. I wasnt sure if this post would be practical for professionals, but it will be of interest to researchers or maybe even educators in the design field. For my thesis I have to dedicate a large portion of writing towards my epistemological and methodological position- that is, what theoretical justification of knowledge i choose to take which kind of dictates the path towards obtaining data. Its more or less a lense or theory which you believe adequately justifies truth and knowledge. Wikipedia probably does a better job at explaining it than i have, but this handy Euler diagram sums it up:

different epist’s have differing beliefs on what is true which = knowledge

I spent months torturing myself over what episte i was going to take. Despite my supervisor claiming its not really a big deal, i felt that choosing the right theory of knowledge was imperative, especially for the credibility of my data. The importance of choosing the right episte became apparent to me more so when i realised that i was entering unknown territories in research- especially design research- because the kind of topic i am undertaking is not conventional.

A little bit about research in design…

Design research has *generally* borrowed methodologies from the social sciences. Borrowing a methodology from another field comes with epistemological positions that underpin its pathway. A PhD colleague, Luke Feast, published a paper with Gavin Melles on common epistemological positions in doctoral design research. Four main positions were highlighted in this paper and placed in order from most subjective to least. They are: subjectivism, constructivism (i will add here pragmatism) and objectivism/positivism. The prevailing episte that has been most widely supported by the big guns in design (Cross, Schon) is constructivism and currently dominates doctoral design research (Feast & Melles 2010, p. 3)

The kind of epistemology you choose to guide your research largely depends on the question asked. Different fields of research assume common epistemological and methodological procedures due to the nature of the work. For example, in the field of anthropology where majority of research questions surround cultural investigations on semiotics and constructions of meaning, a constructivist or even subjectivist approach is assumed and appropriate. In the field of psychology and behavioural research, questions seek quantitative data and often follow a more scientific (positivist) approach. Thus, scientific research assumes a positivist position and can also be termed ‘reductionist’. You will have to excuse my rather crude explanations- there are indeed more epistemological ‘-isms’ used in each field of research but i am just covering the most common.

But most of these ‘isms’ dont quite fit…

I am not claiming to be an expert on the topic of doctoral research in design, but ive read enough about design research to form an opinion that makes me believe design research hasn’t found its own episte yet- especially for higher orders of design. To me, borrowing epistemologies from other fields is not allowing for the scope of complexity that is required in this field. The slippers dont quite fit. As a relatively new industry, design research has been stuck in an awkward teen phase- trying out different epistemological trends to see what works.

In the process of finding the right shoe, the design industry has evolved (and technically returned to) a new scope of practice- thats is the (re)focus on design thinking in highly complex issues such as systemic design and social innovation. This has thrown up all of our most common methodological approaches previously used in design research.  I need to now highlight why, in context of our new design sphere, the epistemological positions we have been using thus far are falling short.

So what epistemology fits with this new scale of design? On the one hand, this area of design deals with social constructions of meaning and culture, with the artefacts and results that are produced to improve on what society values. On the other, it interacts with complex systems that depend on ‘objective’ (technological and environmental) forces that operate independently from what we construct of it. It’s not enough to research design from a purely subjectivist lens; one that favors intrepretations on human constructions of meaning and intent. Its not enough to research design from a purely objective lens; one that favors a quantifiable view of social process and ignores cultural meaning and values. Design largely is the combination of  both these extremes so it makes sense that to perform adequate research in design- especially complex design practice- that we find a middle ground for our theoretical stance, one that acknowledges the importance of both socially constructed meaning and external forces. This middle ground can be found from using a critical realist perspective.

What is Critical Realism?

This is where i get into the nitty gritties of the most commonly used epist’s in design research and compare these with a critical realist approach. Below is a table taken from Luke & Melles paper but originally found in Michael Crotty’s book, The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process. The following table is a nice concise outline of the main epistemologies in design research, along with the related methodology and methods of investigation.

Now I’ve edited this table to insert critical realism:

I should note that debates over whether critical realism is an epistemological or an ontological theory are still performed today. The general consensus is that it is an ontological theory, but ive placed it under epistemology for simplicity. The theoretical perspectives listed here for critical realism are also epistemologies but ive placed the information in this way to show that critical realism is a combination of pragmatic and realist theories.

WARNING!!!

The following contains jargon. If you feel you dont need to brush up on the details behind critical realism (though i highly recommend it, even just for fun. Yes, i said fun) you can safely scroll down to the more practical explanation of the theory.

Ready?

Critical Realism was first proposed by Roy Bhaskar in the 1970’s as an alternative theory aimed to bridge perspectives from the arts and sciences. I dont really recommend you read Bhaskar, as his texts are infamous for being convoluted to the point where you think he himself doesnt quite understand what he is saying. So thankfully a whole group of smart academics such as Sayer, Danermark, Eckstrom and Dickens published a range of books and papers clarifying and expanding on the theory, saving us mortals from Bhaskar’s intense philosophies.

The interpretations from our saviours differ a little. Some prefer to take a more subjective interpretation whereas others prefer a more positivist approach. Some described CR as an epistemology, where as most acknowledge it as an ontological theory (a theory on what can be said to ‘exist’ rather than justification of knowledge). Sayer is perhaps the leading contemporary writer on critical realism, with Dickens a key theorist in context of eco and sustainable practice. Both of these writers have outlined the key elements behind critical realism. Below is a comparison of their accounts:

Dickens on “The 4 Key Elements of Critical Realism”

1. Knowledge is a product of society, but knowledge is not only a product of society. It can refer to real processes and mechanisms in the world.

2. Science is about establishing the causes underlying phenomena of interest. Real, relatively enduring structures and causal mechanisms in the physical, biological and social worlds underlie what we observe and experience. They do so in combination with one another and often in combination with contingent circumstance. ‘Closed systems’ are created artificially to develop understandings of causal mechanisms, but these are rare in society and nature.

3. The world is envisaged as heirarchically stratified. At the most general level are physical mechanisms (e.g. Gravity). At ‘higher’ level are chemical structures and mechanisms. Higher still are biological mechanisms (e.g those generating an organisms growth). Finaly, there are physchological and social mechanisms. Mechanisms at each level of reality are rooted in- but not reducible to- those operating at lower levels.

4. The nature of these structures and mechanisms is subject to constant critique and scientific development. This critique and development can also stem from practical, everyday experience (Dickens 2003, p. 20)

Dickens’s account on critical realism is much easier to digest, but Sayer dives a little deeper into the specifics behind the theory:

Sayer’s 8 key assumptions of CR:

1.The world exists independently of our knowledge of it.

2. Our knowledge of the world is fallible and theory-laden. Concepts of truth and falsity fail to provide a coherent view of the relationship between knowledge and its object. Nevertheless knowledge is not immune to empirical check and its effectiveness in informing and explaining successful material practice is not mere accident.

3. Knowledge develops neither wholly continuously, as the steady accumulation of facts within a stable conceptual framework, nor discontinuously, through simultaneous and universal changes in concepts.

4. There is necessity in theworld; objects—whether natural or social— necessarily have particular powers or ways of acting and particular susceptibilities.

5. The world is differentiated and stratified, consisting not only of events, but objects, including structures, which have powers and liabilities capable of generating events. These structures may be present even where, as in the social world and much of the natural world, they do not generate regular patterns of events.

6. Social phenomena such as actions, texts and institutions are concept dependent.We not only have to explain their production and material effects but to understand, read or interpret what they mean. Although they have to be interpreted by starting from the researcher’s own frames of meaning, by and large they exist regardless of researchers’ interpretation of them. A qualified version of 1 therefore applies to the social world. In view of 4–6, the methods of social science and natural science have both differences and similarities.

7. Science or the production of any kind of knowledge is a social practice. For better or worse (not just worse) the conditions and social relations of the production of knowledge influence its content. Knowledge is also largely—though not exclusively— linguistic, and the nature of language and the way we communi- cate are not incidental to what is known and communicated. Awareness of these relationships is vital in evaluating knowledge.

8. Social science must be critical of its object. In order to be able to explain and understand social phenomena we have to evaluate them critically (Sayer 1992, p.5)

So as you can see, critical realism acknowledges that there is both an external reality where natural processes operate (nature), but that also this reality can include social processes that operate independently of our observation and interpretation of them. The critical realist perspective still lies in constructivist reasoning (as oppose to scientific experimentation/testing), but unlike most subjective epistemologies that deny an external ‘truth’ , critical realism understands that a mind independent reality exists. I was going to briefly get into descriptions of how critical realism operates but felt that researchers can familiarise themselves with the texts and that practitioners may not need to know the nitty gritty philosophical descriptions for practice.  This brings me to the next point: how critical realism can be used in practice.

 “Most sciences have in the past tended to develop an understanding of physical, chemical, and other mechanisms in isolation. They have done this through creating artifically ‘closed systems’ as a means of understanding the basic mechanisms of the physical and social world.”  (Dickens 2003, p.100)

Enough with the blah blah, get to the point!

What critical realism can teach practitioners is to understand when a system is closed and tame or open and complex (wicked).  Essentially most complex designs deal with ‘open’ social systems that are forever in a state of ‘flux’. Most designers working in this area will already know that this is the case, however, many struggle to formulate flexible and adaptable solutions. In order to do this, research and analysis needs to unify information from both specific social values as well as wider objective forces. Easier said than done, right? But critical realism can offer a guiding methodology on how to investigate and analyse complex data to design better informed solutions. It opens the scope of research and provides a methodology that can guide practitioners through the messy process of sense-making, particularly when it needs to harmoniously unify data on specific social needs and external impacts.

“In practice, then, open system predictive methods are neither completely non explanatory nor fully explanatory but a compromise usually taking the form of a model in which some of the main processes are summarily represented by variables. These empirical models are fitted to existing data and extrapolated forward. They involve curve fitting but the curves are fitted to relationships which might be interpereted as causal; they do not attempt to model actual processes closely.” (Sayer 2010, p. 90)

Critical realism can form generalisations of external cause and effects, usually through triangulation of data. But it does not attempt to scientifically ‘prove’ that data as a direct representation. At best we can create descriptions that satisfy general truths:

“Another appraoch to concrete research but one which cannot easily be represented in our diagram is the method of ‘ideal types’. Given the complexity of the world, it is argued that any research must be selective and that consequently researchers specify objects in terms of ideal types which isolate phenomena according to their interests and values” (Sayer 2010, p. 159)

Sound familiar? That is because it echo’s Simon’s theory of ‘satisficing’ in the face of complex systems that are constantly evolving.

Critical realism is fundamentally about dealing with and making sense of complex, evolving problems. It is especially  useful when applied in sustainable practice. If we are going to march forward in the pursuit of a sustainable future, we CANNOT distinguish ourselves or our ‘being’ in this world as completely separate from the ‘other’ (the environment). I know this sounds a bit heideggarian, and it is, but this general attitude has largely dominated the last century. I know this also sounds like a grand generalisation, but how many of you consciously consider how you are connected to your environment? or even your wider social community? Didnt think so.

…Cue environmental rant

Our earth has for too long been a commodity. We dont consider ourselves as an extension of our natural environment and many of us barely consider the environment in connection with our daily actions.  Many might question what exactly is ‘natural’, but i find in the face of climate change and increasing social and cultural unrest, these philosophical questions deviate from action so i am going to leave the dirty questions on hermeneutics and ontology to the philosophers. The basic fact is, we have become completely disconnected from our ecosystem- both social and environmental. If individuals are not going to consider this fact and designers consider themselves the key to social change, then designers must start approaching problems with a connected mindset that acknowledges our intimate relationship with our social and natural environments.

In context of the above, you can see why a critical realist perspective in design is so important. For research like my own where we begin to look back to natural structures and apply these learnings to design more sustainable social systems, a theory that acknowledges both the social and natural realities is fundamental. This perspective is equally important in practice, as more designers attempt to bridge social and environmental problems. No longer should the social and the scientific be at war and our sense of self be separate from our external reality, as critical realism is paving the way towards unification through transdisciplinary research.

Reference list for nerds:

Crotty, 1998, The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process

Feast & Melles, 2010, Epistemological Positions in Design Research: a brief review of the literature

Dickens, P 2003,  Society and Nature

Sayer, A 2010, Method in Social Science

Journal of Critical Realism

Website for critical realism, containing many papers and articles

Biomimicry (design) thinking?

If some of you follow me on Twitter, you would already know that i recently posted a question to my tweeps asking what they would prefer to see more of on my blog. The overall response favored an academic discussion; posting papers and discussing in context of practice. Missing out by a whisker was the second most popular response, which was more lolcats and memes.

Realising i haven’t posted anything related to sustainable practice in a while (yes its not going to go away) i thought i should hunt around for something that was new, interesting and could somehow be taken away by you folk and applied (even if just ideologically) into practice. So after stalking a recent discussion over Twitter amongst a few tweeps poking at the concept of biomimicry, i knew this topic would be perfect material for my next post.

I should note that this paper might seem a bit abstract. Its not about providing a new tool or method you can directly apply; its more about offering an exciting new way of approaching problems which can create more adaptive and flexible solutions.

Bionics vs. Biomimicry: from control of nature to sustainable participation in nature

D. C. Wahl. Centre for the Study of Natural Design, University of Dundee, UK Design and Nature III: Comparing Design in Nature with Science and Engineering, Volume: 87, Publisher: WIT Press, Pages: 289-298

To sum it all up in once sentence/quote: ” the intentionality behind science and design needs to shift from aiming to increase prediction, control and manipulation of  nature as a resource, to a transdisciplinary cooperation in the process of learning how to participate appropriately and sustainably in Nature”

Main points: diversity good, linear bad. Holistic good, collaboration good. Adaptation good, control bad. 

This article places a LOT of emphasis on holistic practice and the responsibility design has in transforming current practice that aims to control our nature, into one that learns from it and works with nature.

Introduction:

” The root cause of the utter unsustainability of modern civilization lies in the dualistic separation of nature and culture. It is in nature, that all peoples and all species unite into a community of life.”

I think most of us (and by us i mean westernised individuals) forget that we are culturally separated from nature. With exception of tribal communities, design is largely to blame for our unsustainable, industrial life. We view nature  as something detached from ourselves; an ongoing process independent and unaffected from our actions.

“The aim of science is shifting towards informing appropriate participation in natural process, rather than the enabling of new technologies of prediction, manipulation and control. The transition towards sustainability will require a new approach to design and technology that is based on a participatory and holistic worldview informed by science, ethics and the transdisciplinary integration of multiple perspectives. It is a biophysical and ecological fact that culture is never  truly separate from nature.”

This is where we start to realise that much of the mindset that is needed for a sustainable future is very similar to that which is inherent in design thinking (this includes service/human centered design). It is now possible that we can take lessons from biomimicry and apply our learnings into the design process.

Section 2: Learning from Nature as model, measure and mentor:

During the methods movement (1960s-1970s) McHarg, Todd and Mclarney, founders of The New Alchemy Institute, were first to introduce research on biomimicry- taking design lessons from natures process. John Todd provides a quote:

“The Earth’s ecologies are embedded with a set of instructions that we urgently need to decode and employ in the design of human systems”

The question here is: we know we can directly translate lessons from nature and apply these into the design process for technological outcomes (devices, artifacts and engineering), but how do we translate natures process for the design of intangible human (and service) systems? This answer requires more research but the information can be invaluable. The following includes guidelines on how to start.

Section 2.1. Bionics: A prediction and control approach to learning from nature:

During the same period when biomimicry was announced, bionics was introduced by US Air Force engineer Major J.E. Steele (who also coined the term). German Zoologist Werner Nachtigall took over the trend and stated in the 70s that bionics is, “the process of “learning from nature as an inspiration for independent technical design”. He developed the principles of bionic design:

Principles of Bionic Design (plus commentary!)

1. Integrated instead of additive construction

(ideal. not always easy to do, but easy to forget. Service design, meta design and co-design can offer strategies and tools to utilise what we have to create integrated solutions than creating a result that requires new needs or materials. This approach is crucial for any designer. Examples of integrated solutions can be found here )

2. Optimisation of the whole, rather than maximisation of individual elements

(Again, in service design/design thinking much emphasis is placed on the whole than tuning into details. This is about creating a harmonious and sustainable ecosystem. Small detailed changes often yield the most successful (and feasible) outcome, but great decisions on details that have negative effect on the whole service/company/environment need to be optimised if possible.)

3. Multifunctionality instead of monofunctionality

4. Fine-tuning adapted to particular environments

(may seem a bit of a contradiction of point 3, however using statement from point 2, if you have to diverge and ‘tune in’ to a particular aspect of a project, adapt this to the environment it is situated in. This ensures that despite focusing on one area and not ‘the whole’ -as it sometimes may not be feasible- try to ensure the detail is adaptive to the surrounding environment)

5. Energy saving instead of energy squandering

(more of a product design thing. obvious nonetheless)

6. Direct and indirect use of solar energy

(as above)

7. Temporal limitation instead of unnecessary durability

(this again relates to product design but can also relate to service/intangible products. Create solutions that are not fixed (unnecessary durability) or hard to ‘recycle’, but are able to be re-used or re-shaped for new solutions that evolve with environment- both nature and culture)

8. Total recycling instead of waste accumulation

(obvious)

9. Networks instead of linearity

(socially, this can be translated as ‘collaborative networks’.)

10. Development through the process of trial and error

(iteration is much of the ethos behind design thinking)

Section 2.2 Biomimicry: ecologically informed design for sustainability

“During the 1970s, research at the ‘New Alchemy Institute’ began to explore how ecology, biology, and a bio-cybernetic systems approach, could inform more sustainable solutions to meeting fundamental human needs.” And as a result, they came up with this: (with, you guessed it- commentary!!)

The Precepts of Biological Design:

1. The living world is a matrix for all design

(The environment is much more evolved than we are. It surprises me to this day that most design outcomes and designers do not consult the fabric which gives us life)

2. Design should follow, not oppose the law of life

(Similar sentiment to point 2 of bionic principles)

3. Biological equity must determine design

4. Design must reflect bioregionality

(design outcomes need to be adaptive to the unique environment it lives within. This can be tangible (nature) or intangible (culture). Design outcomes whether service, policy or product, must reflect+integrate local environments and communities for sustainable development and evolution)

5. Projects must be based on renewable energy sources

(same as point 5 under bionic principles)

6. Design should be sustainable through the integration of living systems

(again, reflects same sentiment as point 4. Designing outcomes that do not incorporate a living system, whether animal, plant or people will persist with the dependancy on unnatural and unsustainable (artificial) artefacts)

7. Design should be co-evolutionary with the natural world

(same as above)

8. Building and design should help heal the planet

(makes me think of this)

9. Design should follow a sacred ecology

10. Everyone is a designer!

(this was probably a sneaky way to imply that everyone is responsible for their actions)

At this point in the whole biology and nature inspired history comes Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute and author of Biomimicry –Innovation Inspired by Nature. She, like her predecessors in this field, came up with her own set of principles:

The Biomimcry Approach:

1. Nature as model. Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems.

2. Nature as a measure. Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the “rightness” of our innovations. After 3.8 billon years of evolution, nature has learned: What works. What is appropriate. What lasts.

3. Nature as a mentor. Biomimicry is a new way of viewing and valuing nature. It introduces an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it.

It is evident that this paper is highlighting the theory and need for biomimicry but with vague directions on how to perform it. Interestingly enough, the author goes to state that THE wicked problem of the 21st century IS sustainability and that all aspects of design: from policy to ecosystems, require transdisciplinary teams with the designer as instigator and facilitator in this process.

The author shifts into the theory of complex systems, quoting german systems psychologist Dietrich Dörner. Dörner investigated ways trans+multi disciplinary teams interact in the process of complex, unpredictable and interrelated problems. This theory should be fundamental for design thinking. So for all of you designers out there wanting to work in the wicked 4.0 sphere (services, policy, systems, sustainability, urban planning, etc) you need to take note and staple the following to your forehead:

Common Mistakes in Dealing with Complex Systems:

1. Inadequate definition of goals (vision)

(problem framing is key)

2. Lack of a joined-up systems analysis

(not understanding the parts which make up and affect the whole)

3. The creation of irreversible emphasis

(dead end solutions must be avoided)

4. Lack of attention to side effects

(what effect will your decision/solution have on the whole ecosystem?)

5. The tendency to over-steer or over-react

(go in with an ‘equal’ not ‘ego’ mentality towards participants during co-creation)

6. The tendency to act in an authoritarian (controlling) way

(as above)

“Adaptive complex dynamic networks are nature’s way of responding effectively to change. Sustainable design that reintegrates culture and nature has to emulate nature’s way of dealing with unpredictability, fundamental interconnectedness and dynamic transformation”

This is exactly what everyone’s talking about at the moment in sustainable design. But i get the feeling that amongst this discussion we are not quite sure how to create solutions that live up to this philosophy. How can we go wrong if we design solutions that are a natural extension from nature? Im sure this all sounds incredibly hippy but I dont mean designing outcomes covered in flowers and leaves-this is about unlocking new processes and growth.

Conclusion:

“Effectively, or from within a more holistic and eco-literate perspective that regards culture as a co-dependent participant in natural process. Such changes in intention are changes in metadesign that affect all human activity. Changing the intentions behind design –changing mindset – is design at the paradigm level and life style level

The case im trying to make here is that observation and analysis of natures process which can be synthesised into design practice might be the most efficient way to create sustainable solutions that are as painless as possible. Biomimicry offers an avenue of research and design that tackles sustainability in the most pragmatic way possible. It holds clues that might make our sustainable journey much easier- we just have to find them.

Tackling Wicked [Policy] Problems

Considering this is my first blog post, I thought it would be appropriate to commence on a topic that I will be writing about with more frequency in the future- a topic that is the focus of my thesis.

I spent much time during the working stages of my literature review examining design and sustainable design literature. It was halfway through my reading and researching efforts that I came to realise I had found my “gap” – building the bridge between design thinking and (sustainable) policy design.

Little has been published in this area, particularly as peer-reviewed research. According to my (rather superficial) reading at the time, I had only discovered two articles that explicitly discussed the use of design thinking with policy design. (Note: I say explicitly and not to mean loosely in general). The first article I found was published by Derek Miller, founder of The Policy Lab. The second, a document published by the APS titled: Tackling Wicked Problems: A public policy perspective.


Yes, this document doesn’t refer to the term ‘design thinking’. However, I believed it to reflect this concept since the publication had been based on and around Rittel and Webber’s paper – which has been widely accepted as playing a major role in the foundation of design thinking.

Not convinced? Well here is an excerpt:

“Tackling wicked problems is an evolving art. They require thinking that is capable of grasping the big picture, including the interrelationships among the full range of causal factors underlying them. They often require broader, more collaborative and innovative approaches. This may result in the occasional failure or need for policy change or adjustment. “

Sound familiar? Of course it does! That is design thinking!

The fact that the Australian government had published a paper referring to design literature was astonishing and exciting. Not to mention this paper was published back in 2007! What has happened since? Well, aside from acknowledging that there is a need for new and ‘radical/innovative’ thinking- not a lot has been done. This could partially be due to the fact that designing policy outcomes take a significant amount of time, but I largely believe it is more to do with the fact that little research has been made into understanding exactly how policy design can adopt and should use design thinking.

For the most part, this publication is a nice summary of Rittel’s paper with a few contemporary examples thrown into the mix. Considering this superficial account, it wasn’t surprising that the paper signs off the second chapter openly admitting to confusion over the adoption of this ‘radical’ new idea:

“We can only speculate about the reasons behind the rise and recognition of wicked policy problems at this point in time […] Perhaps the technological and information revolutions we have experienced enable more people to become active participants in problem-solving and, in so doing, increase the complexity of the process”

The intentions are sound, and the basic understanding of what changes need to be made have been highlighted, “The handling of wicked problems requires holistic rather than linear thinking. This is thinking capable of grasping the big picture, including the interrelationships between the full range of causal factors and policy objective”. The problem with this paper is the APS don’t realise that what they are in fact referring to is design thinking.

Even for a publication this size, the literature is thin. More so, no references relate to design thinking literature (given that at this time DT had not gained momentum yet) or even service design literature. This report feels like it is screaming: ‘I want to change, I know where I want to go, but I dont know how to get there!’.  Now, 4 years later, developments in design thinking may provide enough support for policy makers to achieve their goals. The next question is how.