How to orchestrate systemic change?

In September STBY was involved in three events that all seemed to trigger a similar discussion. In Amsterdam we co-organised an explorative workshop with our partner What Design Can Do, to discuss Gender Based Violence with experts in the field, mainly from NGOs. In London, as part of London Design Festival,  we co-organised a full day workshop with the department for Global Innovation Design at the Royal College of Art to ponder the question “Where next for humanitarian innovation?” with an international group of academics, designers and experts from NGOs. And we also participated in a London Design Festival panel of fellow designers and researchers working in public administration, organised by Policy Lab at the Cabinet Office.

Across these three events we engaged with a mixed bunch of people, backgrounds, expertises and topics. Yet a common pattern in the discussions emerged that, upon later reflection, took us back to an observation made by C.P. Snow in his famous ‘The Two Cultures Rede Lecture at Cambridge University in 1959. Himself a physicist and a popular novelist, he mentioned the ‘gulf of mutual incomprehension’ between the ‘physical scientists’ and the ‘literary intellectuals’ of his day. Or, as we would say today, between the ‘hard’ sciences and ‘soft’ humanities. Despite a strong sense that  the two cultures need to come together and collaborate to address todays wicked problems, this gulf of mutual incomprehension still seems to exist today, as it was embedded in many of the examples and experiences people shared during our three events. On a more positive note we also seemed to agree that one of the key roles of design is to bridge this gap by orchestrating the systemic changes that are so much needed.

Each of the three sessions took a wicked problem as its starting point: addressing Gender Based Violence and gender equality, providing humanitarian relief in disaster and war regions, and improving public services in times of austerity. The participating experts were asked to mention problems they knew about, but were out of their reach to address. We jointly discussed the worries the experts brought forward. They all noticeably mentioned problems with the systems they found themselves working with and in. Formal UN systems that seem impossible to change. Cultural systems that are stuck in deeply rooted traditional beliefs on gender. Political systems that benefit from letting certain problems persist. It is fairly easy to get cynical about all this, but that is not the typical response of a designer. The typical response is rather to try to come up with ideas to improve these situations. 

Designers with their practical can-do mentality tend to like these kind of problems, even though also designers cannot pretend to be able to solve them singlehandedly. Refugees and climate change are other wicked problems that STBY has set its teeth in, as design research partners of What Design Can Do, leading to briefs for global design challenges on these two topics. Here design is used as a method to identify and investigate problems that are worth addressing, to learn who should be involved to address these problems, and find ways to let the organisations and people involved collaborate. And that is where we get back to the two cultures of C.P. Snow: almost always we see that experts from both sides need to work together. We need the deep human-centred understanding of people, cultures, societies and economies as much as the technical solutions the sciences offer us.

Designers often find themselves in the gap between the two, a place sometimes called inter/trans/multidisciplinary, which sounds harmless to the two cultures, but also toothless. That is not good enough if we want to tackle the wicked problems that require systems to change. Designers need to step up from their role as mere facilitators of co-creation between different experts, problem-owners and the people directly affected by the problem in focus. Instead they are orchestrators who create common ground and involvement, who give direction and steer processes. That better expresses the active role of designers, because it acknowledges that they help experts from very different backgrounds and disciplines to bridge and exchange perspectives, learn from each other and collaborate on achieving systemic change.

Beyond that, designers can help to think holistically, rather than in opposites. To forget about science as being ‘hard’ and humanities (and the arts) as ‘soft’. And, by the way, why is hard better than soft to begin with? Rather, we should see the two as integrated parts of the strongest possible investigations and solutions. How to integrate the two is a great design challenge, that we often and gladly set our teeth in, as part of achieving systemic change.