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Why the key to impact is zooming out beyond solutionism

The Jury President for Impact on how designers should introduce big picture and cross-disciplinary thinking

Illustration by Lauren Morsley

Priya Prakash is the founder and CEO of Design for Social Change (D4SC), which partners with global organisations who are embedding nature based systems to accelerate shifts in their business model in the context of climate change. She is also the Jury President for Impact in the 2021 D&AD Awards. Here, Prakash explains why cross-disciplinary approaches lie at the heart of real change, and why designers are uniquely skilled to deliver.

In 2020, if someone was observing the pale blue dot that is our planet from afar, they would have noticed some peculiarities. While satellite data would have revealed massive changes due to a fall in pollution, on the ground, people report seeing fish back in Venice canals and people in India viewing the Himalayas for the first time with naked eyes.

What can these phenomena in 2020 teach us in 2021 and going forward? Hint/Spoiler: It lies in shifting our gaze. Previously, the societal microscopic 1x lens view was based on individual personal gain exemplified by ‘humans first’ at any cost. In 2020 we were faced with the urgent need to zoom out 10x, and re-examine our collective societal overall wellbeing as being part of nature. We were forced to acknowledge the crowded planetary space humans share with non-humans, including viruses, animals like mink, bats, and other natural systems we took for granted, such as the air we breathe. Masking and socially distancing demonstrated that we are deeply connected with each other and the world around us.

"Suddenly, in 2020 much of this looked out of sync, dated and no longer fit for purpose for the challenges the year threw at us."

What can design and Design for Impact especially learn from this? The old adage goes: “If you have a hammer – everything is a nail.” From our collective hammers in our toolkit, be it: Critical /speculative design, design fiction, design thinking, systems design, design system, service blueprints, customer journeys, charettes, assemblages, lean development, user-centred design, sustainable design, jobs to be done, software dog-fooding to the Design Council double diamond – so many processes and frameworks. 

Designers excel in applying all the above, whether predicting futures, shaping behaviours, solving problems, making richer experiences, and increasing efficiency and usability. Suddenly, in 2020 much of this looked out of sync, dated and no longer fit for purpose for the challenges the year threw at us. 

Design like many other fields was caught blind sided – why? Design has become obsessed by methodology and has lost sight of its ultimate purpose. Over the years, having been co-opted by business, policy, strategy, government and buoyed by the discipline’s success in being adopted widely, design stopped asking “Why?” by mistaking process, measurement, peer approval for outcome and impact.

"Zoom out: ask why to get to a fuller picture; Zoom in and reframe with bold questions."

In 2019 and 2020, when every social, environmental, political problem had a hashtag or a marketing campaign budget associated with it, design looked increasingly irrelevant, coming up with solutions for symptoms rather than understanding, analysing, shining light on root causes. We need to zoom out 10x to get our lens refocused on the overall context.

What can we do differently now? Well, there can be a step change in how we live, work, play, do business and cohabit this planet with non human, animate and inanimate nature based intelligence alongside machines, AI etc. Imagine observing the same pale blue dot that is our planet from afar. Zoom out: ask why to get to a fuller picture; Zoom in and reframe with bold questions.

"specialisation is for insects"

We can also learn from each other. “Many of our most pressing problems and most interesting challenges reside at the boundaries of existing disciplines and require the development of a new kind of sensibility that remains “disciplined” by careful empirical experiment, observation and analysis,” wrote David Karkauer a decade ago, in the Santa Fe Institute of Complexity’s bulletin calling for “Transcience” of disciplines. 

This echos Buckminister Fuller’s observation on “accelerating acceleration” whereby traditional disciplines can no longer keep up with rate of acceleration in knowledge discovery rendering discipline silos increasingly out of date.  Nothing new in pedagogical evolution as last seen during the Renissance period. As Robert Heinlein writes “specialisation is for insects”.

"we must build our “reframing” muscle, starting from education to the way we measure success, profits and growth"

Creative hotspots like London continue to pioneer new ways to tackle complexity by changing traditional disciplines to interdisciplinary educational institutes starting at an undergraduate level and forging Masters level collaboration, future-proofing designers for post disciplinary workplaces to shaping intervention based design courses situated in the real-world. Programs like EU funded Decode consortia are offering PHDs to focus on current challenges rather than specialising in a discipline acknowledging this need.

To see afresh from 1x to 10x we must build our “reframing” muscle, starting from education to the way we measure success, profits and growth. Mark Carney ex-governor Bank of England has spoken about “inclusive capitalism” while  Larry Fink - the CEO of BlackRock the largest asset owner in his letter to CEOs raised the need for sustainable capitalism.  A step in that direction has been the way companies are being measured in their sustainability targets through financial accountability instruments following ESGs (Environmental, Social, Governance frameworks) etc, though still very much at a’ How’ process level, than a ‘Why’ overall purpose level. These institutions prefigure the transition towards regenerative economic growth: Economic growth that fortifies the environment, not weakens it.  

"I hope Design for Impact takes the challenge of “reframing” the measurement, creation and meaning of value that human endeavour generates"

Going beyond traditional CSR (corporate social responsibility), sustainability and aspirational UN SDG goals that are siloed nor reflect non human ie natural and machine world in its measurement, in 2021 I hope Design for Impact takes the challenge of “reframing” the measurement, creation and meaning of value that human endeavour generates through our activities to re-imagine, design and shape positive ‘presents’ for plausible ‘futures’ by asking bold questions through our craft, rigour and appetite to “play seriously”.   

So what does this mean for designers? Many times as designers we tend to feel isolated or a victim when the odds are stacked against us in making meaningful impact in our daily work. 2020 was an economic, physical, emotional and professional blow to many. It made us re-evaluate our choices. For some, that could be recouping health, moving from expensive cities to back home or going fully remote, working flexibly. In the light of this new way of living and working, where will we find our inspiration, serendipity and daily conversations?

The answer lies in our capacity of challenging our daily habits, behaviours and schedules. Some that have helped me and others I have spoken to recently include: taking the scenic route; being curious; joining the dots and being able to visualise and connect seemingly disparate ideas; learning new trans-disciplinary skills; and breaking out of our echo-chamber to have new conversations.

"So let’s play to our strengths"

All of the above are traits designers are naturally adept at. So let’s play to our strengths. Asking “Why?” insists that we drop our artificial specialisations and distinctions erected in between disciplines. Move between disciplines without restricting our craft and knowledge to one specialisation alone. As we zoom in and out to understand why, we move backstage and front-stage to grapple between cause and symptom to tease or map out a challenge’s systemic contours.

Through curiosity, humility and play – swapping between a creative right and analytical left brain enquiry-led mindset – we can be forensic to unearth contexts where design and technology have created negative societal impact through bad behaviour, design, dark patterns and short-term business models. We undesign by editing out unintended consequences. At the same time with a generative growth-led mindset we experiment and learn through trial and error by reframing failure as a knowledge gaining activity. 

Finally working towards a shared Design Code of Ethics that is universal and embraced cross culturally as seen in professions such as engineering and medicine, can become part of our design education so we can take responsibility for our design’s impact in the long term.

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