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OPINION5 June 2018

Solving wicked problems of the future

Innovations North America

How deep design is the answer to helping us with the ill-defined, wicked problems we face. By Dash Tirthankar

Let me begin by stating a controversial opinion: our contemporary lives are defined by 200 years of dehumanisation. From the time of the industrial revolution, the nature of work and labour has changed dramatically. The relationship between human and machine has always been tenuous, with machines helping humans work faster, better, and more productively, yet causing existential angst. The rise of the machine and its intelligence, once driven by humans, now threatens to replace and succeed us.

In response, almost as if to validate our own existence, we still aim for perfection, striving to rid our outer world of disorder. The trajectory towards a future with driverless cars and artificial intelligence (AI) seems inevitable, and quite inviting. In this journey of data-fication, quantification, objectification, the mode of being human is also changing. Elon Musk once famously proclaimed “we are already cyborgs. Your phone and computer are extensions of you”.

In the most human of institutions, from the government, to schools, we see the same phenomena. The Chinese government’s proposed system that connects citizens’ financial, social, political and legal credit ratings into one social trustability score, ultimately means a machine could control an individual’s social access to lifestyle rewards (and punishments).

Similarly, at school level, e-learning is celebrated, and the role of the teacher increasingly debated. Unsurprisingly then, in the space of the home, automation in the form of machines such as Rotimatic are now promising to replace the need for human involvement in mundane chores, freeing us to pursue grander goals and to make better use of our time.

While some of these changes reflect how humans have harnessed technology and automation to reach the peak of problem solving, such as convenience and efficacy, we have paradoxically seen the rise of inner entropy. The rise of machine efficiency has matched the rise of mental health issues in young people, the phenomena of urban loneliness, and a slew of other emotionally complex challenges.

Ironically, as our external world neatens, we see more unhappiness, disillusionment and disconnection.

These emerging questions loom large with people asking, both offline and online: What should my relationship with money be? How can I achieve well-being? Why and how should I consume? What does success mean?

Horst Rittel identified problems that are ill-defined and that have obscure solutions to be “wicked problems”. While wicked problems were originally defined in the context of social policy, these existential questions of the modern world are equally complex and perhaps more difficult to solve, partly because of their personal nature. They are the wickedest of the wicked problems.

Interestingly, these are also exactly the questions that machines cannot seem to solve. Although machines can ‘read’ emotion, possibly better than humans can, they are limited in solving the problems of social interaction and human behaviour, which are at the heart of human needs.

Most recently, researchers and writers such as Christian Madsbjerg have highlighted the limitations of the hard sciences in explaining non-linear, seemingly irrational human behaviour. Similarly, author Geoff Colvin proposes that we ask, “which of the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by the realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans, regardless of what computers can do?”

These all point to an increased focus on human-ness, which the field of the humanities has long done.

There is an urgent need for a new design and way of thinking that taps into culture and humanity – a different weaving of science and magic – that can address such complexity.

This turn to the ‘human’ has been best epitomised by the rise of human-centred design (HCD). However, the celebration of HCD has been matched by rising criticism of it. From the problem of scalability to a lack of complexity, a common complaint has been the lack of deep understanding that designers have of the human activity, in their attempt to understand the human. In these criticisms, activity-centred design and human-centred design have been competing.

What show how current design discourse lacks depth to solve for the complex wicked problems of the world. However, the mistake here is in the framing of the solution: putting the human in the centre of design necessarily includes an examination of the activity in question – in real anthropological perspective, an in-depth focus on the human includes their ecosystem and activities.

‘Deep design’ is therefore a way of bringing about new clarity and order to design that focuses on the human, but seems to lack empathy for human needs, the human ecosystem and human activities.

Deep design is a marriage of cultural inquiry and the design-oriented mind, where the two share a symbiotic relationship that draws on, challenges, and extends the existing knowledge and skills that are key to each field. It balances deep human empathy with the engineering precision of design, bringing the two together in service of great – not just good – design.

One must tap meaningfully into culture through rigorous anthropological investigations that extend through space, time and myths. Culture, as a shared understanding between communities, traditionally reflects the relationships between our inner psyche and outer world and environment, and unlocks how meaning is created, understood and shared between people.

Design, as our chosen process to order these patterns and meaning-systems in culture, has a single-minded focus to create clear and tangible solutions from this data. It re-imagines, re-frames and re-orders the depths of what we glean from cultural understanding, bringing about the clarity necessary for problem-solving.

Dash Tirthankar is partner at Quantum Consumer Solutions