This is the first post in a year-long series, Apocalypse 2012, where our favorite futurists, resiliency and disaster experts examine the role of design to help you prepare for...the end?
It's a pretty fascinating time to witness the demise of the most powerful and rich nation in the history of the world. All doom and gloom aside, for those of us who fancy ourselves drive-by-ethnographers, it's good people watching. What's more, it's predictable and rhythmic, as events occur and pundits pundit and protesters protest, all to the steady beat of mass production. There's no need for unnecessary anticipation, as we can easily guess when the next occupier will be tear-gassed, or when the next presidential hopeful will make an audacious and racist remark; we're pretty much guaranteed a rhetorical and canned response from our administration, followed by news of a pop star acting drunk and disorderly. It repeats so frequently, and with such a blanded regularity, that nothing is unbelievable, nothing too grotesque. An electric fence to keep the immigrants out? Of course that's what a presidential candidate would propose. New functionality to see what pornographic videos your friends are watching, right now? Of course that's what Facebook is building. This is the tongue-in-cheek fallout the feeds the Daily Show, only it isn't really very funny, because it's real, and you can't turn it off.
It's perhaps obvious to point out that the world we live in is interconnected, yet the simple statement is at the crux of our downward digression: our political system is intertwined with economics, intellectual property is connected to technology, design is at the heart of consumption and marketing feeds the beast. It's a system, and so our critique of it should be systemic, and so too should be our strategies for change. But most of us can't think of systems, because they are too big of which to think. We witness items, or people, or unique instances, and we critique and celebrate those, because they are tractable. To denounce Michele Bachmann as insane is misleadingly simple, but to rationalize her rise to power is harder, because it requires empathizing with her supporters, understanding her world view, acknowledging the role she's played in a political machine, examining her relationship-through-policy with large companies, teasing out the relationship between these companies and religious entities, and holding all of that in your head while asking yourself, "Did she really just say that 'there isn't even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas'?" Seven plus or minus two, and our brain quite literally can't make sense of the world around us.
To maintain any resemblance of happiness, the skill most of us will require in the post-apocalyptic, post-United States industrial block is sensemaking, the ability to synthesize large quantities of often incomplete or conflicting information—and we must direct that skill squarely at the humanization of technology. In the history of economic prosperity and advancement, there have been only a select few armed this magic ability: us. The "creative class", those with—god help us—"creative quotient", have learned this skill largely through on-the-job training. And then, we've focused our efforts on producing things no one needs and marketing these things to people who literally aren't equipped with the education, the confidence or the discerning ability to judge.
Wealth inequality, from my perspective, is not the point of clash between the 1% and the other 99% (although, like in any system, money is intertwined in just about everything). The clash is about the ability to understand systems—to make sense of complexity—and then, when possible, to wield or manage these systems to our collective advantage. The political process is not separate from banking, lobbying, manufacturing, educating, importing, exporting, fighting or praying—and neither is the process of design. To say "we're part of a global economy" is to trivialize the complexities of the man-made world. We're part of a global technological system, and everything —including, thanks to companies like Monsanto, nature—is now a part of it. The power currency of the next era is sensemaking through systems thinking, and the occupiers are starting to realize that they don't have any money to spend in this new economy. Sensemaking is about connecting discrete insights. It's about depth of thinking, rigor of connections and strategic and creative reasoning. It's about creating new ideas and crafting multiple futures. It's not about reproducibility or duplicability; it flys in the face of commoditization and efficiency and homogeneity, even though it's been applied to all of these things in the context of mass production and assembly. Six sigma helped us make more things with less defects; total cost of ownership helped us squeeze pennies out of our technology. Topgrading led us to squeeze productivity out of people, and a SaaS cloud model will let us fire the people altogether and make virtual products with virtual tools to live in a virtual cloud for virtual value.
All of these things are the result of incredibly thoughtful, powerful sensemaking and creativity. But this non-linear thinking—this design thinking—has been applied exclusively in the context of mass production and gratuitous financial creativity. We've streamlined, algorithmatized, instrumented and quarterly-profited our way to the systemic malfeasance we're now experiencing, and it will take just as rigorous an approach in the opposite direction to undo the damage. This means highly personal, thoughtful, reflective sensemaking in contexts other than mass production and finance. This includes policy, art, farming, neighborhoods, community and above all, education.
When I write, I typically find a way to drive a call to action focused around design—how an intellectual, rigorous, humanistic approach to design will save the day. I do this because I believe it to be true. But in this case, design isn't going to solve "the problem," because there's no problem to be solved. The interconnected nature of our global systems are a matter of fact and a way of life, and there's no lever to push or product to launch that can "solve" the interlinked failure of education, the economic meltdown and our gross poverty of culture. This is the substance of the world we built and the world we live in. The calls for massive change, revolutionary paradigm shifts or disruptive innovation are misguided and misguiding, because of their lack of systemic rationalization. But the light at the end of the tunnel, if there is light and there is, in fact, still a tunnel, is design, because design is the rigorous humanization of technology.
Design has become conflated with scale; I've been guilty of emphasizing the amplifying effect of design through mass production or large-scale advertising. But as design can be scaled, it can also be tempered, and our efforts need not focus on the broad at the expense of the depth. Deeply focused design efforts can be tremendously powerful. Emily Pilloton has scaled back broad efforts in developing countries to offer deep impact in a single town in the United States. Dennis Littky's educational programs focus on an individual student with an individual teacher; one to one (three to one, in fact—3 teachers per 1 student). Sir Ken Robinson's calls for education reform emphasize individuality of passion, and unique learning. Credit Unions provide banking for small communities and farmer's markets offer crops produced in small quantities to small amounts of people for a small markup.
We need to think smaller, not bigger, and with more attention to craft of execution. The craft of synthesis through sensemaking is not in visual details, as most designers have been trained, and it's not in the application of our talents for the corporate machine, as most designers have accepted. It's in intellectual details, specificity, and rigor; it's in directives towards the focused and local, and it manifests as hard, hard work.
Neil Postman bemoaned the fragmented view of our complex world: "There is no consistent, integrated conception of the world which serves as the foundation on which our edifice of belief rests. And therefore, in a sense, we are more naive than those of the Middle Ages, and more frightened, for we can be made to believe almost anything." He's right, and that is, in summary, the backdrop for the end of our national dominance.
For it is not problematic that we created derivatives and sub-prime mortgages and Pottery Barn and subdivisions and a 24-hour news cycle and a four-dollar cup of coffee. It's that we had no integrated conception of the world—and more importantly, the people in the world—from which to judge that these things are bad. We were broadly untrained in making sense of things, in creating an understanding of how systems work, and we ignored consequences that were diffused, but present. We critiqued the aesthetic of our designs but did not dare to judge our subject matter and content, as we had no spirituality of technology upon which to compare. And so our "progress" has been, as Steve Baty describes, "cold, relentless, asocial, and unapologetic." We are now, collectively, wiser, and in that regard, perhaps the glory day of design—as an integrated discipline of humanizing technology—is finally upon us.
Jon Kolko is the Founder and Director of Austin Center for Design, a progressive educational institution teaching interaction design and social entrepreneurship. His work focuses on bringing the power of design to social enterprises, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship and large-scale industry disruption. He has worked extensively with both startups and Fortune 500 clients, and he has a breadth of experience in consumer electronics, mobility, web services, supply chain management, demand planning, and customer-relationship management.