From problem solving to problem caring

One of the most important leaps in my career and general mindset as a designer came when I started reading and exploring a cybernetic (systemic) approach to my practice. Coming from a very engineering focused design background, characterized by a deterministic, simplifying, linear and positivist bias and while being studying Integrated Design in Denmark I realized there were other approaches to design embracing complexity.

My first step into this field come to be by ecodesign practice and life cycle thinking. Even though it was a pretty limited focus it brought to me a myriad of expanding horizons through the minds and hearts of people like: Donella Meadows, Buckminster Fuller, Rittel & Webber… But, most importantly, it showed me there was a chance for me build a challenge based career. Not specialized in the kinds of devices excreted from the design process (a disciplinar compartmentalisation of design) but around different “on the fly” defined challenges.

Meanwhile Design Thinking started to be mainstream in design industry as well as in education, policy, innovation driven by IDEO’s marketing effort. This followed in the wake of 70’s and 80’s design methods movement pioneered by designers such as John Chris Jones.

At the same time I started deepening my understanding about cybernetics and systems science through Stafford Beer and others. I started to understand the complex and interdependent nature of many of the challenges I was naively tackling in my job as Technical Director at Basque Ecodesign Center’s Ideas Lab. And, most importantly, I started to frame design projects as means to an end. This coincides with an increasing effort I was doing to understand micro and macroeconomics. I came to realize most of my models for understanding business and economy were flawed and started finding new foundations through ecological economics.

Couple of years after, around 2011, I came to meet Adrià in Copenhagen who would then be my partner in what today is HOLON. After months of intense and transformational conversations I came to hear from him about Transition Design, a then nascent body of work led by Terri Irwin et al. at Carnegie Mellon Design School. The next couple of months were what I might call enlightening.

A group of amazing people at the other side of the ocean were putting into words, models and practice many of the intuitions that have been coagulating in my mind the past years. Learning about Transition Design and its integration of design practice, philosophical and sociological frames, systems literacy and politics was the grammar that my design discourse and practice was lacking. One of the interesting turnarounds of Transition Design is that of understanding designer’s job as intervenors in systems looking for particular wicked problem dissolutions. In Donella Meadows words: “dancing with systems”. This acupuncture approach to systems change is also a repositioning proposal of design, coming from heroesque narratives emanated principally from Silicon Valley white guys.

Although systemic design is already a pretty consolidated knowledge pioneered by universities such as: CMU, OCAD, OHA, Politecnica Torino and disseminated by various organizations and companies (Namahn, MaRS Solutions Lab, Shiftn…) design community is still lacking important competences in this field. That’s why Barcelona Design Week invited HOLON and BillionBricks to facilitate a workshop under the name: ‘From problem solving to problem caring’.

The main framing question of the workshop was:

During the workshop the affordable housing issue was used as a MacGuffin for explaining issues around a systemic and challenge based approach to design projects. Over the course of afternoon the particular cases of BillionBricks Asian countries and la Borda in Barcelona were developed.

The hands on part of the workshop orbited around framing problems through systemic understanding and developing a portfolio of design interventions (done and to be done) to be more strategic in tackling our challenges. To do so, several frameworks were used such as: the iceberg model, Systems leverage canvas by Sam Rye and the now canonical 12 leverage points by Donella Meadows.

For the sake of elaborating the workshop we reflected around the intervention points in the case of housing system as well as around how to expand the impact of systemic interventions.

In intervening systems scaling-up prototypes might not be the best suitable solution since the act of scaling can decrease the effectiveness of a successful prototype intervention even worsening the situation. Sam Rye proposes three different approaches inspired by nature:

  1. Swarm. Much of the effort that goes into scaling efforts is about centralising the coordination, monitoring or otherwise. What we’ve learnt about swarm behaviour in nature, is that it relies on self-organised, collective behaviour.
  2. Replicate + Adapt. The driving force of evolution is the constant cycle of replication and adaptation. Incentivising this approach for systems change activities could avoid the need for scaling up individual efforts, by significant replication of the core of an intervention, which is then localised to a specific context. Really connected to open-sourcing (FOS).
  3. Cascade. This is a nascent thought, but I regularly see this pattern in nature whereby a species of animal or tree creates conditions for many others to live. Whether it’s a beaver dam, a tree with a large canopy, or a hermit crab, this pattern is common and has potential to be explored.

The contents, references and presentation of the workshop can be consulted below.

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