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The Advanced Design Institute (ADi) works to facilitate a deeper and broader understanding of design as activity and culture. Design activity is the way individuals and organizations continuously create our world. Design culture provides the societal context that supports design activity. In a time of dramatic change and of increased complexity, design culture is more timely and crucial than ever. The purpose of ADi is to advance design culture through public education.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

What do we do when the power goes out?

Let's start 2011 out with a horrible thought. Just for fun, of course; what if the power went off? I mean really went off! A major grid meltdown so we had no way to use any of our electronic or electrical stuff. Forget about starving, freezing, being stranded somewhere and being inconvienced. Let's talk about what would we do; you and me? You know nothing. You can't use your phone, tv, i-pod, i-phone, i-pad, laptop, and neither can anyone else. No input, no output. No facebook, no e-mail, no sports, no stock quotes, no news, no lights, no information from whoever is supposed to take care of these things. The only way you can proceed is to make contact with another human...face to face. But they don't know any more than you do or anybody else does. The electrical system has failed, but you know nothing. The communication system embedded within the electrical system is useless because even if you have a generator, there is no bandwidth because there is no electricity with which to broadcast.

The system that you are so dependent upon and that you have so much trust in (but so little knowledge of) has one huge design flaw. All the fantastic innovation that attracts us to the cyber world is now without meaning. Innovation is nothing because it doesn't have a whole systems design approach integral to it. Adding more innovations to a fundamentally flawed design is a dangerous endeavor. Maybe 2011 is a good year to be thinking more about systems and design. But the buzz is all about "innovation." Dare we complicate the issue with unintended consequences?


  1. Good post Bob! I think this is an increasingly important issue. And I am sure we will see a newborn interest in systems thinking in the coming years, however, I am not sure that will be successful unless it is combined with a deep understanding of design...

  2. Thanks Erik. And conversely, I think design thinking needs to be infused with a good grounding in what systems are all about and how they work with design.

    By the way, I'm doing this on my I-pad!

  3. Bob, This is very interesting! For me it ties into some of the concerns that Bernard Stiegler (Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, Stanford U. Press 2010) has written about concerning the formation of 'attention' as related to the ability to remain in possession of ones will to do things outside of the controlling interest of technologies and to be able to take responsibility for our actions in the process, to make judgments, and to imagine possible futures — which sounds like the basics for design to me.

  4. Having no knowledge of Bernard Stiegler's work, I used my trusty i-Pad to do exactly what I think is suspect: I went to the web to find out about his book "Taking Care of Youth and Generations." I read a synopsis and now I come back with just enough knowledge to make me dangerous. However I did come away with some Stiegler ideas for discussion:

    1. The technology is affecting our youth negatively and that is an intentional outcome of the industry's design.

    Intention on their part, I think, is almost impossible to prove but if it is so, what does that mean? Industry could argue that they are just providing options that aren't compulsory in a free market. A whole list of advantages of technology could be cited. On the other hand, students can become engrossed in their electronic gadgets and be come oblivious to what is happening around them. Peer pressure can push them into overuse while being beguiled into thinking they are adept at multitasking and can perceive and ponder two or more things in depth sumultaneously. Science begs to differ with that and studies show comprehension is compromised when multitasking. I think students need to be aware of this and should understand that there is an appropriate time and place for technology's use or intervention and it is their responsiblity to make that judgment.

    2. Veracity and value are compromised by apparent truths portrayed as factual without evidence or reference.

    I just did that when I went online to become informed about Stiegler's work. I didn't read the book and make my own conclusions. I settled for someone elses synopsis of the book and picked out "talking points" that were of interest to me and supported my worldview. I'll probably never read his book, but I'll have a "formed" opinion already in place until I do. I didn't check the source of the review or seek out others. No time for that! But it wasn't very well sourced anyway. Instant gratification and a shortened attention span in action. In this instance, however, critical thinking did enter into the equation because I undertook to present my thoughts on the blog. Isn't that better than just walking away convinced in my own mind because my preconceptions are supported?

    3. Critical thinking abilities of the younger generation are being "short circuited" by instant gratification and superficieal reflection.

    Although obvious to me, young people I'm sure won't agree. How does multitasking support critical thinking that requires concentration, focus, descipline and reflection on the task at hand? Certainly, having at hand cross referencing and the ability to check things works well. And I'll concede you could "call a friend" on facebook (or LinkedIn) for input while dealing with complex issues. But that requires discipline and judgment abilities that are just are not fully formed until age 20 or so. If these brain funcitions are lacking how can we expect youth to make critical thinking decisions about their technological environment when it is more rewarding to socilaize on facebook than to study Plato online? Adults have similar problems too. The Media presents everything in entertaining, 10 second sound bites with lots of emotional content and as little intellectual challenge as possible. "Infotainment" has replaced journalism in most media outlets and audiance participation for educational programming continues to dwindle. From some of my observations I'm concerned educational institutions are being challenged the same way. Who has time for thought anyway. It is so boring. Students with open computers during a lecture are taking notes, right? Or are they facebooking & "twitting" that they are soooo bored and can't wait for class to end?

  5. Bob’s three points are well taken. The effects of our ‘innovations’ (i.e. technologies et. Al.) on the well-being of the young is something that needs to be given greater attention, particularly in the education of our next generation of designers. I think the effect of ‘innovations’ on adults needs attention as well.

    The ongoing critique of the ‘developed’ countries of the world, particularly in the US and the West in general, concerning issues like sustainability is linked to ‘innovations’; particularly material innovations. The concern that we have too much ‘stuff’ is a concern in two ways. The first, as noted in Bob’s reflections, is that certain types of innovation too often removes us from the authority and responsibility of our own actions. The second is that too much ‘stuff’ (one type of material innovation) consumes limited resources and pollutes limited space. For example see the series of videos concerning ‘stuff’ that have gained wide distribution on the web ( http://www.storyofstuff.com/ ).

    I picture ‘innovations’, i.e. technologies, in three categories; 1) stuff, 2) things, 3) junk. The issue of ‘stuff’ is receiving a lot of attention academically, politically, and economically. ‘Green’ and ‘sustainable’ have become staples in the marketing of anything; ideas, products, projects etc. It is a growth industry.

    As a designer I am also concerned about ‘things’ — the concepts, artifacts and technologies that extend and amplify our humanity — the ‘things’ that redefine what it means to be human in the best sense.

    In addition I am concerned about the ‘junk’ that diminishes us as humans. The innovations — social and material — that dehumanize us. There is a whole industry of writers, public speakers, consultants etc. who make their living presenting the case that humans are inherently no good and need to be carefully kept under control. Strangely, some people seem to like being told they are no good and welcome ‘junk’ into their lives.

    ‘Junk’ is created to diminish the influence of human agency because it diminishes the potential for individual (mis)behavior on the one hand and transfers power to those who believe they are better able to control the behavior of others through innovative designs. It also removes the burden of being held responsible for ones judgments and decisions. Interestingly there is a growing trend in design schools and design professions on creating things that ‘change behavior’. The confluence of those who like to tell people what to do and those that like to be told what to do seems to be growing. The idea of ‘service’, by design, has yet to gain much traction.

    Unfortunately too little is being done to enable people to understand and accept the challenge of being human i.e. ‘lame gods’ — possessing the skills to make almost anything but lacking the competency to discern which among all the possibilities ought to be made real.

    As designers I believe we have the freedom to choose whether we create ‘stuff’, ‘things’ or ‘junk’ and the responsibility is to challenge ourselves on how to better understand how best to bring ‘things’ into existence.

  6. There seems to be an attitude, if not a sincere belief, within the design community that design companies need not be bothered by responsibility or the impacts of their artifacts (be it stuff, things or junk). A recent example is an article that appeared in the CoDesign Daily written by Jens Martin Skibsted entitled "User Led Innovation Can't Create Breakthroughs; just ask Apple and Ikea." From that article, a couple of quotes illustrate what I mean: "'At Apple, we don't waste or time asking users, we build our brand through creating great products we believe people will love.'" And "...at Ikea the unspoken philosophy is: 'We show people the way.'". Skibsted then asserts that both these leading design corporations are "...extremely closed companies and would risk offending users (and the design community ) by speaking out against user centeredness. And since no one will speak up, the false value of the user-as-leader has spread."

    I'd like to strongly disagree about this "false value" being so much politically correct nonsense getting in the way of "innovation." At best such an attitude displays the arrogance of design but at it's worst is a halmark of the evil of design. True design has a symbiotic relationship with the client and user that cannot be waived away by asserting that it somehow interferes with creating breakthroughs. It is the essence of design that the creative process is best when the designers are aware of their service and leadership roles.

    Of course it is easier to claim shamanistic talent rather than design within the context of surrogate for the client. No "iconic" designs are created without clients and users. They pay for the products, don't forget. Designers do need to pull away from the immersion with clients and users to allow the emergence of something novel, a breakthrough if you will. But this isn't the same as not using "...user studies or user insights to create their products." Honoring those insights, might lead to better design. Using design judgment and reflection on those insights is much better than refuting them at the outset.