Design Age - Part 3

In this installment of the series on the Design Age I'm going to describe further the Traditional and Emerging problem solving methods. The previous parts one and two I dealt with the definition of the issue surrounding the new Design Age and the issues of solution complexity and scarcity of resources to deal with these seemingly insurmountable problems. These are truly the "wicked" problems of our day.

For some of you reading this have probably thought 'why deal with this issue at all?' Just look around at any of the forum posts on any of the general design centered or AEC centered forums and you will see a host of questions clustered around several large topics such as Integrated Product Design or Building Information Modeling (BIM) and how to use this new class of software and process as it applies to design, construction and building maintenance. How does the supply chain become involved and a host of other issues? These questions have been bandied back and forth for over five or six years and no single answer seems to solve the issue. No single tool or process seems to completely define a singular solution. How can it when the problem is so large and has so many variables to work with?

This is not to say any one of the current partial solutions available as a process, methodology or software tool is wrong or is not effective, it is rather an issue of series of partial solutions as suggestions or viewpoints as to a method to address only a portion of the larger problem. For this reason, such a singularly large and complex problem cannot be solved by a singular problem solver. We hope and dream for such a solution, but the chances of it happening are just too small when we look at the interrelated variables connected to the problem.

Traditional Solvers, Those of the Scientific Method Persuasion
So let's look further on the basis of the two problem solving methods we have available to us today. One is the traditional singular subject matter expert using the scientific method. A master of the problem domain, with significant experience and practical knowledge across a wide area of issues. Even to the point of being a da vinci.

  • Existing and well known paradigm is comfortable.
  • Works well for technologically and data-driven solutions and methods
Best used when you have
  • Controlled environment
  • Controlled Scope
  • Singularly understood goal
  • Single language and meaning

A single person acts as the originator and choke-point for all solutions. This is the model of the lone designer, scientist in the lab and painter in the lonely room. Now don't get me wrong. For centuries this method has worked well for many of the problems we used it on. The Scientific Method has led us to some remarkable discoveries and bettered the lives of billions of people over the world. But this method intentionally limits the problem viewpoint to a controllable set of variables. Results are often partial and the best research scientists often admit in their findings that their results are only partial and at best, are only indications of a possible event or finding due to this artificial limiting of variables. When I see these disclaimers in research work I often think maybe their work needed a bit broader view and more input from other, often unlikely sources would have served them well. But this kind of scholarly work leaves no such opportunities if the traditional scientific method is to be followed.

Non-Traditional Solvers, Those of the 'Wicked' Persuasion
Enter the complex or "wicked"problem, where the  problem demands a network of designers and subject matter experts, often from a multitude of information domains. When a problem is posed to a group such as this, many times the supposed issue is only a symptom of a deeper issue not even realized in the original problem statement. Now there is an issue of redefining the problem through the lenses of the various information domains and the melding of multiple languages into a singular understanding. Often a new language idiom is defined so all the members can clearly communicate. Even the social dynamic of new alliances across differing information domains complicates the discussion of issues and possible solutions. This really gets messy for a while until some form of equilibrium is reached.

A whole new set of methods and techniques and skill sets are needed in this context. The soft 'people skills' now become as important, no more important than the technical knowledge and experience of each participant. For, if the group cannot put aside at least most of their egocentric universes nothing will be produced. A collective consensus is the goal here, not a democratic majority. Acceptance of the possibility of a predetermined outcome by consent, many times by only a plurality is the direction of the collective solution. Just as with the Scientific Method, there will be unintended consequences since not all variables surrounding the problem are accounted for. But this time there is an acceptance that those unknowns exist and will create some unknown result. And the realization that this is not the only answer possible, it is just an answer out of the millions or billions of possible answers, all with a different set of outcomes, some anticipated and others unanticipated.

It is a mess, but it is an informed mess. A mess of decisions made in light of the best information known at the time by a group of invested stakeholders. Stakeholders that are seeking the best answer they can find, given the filtering lenses of their experiences, information and resulting consensus. Horst Rittel said that this is almost an insane act to involve yourself in this process knowing there is no definitive solution and out of the infinite possible solutions your collective will pick one and it might not, in fact most likely will not, produce the result you intended.

Social planners, urban designers, transportation planners, even physicians and physicists all live with this set of paradoxical positions. Yet, if we are to move forward, some brave souls have to dive in, inform themselves, look at a problem from every possible viewpoint and then make a decision as to what they will do. Hoping that some of that what they anticipate to happen does happen, even new events which reveal new possibilities for better solutions.

The Meshing of A Mess
In the built environment domain and the narrow AEC/OOFM world, we have a seemingly unending set of variables from the domains of finance, physics, economics, spatial aesthetic, material sciences, biology, chemistry and even the human impact to name only a few, to consider. How do these mesh together? How to we find the important points of most impact and positive change? How do we resolve the questions of what values we hold most dear? Where do we find the most value? Even what is expressed as value when the constraints we have held in the past as defining boundaries are being wiped away on a daily basis?

These are the questions as professionals in this business we are called upon to answer. Up to this point I think the indictments against us as being the most inefficient and wasteful are the least of our worries. the damage we have done over the past five decades is largely from our own indecision, infighting and inaction. This has to change soon.

We know we are the largest contributors of waste in our economy and environment. We have demonstrated to be the most resistive to change of any other economic sector. To our credit we have recently begun to awake to these challenges. We don't have 10 or 20 years to solve these difficult issues. We need to be willing to open our eyes to new approaches to problem solving and beg, borrow and steal every possible tool at our disposal and combine those assets into a new solution engine that has not been seen before. I say put aside all our past preconceptions of how or why we did something and start with a clean slate and build a new way of improving our Built Environment. Why? Because we have some of the most difficult and yet impactfull problems to solve. The benefits are enormous while the risks are just as large. Not to act will only continue the same devastating results of the past.

So look beyond your traditional sphere of influence and business. Look to see what others are doing to make themselves more efficient and steal from them. Remake the idea to fit your needs and then do it all over again in ever broadening circles. The power of doubling will take effect and soon the influence of your original action will be the basis of a whole new wave of innovation and change, creating benefit for both the producer and the consumer in ways you never thought or intended.

On to Part 4, the last part for now.

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