Design of Understanding 2012 – a review

It is clear that our old model of the world as a complicated (but classifiable and ultimately comprehensible) system no longer matches the things we see happening around us. Where did the economic crisis come from? Why are there riots in the streets? No amount of logic seems to bring the answers. Luckily a new model is in the making: the idea of the world as a complex adaptive system, where small things can have big implications and where large things can have hardly any implication at all. Welcome to the world where, as Kevin Slavin suggested, we can no longer read the algorithms we’ve written.

Within this new world, Design of Understanding tried to answer two questions:
1. How do we begin to understand our current world?
2. How do we begin building our future?

1. Understanding the world.
Gill Ereaut of Linguistic Landscapes proposed an interesting method of understanding the inner workings of an organisation: through looking at the internal language of a company. How are departments called? What job titles do people have? Which words are used in emails? All these small signs create a rich insight into the hidden ways of corporate thinking. If this internal language and these silent assumptions are not addressed, a change of corporate strategy is guaranteed to fail. Ereaut mentioned that in many cases companies came back to her every five years because they had managed to recreate their own problems. If you want to change a company’s path, if you want to follow a beautiful new strategy, you need to address the unspoken rules and the silent assumptions. In short, you need to look at the language, because it is language that constructs the world.

Tom Armitage offered a different way of creating models of the world. In his talk on game design he explained how games can serve as a model for the world at large. If we want to understand a game, we often just start playing it, thereby testing our assumptions against the unknown rules of the game. It’s only through playing that we slowly uncover the rules within the black box. Well designed games are unstable games where not all rules align; for every two rules that reinforce each other there is a third one that creates friction. It is this friction that makes it fun to play.

To understand our current world therefore it is not enough to come up with new theories. To understand it, we must play and keep on playing. Because only through play we will able to slowly reverse engineer the process in the black box and discover opportunities for new approaches.

2. Building the future.
Timo Arnall of Berg made a case for the use of film as a medium to bring the future closer. Film, if done well, is powerful in unpacking actions over time and allows insight into complex emotions. More than any other medium, film gives you a bodily experience of what you see. This makes it a powerful medium for testing ideas before they are made. The touch screen in Minority Report is a good example of a cinematic interpretation that made touch screens look desirable long before they were commercially possible.

The challenge of making people enthusiastic for new technology is also something that Alan Patrick dealt with. He sees hypes and bubbles as unavoidable, and even as a positive phenomenon for new technology to cross the chasm between early adopters and early majority. It’s thanks to the madness of crowds that so much money was pumped into ICT, the Internet and social media, and although much of this money evaporates, in the end we do manage to have better technology.

For me Dan Hill‘s talk was the best of the day, he took all that was good from the previous talks and pushed it forwards. In his work as strategic design lead at Sitra, the Finish organisation for innovation, he deals daily with the challenge of changing the country for the best, whilst avoiding all pitfalls that come with change. He used Wouter Vanstiphout‘s idea that the only way to change cities is by changing the system that governs them, and used the metaphor of dark matter to explain this. Like the universe, our world consists for 90% out of dark matter, a thick layer of rules, regulations, ideas, habits and codes that, although invisible, make our 10% visible world possible. To start changing this invisible world of dark matter, Hill proposed the usage of Trojan horse strategy. A Trojan horse or a McGuffin is a token that is built not for its own existence, but for the sake of understanding and changing the world in which it has been brought to life. Through cycling this new object round after round through the dark matter, slowly the invisible starts to reveal itself (also a theme Tim Arnall and James Bridle). Once the outlines of the dark matter have revealed themselves, experiments can be created to explore the possibilities of altering these lines.

It’s here that the world of games and the world of dark matter start to come together and make a clear statement: the only way to start understanding complex adaptive systems is by starting to play with(in) them. And the only way to change them is through many rounds of slow iterations.

More reviews:
The Unpacking of Complexity by Lulu Pinney
The Design of Understanding by Aden Davies
Sketch notes by Amanda Wright
Sketch notes by Eva Lotta Lamm
Lanyrd page 


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