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Design thinking and rule making: Response to Tim Brown's blog

In the latest posting on his blog, Design Thinking, Tim Brown poses the question of whether there is a more active role for design thinking in the flurry of rule making at the G20 Summit, the Copenhagen summit on carbon emissions, and with the U.S. policy reforms. In particular, he asks:

What if design was used to test some of the rules our government leaders are proposing? Could we go through some experimental cycles using design and prototyping as a tool before final decisions are made about what rules to adopt? Might this help us avoid our tendency to create new rules and then walk away, under the assumption that our finance, health and global energy systems will now behave in the way we want them to?

I am, of course, very interested in the role of design thinking and making  in policy formation, communication, and implementation. Drs. Ann Schneider and Helen Ingram in Policy Design for Democracy (U of Kansas Press 1997) outline the role the design makes the identification of goals and problems, the definition of targets, rules, and tools; the forces of agents and implementation structures, and the framing of rationales and assumptions. Yet as in my response below, Tim Brown ignores the fact that rule making is itself an iterative process built on refinements based on "user" feedback.

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I think that one neglects the fact that rule making is in itself an iterative process constantly being updated by “citizenry” feedback. Laws, rules, and regulations are constantly being rewritten and reinterpreted to make them more adaptable to contemporary contexts and future practices. Rules are often changing as conflicting value systems seek to maximize their integration into society and power systems wax and wane in influence.

As for testing the rules before full implementation, others have argued above that this happens through piloting processes already in place. For example, the large government reconstruction bailout was first “piloted” in Louisiana through the post-Katrina reconstruction money.

Often good rules are those which are broad yet clear in their intentions, so that other parts of the legal systems (such as the courts) can refine the rule interpretations through suit and appeals.

If the idea is to use design thinking to generate rapid innovation, the contexts of rule making as regulations for society require a different time frame because the full effect (positive or negative) of a rule change may not be felt for decades. In a crisis situation like this, innovation is necessary because the status quo had such broad negative effects. But in many ways the value shifts being proposed are not innovative, what we have are different tools we can use to make manifest those values and their intentions more clearly.

So this is to say that what you consider to be “design thinking” in terms of flexible, iterative, empathic approaches problem framing and solution making is already part and parcel of rule-making culture. Where one finds bad policies has to do with a power fraction choosing to benefit a small set of members with whom they have share empathy over everyone else to whom they are apathetic. If design thinking can remedy this challenge, then it can design world peace.

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The failures of rule makings have to do with what Schneider and Ingram describe as "degenerative policy designs" in which:

Policy makers, poetntial target populations, media, scientists and professions, and others seek to define the issue in terms that will enble them to rationalize policy designs that will serve their own narrow interests." (p. 103 Figure 5.1).

It is the changes in value systems that boister changes in power systems that allow for generative policy designs to flourish. Design thinking plays a role in helping to make clear the value systems, the shift to new possibilities, but so does the thinking of anthropologists, doctors, artists, bakers, and every strata of society. Can design thinking play a more active role? Definitely as long as it does not become another set of technical experts who get in the way of the real voices, those of the People affected by policy designs and decisions.

Obama as non-partisan issue

Today, I was criticized for making my presentation too partisan by tying its possibility of success to President Obama's election. From my work with Design for Democracy, I understand the importance of any political movement being non-partisan. Yet, President Obama is not a partisan figure, at least I do not view him as such. Meaning, Obama's election victory for me had less to do with the fact that he is a Democrat and more with the fact that he is a figure for a new openness in the government. According to an a Washington Post/ABC News poll, Obama has 66% approval ratings. Jon Stewart on the Daily Show yesterday said it, "People really like Obama." They don't respect Congress or the political parties, but they respect Obama.

This is the way I feel about Obama. The Democrats were not the reason for me to initiative the U.S. National Design Policy Initiative. Neither were the Republicans. I had not really decided to pursue it until I felt confident Obama was going to win. It probably is not Obama per se, but rather the feeling of possibilities that his election victory engendered. Everyhing I have been doing is about exploring possibilities.

At every step in this process, people with "experience and perspective" have told me that this was going to fail. And it hasn't. That is why Obama is important to the Initiative, not as a partisan issue, but about an individual representing the end of the status quo. Design policy is only possible when the status quo is disrupted. Sigh.