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UN-Habitat/Julius Mwelu Cities in developing countries like Nairobi in Kenya continue to grow rapidly.

This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Tim Brown, Chief Executive Officer, IDEO

Architects and urban planners of the mid-20th century believed they had the skill and the right to redesign how cities worked. Enamored with the automobile and challenged by increased urban migration, planners such as Robert Moses and architects from Le Corbusier to Frank Lloyd Wright proposed a variety of utopian schemes. Not all were built, but those that were had unforeseen consequences. High-level freeways cleaved neighborhoods, and the demolishing of traditional urban districts made way for high-rise developments that became sources of crime and misery.

This “top-down” urban planning created radical change, but also resulted in cities that failed to provide for the multiple needs of the people who inhabited them. Indeed, it was the failure to take into account the needs of ordinary citizens that led to the rise of the New Urbanist movement led by Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford. Jacobs, in her groundbreaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, made the case for a more grassroots, human-centered approach to urban design based on building social capital through mixed-use neighborhoods.

As we look to lead the development of new interconnected systems, enabled by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we would do well to learn from the mistakes of 20th-century planners and architects. Their utopian proposals were an example of both too much and too little design. Too much in that there was an assumption that the needs of all stakeholders could be understood and designed for at the outset. Too little in that designers failed to create a process or platform that could accommodate for the needs of all stakeholders over time.

Instead, an approach to the successful deployment of design in systems leadership might be based on answering three questions: why design, how to design and when to design?

Why use design?

The role of design is not to define or specify a new system in its entirety. That, as we have seen with cities, is a hubristic recipe for failure. Instead design should be used to shape and nudge systems as they evolve so as to make them as compatible as possible with human needs and desires. In other words, design should be deployed when there is a genuine opportunity to improve the experience of a system for its various users.

This human-centered perspective is one that is easily overwhelmed by the technical and economic forces at play in emerging complex systems and therefore needs to be readdressed as circumstances change. As an example, the technical potential to connect billions of people via social media unlocked large-scale economic benefits for technology platforms such as Facebook, as well as competitive advantages for advertisers. At the outset, design played a useful role in making the experience of social media platforms as convenient as possible, but the unintended consequences of social-media addiction and the impact of fake news on democracy now present a new and more urgent design problem. Aspects of social media need to be redesigned to better balance the convenience of the experience with the ethical questions of health, fairness and transparency. No doubt, as social media continues to evolve, new design problems will need to be addressed. Design can make the experience of complex systems better for users if it is prioritized to focus on the most important issues as they emerge.

How to use design?

Design is a holistic, integrative practice. It is different from analytical forms of problem-solving. As an example, imagine the design of a chair. The designer will consider the form, structure, performance and appearance of the chair as one whole. They will make sketches and prototypes that show the whole chair, its materials, its shape, its color, so that potential users can determine if it is attractive and comfortable. It would do no good to show one leg of the chair to a customer and ask them whether they believe the chair will be comfortable or appealing. This may seem obvious, but because design requires the synthesis of many thoughts and ideas into a single whole, it creates severe challenges when the design problem at hand is overly complex. Instead, it is important to pick the places or moments in a complex system where design’s holistic approach can be beneficial. The places where it can make a positive difference to the experience of users of the system, but where the complexity is manageable. These design “intervention points” need to be simple enough to be tackled holistically but important enough that, if redesigned, have a positive effect on the wider system.

Sometimes, these design interventions can be key moments in a complex process just as much as they can be key places in a complex system. In a Harvard Business Review article titled Design for Action, Roger Martin (director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto) and I argued that an approach we termed “intervention design” was useful to organizations trying to make their innovation processes more effective. We proposed that applying design thinking to a given organization and its processes, in addition to the artifacts it produces, helps increase the likelihood that ideas will emerge successfully. Take prototyping in the automotive industry as an example. Designers looking to develop new automobiles destined for production three to five years in the future face the problem of determining how radical any new design should be. They have to convince senior management to sign off on a new proposal that commits billions of dollars of investment with little data as to whether there will be market acceptance.

Designers often use two forms of intervention design to help their cause. Firstly, they do not wait until the design is fully finished to show senior management. Instead they show a series of prototypes that become steadily more sophisticated over time. This helps bring management on a journey of growing acceptance of the design where they have multiple opportunities for input. Secondly, designers frequently create concept vehicles to display in front of the press at major automotive shows. These designs are often more radical than the planned production release, but because they are exposed to the public many years before the production vehicle becomes available, they start to prepare the market for acceptance of the new product and increase the likelihood that it will not be rejected simply because it is novel. Both the act of creating multiple prototypes and exposing the market to concept designs are examples of intervention design being applied to a complex process in order to make it more effective.

The concept of intervention design can be applied to many types of system. The principle is to pick the places where design might be most effective at shaping the system in positive ways. These intervention points have to be of a scale where the holistic nature of design can be a positive asset rather than a liability. At a recent Davos workshop on the ethics of technology, the participants faced just such a challenge. One group was asked to recommend how to design a more ethical approach to artificial intelligence. Grappling with the whole problem was too big but, under the guidance of Fei Fei Li (chief scientist, Google Cloud), the group identified the education system as an interesting intervention point. By designing a curriculum in ethical design for all computer science majors, it might be possible to significantly influence the eventual outcomes of AI systems.

Returning to the challenges of urban design, architect Jan Gehl received a grant in 1966 to study “the form and life of public spaces”. Following on from the work of Jane Jacobs, he traveled Europe to understand how the quality of public life, such as parks and sidewalk eating facilities, impact the larger urban experience. After teaching the resulting principles for several decades, he co-founded a design firm, Gehl Associates, which has gone on to show how intervention design at the urban scale can have great impact. His home city of Copenhagen, with its pedestrian and bike-friendly facilities, is an example of how the overall performance of the system can be positively affected by multiple smaller design interventions. Sidewalk dining areas, bike paths, pedestrian areas, thoughtfully designed public squares turn out to have a positive effect on the quality of urban life and they also positively affect the economic wealth of the city. The work of Gehl Associates has extended to cities worldwide including London, New York, San Francisco and Buenos Aires.

Whether determining when to make and share prototypes, designing a public park or teaching curriculum, identifying the right interventions through which to apply design thinking is a key role for systems leaders.

When to use design?

The complexity of systems makes it tempting to over-design at the outset. The traditional approach to regulatory policy design is a case in point. Lengthy study followed by detailed proposals that seek to account for as many future scenarios as possible results in slow, unwieldy and rigid regulations that are often unsuited to the fast-paced development of the technologies they are supposed to regulate. At the WEF Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco, interdisciplinary teams of experts and government representatives are experimenting with a different strategy. They are using a faster-paced, iterative and experimental approach to exploring regulations for new-edge technologies such as blockchain, drones and personalized medicine. In one example, the team working on drones collaborated with the government of Rwanda to launch prototype regulations for drones in months, versus the years it is likely to take most regulatory authorities who choose to take a more conventional approach.

IDEO has been exploring the problem of how to engage with these same edge technologies earlier in their development cycle. Organizations wishing to understand the implications of new technologies, and their impact on emerging systems, face two challenges. Firstly, the technologies themselves are often not well understood by non-technical leaders. There may be few examples of commercial applications to learn from and, by the time compelling examples emerge, it is often too late to catch up with market leaders. Secondly, the risks of exploring new edge technologies is perceived to be high. Many ideas will have to be explored to find the one or two that promise large-scale impact. Many organizations find themselves stuck in the dilemma of being slow to explore new technologies, but perceiving the risks of such exploration to be unacceptably high.

Our experience has been that new forms of collaboration are necessary in order to speed up exploration and reduce perceived risks. IDEO CoLAb is one such form. Members come together to explore important questions to do with emerging technologies and societal systems. Questions such as, “How might the distributed web create new types of value based on trust?” are explored using a series of rapid design sprints. Corporate fellows team up with graduate students from engineering, design and business to go through several cycles of prototype-building over an eight- to 12-week period. Each prototype is intended to illustrate an integration of design, technical and business thinking. Many are presented as startup business ideas.

For example, one team designed and built a blockchain-connected solar panel that tracks its own energy and can create and transact its own renewable energy certificates autonomously. The feedback from corporate members is that they are understanding potential market applications much earlier, while sharing the risk with others. In a typical annual cycle, the design sprints result in more than 100 prototypes. Each one increases the shared understanding of complex systemic technologies such as the distributed web and AI within applications such as mobility, financial services, health and logistics. Peripheral benefits include access to technical and creative talent that otherwise might not be attracted to established organizations and exposure to start-up deal flow.

New forms of collaborative innovation such as CoLab or alternative collaborative approaches such as the X-Prize and other “open” platforms offer the potential to explore emerging systems in more effective ways. To maximize these benefits leaders should look for innovation processes that exhibit some, or all, of the following qualities:

1. Speed. Technologies and systems evolve too fast for the traditional research and development cycles to keep up. Design sprints or approaches that carry out multiple simultaneous explorations are necessary to explore sufficient territory.

2. Diversity. Expanding the community of participants, whether through open platforms or curated teams of collaborators helps ensure a wider diversity of thinking.

3. Completeness. proposed solutions should balance the requirements of customer desirability, technical feasibility and business viability. A narrow focus on one or two rarely leads to scalable results.

4. Breaking boundaries. If the chosen approach does not force thinking and working outside your existing sector, preferably in collaboration with those from other sectors, then you risk succumbing to conventional thinking that is vulnerable to unexpected disruption.

5. Sharing of risk. The perceived concerns of IP ownership should not be used as an excuse to avoid collaboration. It is riskier to explore fewer paths even if you own the resulting ideas. In general, we have found organizations are willing to forego exclusive ownership of IP in the earliest stages of exploration if it means they have access to more ideas sooner.

Design is a useful tool for those wishing to influence current and future systems. Its focus on satisfying the needs and desires of people and society helps ensure that innovation efforts have positive impact. However, the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are more complex than those that have come before. They require that we deploy design thinking in new ways. That we are are prepared to iterate and redesign as circumstances change and not assume we can attain the perfect design at the outset. That we carefully select the places where we choose to intervene so that we can act at the right scale. That we design collaboratively in order to more rapidly and effectively explore the extensive challenges in front of us.


Finally, design is not a task to delegate to others. It falls on systems leaders to participate in the design of those systems they wish to improve or, as Nobel laureate Herbert Simon wrote, “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” In effect, Simon declared that practically everyone is, or should be, a designer – and this includes those who wish to steward the systems of our collective future.