Want to Improve Democracy? Try Design Thinking

tim-brownBetter ballot design could have changed the results of the 2000 election. A better design for information sharing might have prevented 9/11. Now, could design thinking help fix something fundamentally broken in American democracy: how we engage in national debate?

Whether the topic is climate change, financial regulation, or health care reform, when asked to "discuss amongst ourselves," the conversation devolves into who can shout the loudest, hurl the nastiest epithets, or pervert the facts to fit their own agendas. Can this process be saved?

We spoke to Tim Brown, CEO of famed design and innovation firm, IDEO, and author of Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, (and Fast Company expert blogger) to see what might be done.

Fast Company: Lately, our national conversations about important issues seem to have reached a new low. Could design thinking improve how we engage in national debate?

Tim Brown: What’s missing from the debate right now is that much of our discussion is about what we have to give up, or how we have to make choices among unattractive alternatives. The role of design thinking is to put new choices in the world. We look at people and their needs, and create new ideas and insights. We do that all the time with companies. Right now, whether it’s health care or climate change, there’s a relative dearth of new choices, which means everybody is arguing from entrenched positions.

FC: One of the problems seems to be that there’s a lot of confusion about what various proposals mean. How could that be remedied?

TB: Last year at Davos, I got stuck in a big debate with world leaders arguing about whether there should be 50% less carbon, or 80% less. I thought, “This isn’t helping.” Nobody was talking about what life would be like in 30 years if we make our goals or not.So, over the summer we developed a Web site, called Living Climate Change, that shows what life would be like in 30 or 40 years with various scenarios showing changes in food, transportation, and other things, depending on whether we make our goals or not.

We need to have the same discussions in health care and other issues, with a way to describe what various options would be like. That would allow people to imagine their future and participate in it. Right now, it’s hard to imagine these things, and politicians exploit that.

FC: Certainly, that’s been part of the problem, hasn’t it? That so much of the information out there seems driven by ideology, industry lobbyists, or other forms of self interest. It’s hard to know what to trust

TB: What design thinking offers is that it enters the debate without an agenda. How do we make life better? So much of what’s out there now seems based on a world of 50 years ago.

FC: One of the things design thinking does well is prototyping alternatives. How could that work for something as complex as health care policy?

TB:Design thinking brings experiments to life quickly to see what works and what doesn’t. It also lets us put more options on the table. Google does this all the time. Instead of making judgments based on some political agenda, we should try to make one prototype better than the last.

FC: Good point. What else could the public sector learn from the private?

TB: That it’s important to actively manage a portfolio of experiments. In health, for example, we need to explore the issue of prevention, finance, increased productivity, etc. We can do this in a linear way – dealing, for example, with access now and prevention later.

FC: What could we learn from developing countries?

TB: A lot. In India, health care is completely driven from the grass roots, rather than from the top down. In America, much of our innovation is also from the ground up. There needs to be a way for government to understand the role it can play in encouraging grass roots innovation.

FC: Of course, all this presumes that there’s a willingness to think differently within government organizations.

TB: True. Culture plays a huge role. Great, innovative companies focus on building internal capabilities. We need to see that same capacity in public life. But there’s hope. Recently John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management – essentially the government’s HR agency – came to Silicon Valley to see how Facebook, IDEO, and Google went about building inquisitive cultures. The idea was how to make government service cool again.

FC: Maybe with the market collapse, smart young MBAs will start considering government service instead of Goldman!

TB: Recently, Universum, a talent strategy consulting firm that ranks the attractiveness of employers, called to say that in their latest survey of 6,200 MBAs, IDEO ranked #15. That’s ridiculous since we’re a tiny company, but to me it was indicative that kids in business school are fascinated by innovation. Imagine if we could get government thinking that way —- not just to serve but to innovate, to make the world a better place. p>

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16 Comments

  • Maura O'Connor

    I am familiar with Tim Brown's work with IDEO and I have to say I am a proponent of using "design thinking" or the design process to solve all kinds of problems, not just visual communication issues. There is a correlation between design and politics in that at their best,they both attempt to provide solutions for the greater good. The difference in using design methods which by the way are not just for "geeks or devs" as Catherine Fitzpatrick states in her comment, rather are being used by creative types or innnovators (perhaps the "happy hippies" she refers to,) all over the planet including in third world countries like Africa to help solve problems ranging from poverty/starvation to global climate change; the difference between design thinking and our current political process/climate is that design thinking tends not to get "locked in" to a 'one size fits all' solution, and because of it's very nature, when done properly design thinking solutions do not lead to solutions like the tomato harvester of the 1940's which was developed in a political process using grant funding from Higher Education and big corporations.

    The harvester essentially put small farmers and pickers out of business, while providing the public with those nice, big, round, tasteless tomatoes that we see in supermarkets year round. The harvester itself was an interesting solution for the time, but completely unsustainable in the long run and does a lot of harm to millions, but because it was “locked in” with an old way of thinking and doing business, it’s very tough to change.

    The design process is all about innovation and making changes all down the line until the best solutions are brought forward. It does not harm people or groups in the process, or “try to ram solutions down people’s throats”. It has flexibility at its core, and anyone can embark on the process, not just a select few. In fact, if we taught this process to our children in a broader context, we might find our way out of a few pickles we’ve put ourselves into on this planet: for instance the problem of Nuclear Power. Here is a political solution that insures a militaristic state to protect the plants and figure out what to do with the waste, while providing energy from a central source to the masses. Utterly unsustainable and a “locked in” solution where once we have decided to go down that road it is nearly impossible to turn back.

    It forces compromise indeed, and there are no right answers to the problems associated with nuclear waste and arms proliferation. Innovation through design thinking seeks to stay outside of these kinds of arguments and entrenched positions that have occurred in our political process. The kinds of solutions that are sought for energy are those that can be decentralized and in the hands/control of the many. Sources like wind power, solar energy or anything that can take one “off the grid.” These solutions are sustainable and have yet to be implemented on a broad scale because of the lack of political will and funding.

    I found Ms. Fitzpatrick’s comments interesting, yet missing the mark on what the process of design thinking is all about. Design thinking may be a powerful tool, however it is not about bringing anyone or paricular thing TO power.” That is a polarized view of the world and tends to foster conflict rather than peaceful solutions. People need to be able to see the possibilities of their choices as they are made, and the flexibility to change them along the way. This is what design thinking does, and as a skill set can be taught and used by anyone, not just big corporations or those at the political helm of the country.

  • Peter Kale

    Catherine,

    Phony is a more than a bit harsh. What precisely is it you're suggesting is fake? Labels always get us into trouble. Your and my understanding of what Design Thinking includes are vastly different. You've attached a number of evil sounding phenomenon to the label of Design Thinking that are quite far removed from its core ideas. But forget that label, or for that matter the label of democratic process, another example on which we seem to differ.

    Does the manner in which we currently go about choosing rules by which we'll all live seem worth celebrating? To me, the game of concocting alternatives and then manipulating by many different means the outcome of the rather false choices is not something to hold up as virtuous. The very tactics you decry in the online world (which really don't have a thing at all to do with design thinking) are being practiced equally in the off line world and have been for years... manipulated town hall meetings, biased news coverage, media smears. What's at fault is not the venue, it's the false premise of either/or. Design Thinking is simply about coming up with new possibilities for consideration rather than steadfastly clinging to the status quo.

    If your comments are intended to warn against the evils of social media in politics, fine. You're most certainly entitled to your opinion. But your connecting that movement to Design Thinking is a stretch that needs to be challenged.

    Design Thinking according to my definition is nothing more than an approach for coming up with new alternatives for consideration and then letting those affected choose.

    What definition are you using?

  • Catherine Fitzpatrick

    Peter, as I noted, those who find these sorts of exercises based on some sort of canned ideology like this are usually those who are likeminded, in some group effort already, or people selling the consulting services around the ideology, or purchases of the consulting service so they feel vested, and feel uncomfortable about criticizing something they make a living on, or which they've just spent their company's limited budget on. That's *my* experience, quite frankly.

    Joe Schwartz lets us in on the true picture here by portraying "Design Thinking" as some sort of cult-like body of thought that he has to push to put over on students who are reluctant to adopt it. What if innovation doesn't have 7 stages? What if they don't go in that order? Why must we all diminish ourselves and be part of something "truly great" when we can't even agree with it? All of this is suspect.

    It's not "demagoguery" to call out phony stuff like this; it's good citizenship. Who is the "us" that says "we're not getting anywhere" or democracy is "broken"? Maybe it's only broken for those who didn't get their way. There's a persistent belief that the half of the country that didn't vote for Al Gore and voted for Bush were partaking in some "broken" system. Suddenly, the system wasn't "broken" anymore when a far more clear majority voted for Obama, with massive amounts of help from social media campaigns.

    Rita, I agree with your concerns about democracy needing to remain a proces and not a fixed outcome, but I think it's exaggerated to say it's now all about one executive in power, Obama. It's one executive plus his goverati in the Gov 2.0 movement in and out of power, plus the unelected wired on all the Facebook and Twitter accounts on the lists. The question is whether this digitally-created concoction which is so easily hijacked by any focused force is going to so take over that other institutions of the older meat-world variety like the Congress and the Supreme Court will be able to serve as checks and balances against it. I think we have to worry. A lot is being forced and pushed through by a handful of elites in the Office of Science and Technology without any democratic debate. The so-called democratic participatory websites and wikis and whatnots are all controlled by a handful of cadres who frame the issues and close off comments quickly. "Bad" comments are flagged for removal or "voted down" for burial from sight. It's a bad business and a harbinger of the e-democracy to come. It's too late to say we need to leave manipulated digital spaces and move to real-life town halls when people won't show up at them, or show up and argue and then are accused of being paid astro-turfers. The action is going to increasingly move online and we need to make the process retain openness and accountability online.

  • Joseph Schwartz

    As a Design Educator, I find that the one inherent obstacle when trying to teach Design Thinking is that we are living in a society that wants everything faster than it was yesterday. Even the name of this magazine (one of my favorites) implies that speed is good. When it comes to genuine Design Thinking, the fact is lost that design is a process, not an endproduct. Thus, when trying to explain any of the seven stages of Design Thinking (define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn), the question that invariably turns up is "Well, how long is this going to take and how much (or what) is it going to cost me?"

    Long ago, we lost the ability to take pride in our workmanship because somewhere along the line, it was embedded in our brains that faster and cheaper was better. T'was a time, just a generation ago, when everyone from the mechanic down the street to the car designer at GM took time and pride in their work. Things were designed to look good and last a long time. Now things are designed to look good and get to market as quickly as a factory in China can churn out the goods and get them shipped here.

    If we want Design Thinking to take hold as a state of mind, it will be a difficult fight - I know, because I fight it every day with my high school students. But it is worth fighting for, because I am a cynic who is nevertheless hopeful that someday, one of my students will be a part of something truly great and that I will have had something to do with that.

    Why do I feel this way? Because I also believe that our future depends on the re-emergence of quality; and quality will only come from solid Design Thinking.

    --
    Joe Schwartz
    Design Instructor
    Spotswood High School
    Spotswood, NJ

  • Joseph Schwartz

    As a Design Educator, I find that the one inherent obstacle when trying to teach Design Thinking is that we are living in a society that wants everything faster than it was yesterday. Even the name of this magazine (one of my favorites) implies that speed is good. When it comes to genuine Design Thinking, the fact is lost that design is a process, not an endproduct. Thus, when trying to explain any of the seven stages of Design Thinking (define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn), the question that invariably turns up is "Well, how long is this going to take and how much (or what) is it going to cost me?"

    Long ago, we lost the ability to take pride in our workmanship because somewhere along the line, it was embedded in our brains that faster and cheaper was better. T'was a time, just a generation ago, when everyone from the mechanic down the street to the car designer at GM took time and pride in their work. Things were designed to look good and last a long time. Now things are designed to look good and get to market as quickly as a factory in China can churn out the goods and get them shipped here.

    If we want Design Thinking to take hold as a state of mind, it will be a difficult fight - I know, because I fight it every day with my high school students. But it is worth fighting for, because I am a cynic who is nevertheless hopeful that someday, one of my students will be a part of something truly great and that I will have had something to do with that.

    Why do I feel this way? Because I also believe that our future depends on the re-emergence of quality; and quality will only come from solid Design Thinking.

    --
    Joe Schwartz
    Design Instructor
    Spotswood High School
    Spotswood, NJ

  • Peter Kale

    Catherine, contrary to your opinions implying sinister motives, marketing focus, and geeky technology, my experience with design thinking has been that of an open, honest exploration of new possibilities with, as Tim suggests, no other agenda. As its most fundamental premise, those affected are the ones who choose amongst the alternatives. What could possibly be more democratic and authentic? Easier for me to imagine the Founding Fathers as Design Thinkers more interested in finding better ways than as demagogues denying there's a problem. To me, broken is not that I don't get my way, rather broken is as Tim describes, this isn't getting us anywhere - and they're not the same thing by a long shot.

  • Rita P. Best

    Catherine; brilliant piece and thank you for your courage to state it so openly. It seems lately, if you aren't on the band wagon supporting hope and change you're on the outside, worse yet, you're a traitor. While I appreciate sentiment of "design thinking" as a processes where new ideas MAY emerge. It is simply that, a processes.

    Democracy is a practice...Where all are represented and engaged in dialogue with others. At our best attempts we reach an understanding and except the WILL OF THE PEOPLE. That been said we are duty bound to explore all options and to hear from all constituents. More importantly it should be practiced openly and vigorously in our town halls...and amongst our people, not is some digital space or manipulated process.

    I'm beginning to get an uncomfortable feeling we live in a country where a single individual wields all the power and authority and everyone else is a subsidiary person.

  • Catherine Fitzpatrick

    This is awful stuff because it brings the artifice and pretense of marketing to what should be authentic -- the democratic process. "Design thinking" is merely the creation of systems really controlling the many by the few, with certain illusory features put in to make the many think they count. It's like Wikipedia or any wiki ostensibly "open to anyone," but not really, due to arcane editing rules and the tiny number of insiders who make final decisions on controversies.

    These ideas fit with a geeky thinking we see increasingly on social media websites and in tools like the JIRA software for bug tracking and feature proposals. And that is a concept that you can never be negative, you can never vote "no", you can never present something in fact as unattractive. Instead, you are supposed to be endlessly "positive" as if on a permanent high; you can never vote "no" because that would mean "negativity" and "could be gamed". Instead, you are supposed to propose *another* positive proposal with *different features* (and of course, that can be gamed too, but that doesn't matter, because the purpose of these systems is to have them run by coders and devs, not by you).

    This sort of thing gets very ominous once it becomes replicated into national voting tools, "e-democracy" or "e-voting". In real life, it's very, very important to be able to vote "yes" or "no" very definitively on propositions that themselves come out of a democratic process. Yet already we see how on sites like the White House Office for Science and Technology, these old MMORPG and social media tools of precooking propositions, "voting up and down" and "flagging posters" and "discliplining for trolling" etc. are all imported wholesale, ensuring that a tiny handful of cadres control the discourse by framing the matters for debate themselves and controlling how debate occurs.

    There is nothing "broken" about our discourse and existing old and new tools for participation. What is broken, however, is the hard left's continued, aggressive desire to try to take over further, now that their candidate and his select aides are in power. They are not persuasive, and when they attempt to bake their worldview into the tools, people turn them against the coders, and rightfully so.

    In real life, you are faced with two unattractive options, and you do indeed have to engage in a complicated compromise in a political process where you will have to share power. There aren't going to be happy hippie circles holding hands and singing Kumbayah because they've been nudged into doing so by various wonky tools; instead, there is the reality of the messy process of power and resource sharing. That's very, very different from the feel-good of this "design thinking" that pushes people artificially toward "positivity".

    We do not need anything as sinister as "collaborative facilitation methodology" which is merely a new code word for the old collectivist ideologies discredited in the 20th century. The town halls are fine. People raise their voices when they disagree. That's ok. Their speech is protected under the First Amendment and Supreme Court rulings that enable them even to call names, even to make ad hominem attacks, and even to be wrong. Yes, it's *allowed to be wrong* and you must tolerate that even if you disagree and think you are smarter or that you have some "smart tool" that you think you can deploy to bludgeon "unbelievers".

    When you invoke these "hundreds of thousands around the world," I suspect that what this means is sometimes, this sort of geeky technology works well for the very narrow purpose of making software -- and even there, not so well, given that increasingly, people who are users of software are demanding democratic participation in its fashioning. I often see claims for software tools numbered in the hundreds of thousands or millions, when that merely reflects the downloads or the distribution and not real successful usage.

    Wikitarianism works when people are in likeminded, small groups like "my office". Even there, they function usually by a few cadres really running them and most not really participating if you are honest about it. Wikis are awful for large diverse differently abled groups because they foster unaccountability.

    But that doesn't mean such tools are appropriate for governance in a real country. They are not. They will continue to incite hate, abuse and overthrowing if geeks continue to force them on people.

    Again, usually what people mean when they say something is "broken" is not that it's really "broken" but that "it didn't work the way I wish it did to bring me to power".

  • Bob Jacobson

    I heard a gentleman from Innosight, Clay Christensen's innovation consultancy, express what needs to be done in one line for successful dialogue: "Speak like you know you're right, listen like you know you're wrong." It's not clear to me what design thinking can add to this pristine and memorable piece of advice, other than to specify technologies for speaking and techniques for ensuring that utterances are heard. But that's tactical stuff.

    Now that government is firmly in the economic driver's seat, there seems to be a run on offerings to improve it, from every disciplinary direction. One problem is that government is not a unitary organization. So there's no single client; there are thousands of them, even in one government. A more theoretical and therefore tougher to solve problem is that governance, the way we run our society, isn't the same as government, the conglomerate that's created to carry out the dictates of those who govern -- be it the people, an elected body, or a dictator. Governance is peculiarly self-preserving and therefore not really amenable to ideas for change whatever their origin or quality (and your good idea may be anathema to mine: in politics, more often than not, all's fair so long as my side wins, even if objectively that's an irrational point of view).

    I'm afraid I don't share Tim's confidence in the change-management capabilities of government officials. They tend to lag in deliverables. Or they're vetoed by electeds. Really, this conversation is as old as the writings of Thomas Payne and The Federalist Papers ... or shall we back to Hammurabi and his 4,000-year-old Code, best known for its "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" prescription for justice? After all, Hammurabi's Code contains this bit of wisdom right for our times:

    "If any one bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death."

    That'll teach 'em.

  • Gabriel Shirley

    I appreciate Tim's comments about bringing design thinking to public discourse. One version of this that would make a tremendous difference is that use of collaborative facilitation methodologies in place of the "town hall" formats we have seen recently. There is now a 30 year history of effectively engaging large groups of people in discourse and action around contentious issues. Methodologies such as World Cafe, Appreciative Inquiry, and Open Space Technology (among others) have been used around the world by hundreds of thousands of people in political, social, and business contexts to provide opportunities to engage design thinking among all participants. We have a lot to learn from these experiences, starting with how they enable design thinking even in the most complex situations.

  • Gabriel Shirley

    I appreciate Tim's comments about bringing design thinking to public discourse. One version of this that would make a tremendous difference is that use of collaborative facilitation methodologies in place of the "town hall" formats we have seen recently. There is now a 30 year history of effectively engaging large groups of people in discourse and action around contentious issues. Methodologies such as World Cafe, Appreciative Inquiry, and Open Space Technology (among others) have been used around the world by hundreds of thousands of people in political, social, and business contexts to provide opportunities to engage design thinking among all participants. We have a lot to learn from these experiences, starting with how they enable design thinking even in the most complex situations.

  • Paula Thornton

    I'm the last person to want to minimize the power of Design Thinking as an approach, but I've also seen a greater issue...one that Tim effectively addressed: persistence. Often there have already been a lot of great possibilities that have been introduced and discussed, just not in a broader collective.

    The issues are similar to those I talked about relative to design research, we must provide a persistent view of the conversations so more people can access them (as well, often synthesis and other 'forms' or perspectives of the same thing are needed) http://twurl.nl/gqczaa

  • Gabriel Shirley

    I appreciate Tim's comments about bringing design thinking to public discourse. One version of this that would make a tremendous difference is that use of collaborative facilitation methodologies in place of the "town hall" formats we have seen recently. There is now a 30 year history of effectively engaging large groups of people in discourse and action around contentious issues. Methodologies such as World Cafe, Appreciative Inquiry, and Open Space Technology (among others) have been used around the world by hundreds of thousands of people in political, social, and business contexts to provide opportunities to engage design thinking among all participants. We have a lot to learn from these experiences, starting with how they enable design thinking even in the most complex situations.