From the Director’s Desk: A Case for Systems Thinking

We live in an age in which we are very focused on the user experience and the solutions of problems that are relatively easy to solve when compared to the problems that lie ahead for humanity. We focus on incremental change when the radical change is not only needed but also is harder to grasp with design thinking alone. While design thinking has progressed humanity to a point where many of our solutions have resulted in tremendous first-order value, the second-order effects have not been addressed and will require much more than traditional design thinking to solve. I submit a level of systems thinking will be required to get us to the next level of solution.

A simple case in point is the sharing economy as embodied in Uber and the mobility revolution that it represents. While the Uber effect has made steps towards democratizing personal transportation and filling in the transportation deserts that exist in urban America, it has also caused some tremendous second-order effects that systems thinking may have anticipated:

  • Congestion on the streets has been impacted negatively as the taxicabs of the past have been replaced with nearly 10 times more Uber and Lyft vehicles searching or traveling to their next ride. This has caused some municipal backlash as seen recently in both New York and Boston.
  • It is also clear that the employment impacts of Uber are such that the drivers of Uber and Lyft typically retain less compensation than their taxicab counterparts, thereby transferring value and wealth to the parent companies rather than the drivers. Ironically, this impacts a larger population as there are many more Uber/Lyft drivers than their taxi driver counterparts, thus more people are being paid less money and the pain is more broadly distributed.
  • You can also see measurable decreases in the use of public transit which could cause a negative feedback loop where cutbacks in service will likely be implemented and thus more decreases in ridership will likely occur.

 While design thinking puts the user at the center of the analysis, the environment surrounding the user will eventually be impacted once the solution is scaled beyond the singular focus that design thinking often promotes. The cross-impact of the environment on the user experience is both foreseeable and predictable if a more systems-centric approach is taken. For example, it is foreseeable that as traffic congestion grows, transit times increase and personal mobility based on street level transit will be negatively impacted.

Clearly, there is a potential for design thinking to lead to more innovation that is incremental in nature versus radical or systemic change. While design thinking and user-centeredness have a legitimate place in the designer’s portfolio, there is also a legitimate place for systems thinking as the scale and magnitude of problems we confront as a society start to become so complex and intertwined that they fall into the category of “wicked” problems. This sort of problem has the unfortunate characteristic that applied simple solutions often cause further problems that are bigger than the ones they “solve”. If you doubt this effect, spend a few moments with the wicked problem of healthcare and public health management in countries where healthcare is treated as merely another consumer service. You will quickly see that many of the solutions cause problems of their own perhaps bigger in scope than the one that was solved.

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