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Organizational Change
America’s Broken Systems:
A Case for Sustainable Design?

The first of a three-part proposal for using sustainability to recharge America's problem-solving. Read part two and three.

A short post-election article in Huffington Post by Jenine Durland called “Redesigning America: An Exercise in Broken Systems” recently caught my eye; it both reminded me of a field I have run across in sustainability, and extends its promise to something I’m sure is on a lot of minds these days: the state of the country.

The article offers some great points, including one I had not seen before, that design can help “understand people’s shared basic needs.” The latter could certainly be useful for putting the country back together again if and when we become ready for that. There’s the quiet example of the author, a business staffer, trying to use her skills to make a (potentially large) social contribution, something we could stand to see much more frequently.

I encourage my students to consider the comments after an assigned article to be part of the reading, as they can add important nuances to the author’s points. And for this one, there’s a rare big-picture comment by a constructive critic from the same field that complements the article.

Sustainable design is a small part of the sustainability field, one that is not as known or practiced as it should be, as it makes a lot of intuitive sense. It also offers sweeping claims that deserve to be tested, even if some prove partially overstated.

If we really could simply (or even if not so simply) design out many problems right from the beginning, even before they become problems, what an untapped and welcome approach that would be! If, as Bill McDonough, the field’s most prominent proponent, says, “Regulation (of pollution) is nothing more than a design defect,” then through redesign of products and processes we should be able to put aside the whole “too much regulation” debate that seems to cycle without resolution every five years or so (I heard him say this once when I was in government, with a government audience that nodded along. I asked him about it after his talk, and he did say regulation is still needed for some things; a new system could not be implemented overnight, with the current controversial system just discarded. Yet, as too often happens when I’ve heard a powerful, inspiring, breakthrough sustainability speaker, back at work the next day, and the day after that, nothing changes and whatever consciousness was raised seems forgotten.)

Durland takes design thinking beyond just the environment to America’s overall “system,” calling it “outdated.” Therefore, the many problems with which we are struggling were actually inevitable. The lack of design ensured “failure,” and, as we don’t tend to see that, we’re prone to “point the finger” and “place blame” on someone. To the degree this diagnosis is on-target, we need to hear this. Now what the specific failing systems are in America could have been more explicitly stated, but I suppose these are clear enough.

The article has other good points, but they overstate or miss key elements. While better design “anticipates imperfection” and thereby learns to roll with it, in our current political system the idea of adaptive management, involving built-in check-points and adjustments for the expected unexpected, has never taken hold. Perhaps this is because the culture does not permit admissions of error, or anything less than full (if phony) confidence that a newly announced policy will surely work perfectly. As for their part in the current system, opponents — just as sure it will be a total failure — would certainly treat a new policy described as “an experiment” as a political opportunity. So a shift in the overall culture that converts a “half-baked” strategy from a pejorative, or at least one where opponents hold off using their full powder, is a necessary step. The design idea by itself, while helpful, is not sufficient.

A somewhat similar good-news-but-is-missing-something is shown by where the blame goes — and where it doesn’t. It’s certainly business-as-usual when something goes wrong: A “bad guy” gets it. We’re quite good at that! Durland tells us, though, “It’s the system, not the people” —therefore we should stopping blaming our favorite villains. But colossal problems could certainly have multiple causes, including human co-authors that actually did something wrong over and above not using the right designer.

The Bonus

It’s uncommon and advantageous for an article to receive measured comments from another member of the field. Here, Julie Fischer, while agreeing that design “is a powerful tool,” finds some fault.

She disagrees with the author’s claim that design “is not partisan.” She warns that it “does not transcend … problematic systems,” so it is not “a silver bullet” and we should be “skeptical,” as well as — oh, my — self-critical.

Where to Go From Here

Putting article and comment together, we are left with design “as a powerful tool.” Not a bad place for it — as long as many (finally) begin to pick up on it. I would like to see that claim for “understanding people’s shared basic needs” tested on some new “systems.” Maybe infrastructure or the famous “Wall”?

Think design will come up at the Congressional Oversight Hearings, from either side of the tables? Hey, if I was a climate change-denying EPA Administrator nominee, I’d use it to build credibility and lay out a strategy. And, as a short word, it should be tweetable, and announced to be used for the next divested (or not) hotel project — with stakeholders. Then, the value of design would surely stop being such a secret.

Now if we could only “design” widespread interest in sustainable design. Maybe the Russians would be willing to leak it. Imagine: “Untapped powerful tool kept from Americans.” Anyone have a poorly designed encryption system?

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