This Week's Challenge: I'm Drawing a Blank
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Overcoming the Complexity of World Problems

Everything Else

Late at night, the supermarket has an otherworldly glow. The food sits silent, expectant. Absent of people, large pyramids of gala apples shine under fluorescent lighting, while a pimply 18-year-old sweeps the floor with a giant push broom. It could be an Edward Hopper painting, except for how the push broom creates fat lines of dirt that the employee coaxes into a dustpan and dumps into a trash can. At this hour there is no one except me, holding a half-pound of bulk organic granola (pumpkin flax) and a container of plain yogurt, trying to imagine exactly how much food rests within these four walls. Twenty thousand items? Forty thousand? Perhaps enough to feed a neighborhood of Seattle for a month, if parsed out piece by piece.

This is one of those moments that makes you feel both fortunate to live in a place where such resources are so plentiful, and also humble in the face of what is an incredible problem for most others in this world. We find it so hard to expend energy influencing world problems like hunger, poverty, and infectious diseases such as HIV. We can't easily visualize, in our minds or through a double-spread infographic, how much nutritive food is required for the billions of people in this world. Where would a designer first focus to increase its availability? In the abstract, it can feel absurd to try to quantify the impact of our individual actions in a hyper-connected world. We provide rice to the starving child thousands of miles away, unaware of how the rice is grown, where it is grown, the details of its distribution, and the extended industries that have sprung up to facilitate (or obstruct) its influence on the overall problem at hand.

I think that backing away from taking any sort of action against a world problem is a peculiar kind of intellectual fallacy—both as people donating our time towards important causes and as designers attempting to influence a world problem for the better. To make my case, I'm going to play with some mathematical concepts, but I warn you that I am no scientist in the traditional sense and merely a dilettante when it comes to numbers. I don't think I'm treading any new ground here, but at least the path around the lake has a little less overbrush.


Supermarkets, Chessboards, and Billions of Galaxies

If you're a designer, you've probably heard one of the following cliched phrases from your client: Turn over every stone. The sky's the limit. Examine every possibility. Don't let me constrain you.

We know, however, that the opposite is true. Effective design emerges from cleverly considered constraint. It can be mathematically impossible to consider every option in a defined problem space of almost any magnitude.

Consider our supermarket, with 2,500 unique items on its shelves. When I go shopping, I walk down each of the aisles, searching out the items that I require. I place them in my basket. I check them out. I arrange the ingredients, I cook them, I show them to my client. They say they want more beets or leeks. I return to the store, purchase more ingredients, and try again.

Perhaps you've played this game before when tackling a small design problem, such as a business card layout with a predetermined color palette, number of inks, typographic style, and so forth. The size of the store is finite. With enough time and effort, an agreed-upon outcome will be reached.

Now remove one of the constraints—font selection is now open to any font available on the Internet, cheaper than a $250 license. It's like you've added a whole new wing to the supermarket, with another thousand items for consideration.

Now, only a few dozen items out of the thousand may be important to me, so this change to the size of my problem doesn't have a huge impact on the time required to reach a pleasing design solution. But as each of those constraints is removed, and the supermarket becomes the size of a few city blocks, it's no longer physically possible for me to reach a solution in a reasonable time period without making some back-of-the-envelope calculations and assumptions about the needs of my audience and the client. The possible number of design solution jumps from tens of thousands to millions or perhaps even billions. (1)

When dealing with world problems, however, we're dealing with a much higher order of complexity. It also requires a different mathematical model. It's no longer about bringing a set of ingredients together from limited set of options. It's a set of interdependent actors operating simultaneously. Let me try to describe it more concrete manner.

Instead of a supermarket, you decide to go to the convenience store. When you walk in the store, there are 250 unique items. To fulfill the needs of your client, you don't have to bring them a select number of items to create a meal. You need to buy them all 250 items in a unique, specific order. That's a number of combinations that begins to border on the absurd. You could spend multiple lifetimes trying to find that specific combination of items that would "solve" a minor facet of a world problem. It's like winning the lottery's lottery. (2)

Another way I tried to visualize this concept was to consider the game of chess. The size of the board is bounded to 64 squares, there are fixed rules around how specific pieces move, and a specific method of "solving" the game, via checkmate or calling it a draw. Yet in such a bounded space, the number of game-tree possibilities—i.e. the number of possible games that could be played with entirely unique moves—is 10 to the 123rd power. That's a number beyond any measure of comprehension.


Discovering the Constants (That Aren't Constant)

When rationally evaluating these kinds of odds, you'd have to wonder why any designer would attempt to influence a problem of this magnitude. Attempting to create a design solution for a world problem with no constraints is like playing a game of chess where every move that you take enlarges the size of the board, and every other person on Earth is also playing the game with you. This is a game that we can't win through brute force.

Thankfully, we do have some skills as designers that help us in this endeavor: our ability to identify patterns in information, then rearrange that information in a structured (oft visual) way to isolate those patterns and confirm what elements are in flux and which are relatively fixed. (3) We can choose to constrain our view to those spaces in the board that we know will not change over time, then find opportunities to connect them.

Designers must be dedicated to finding these "constants" to design against, before they slip away due to forces beyond our control. Much like stones in a fast-flowing river, we need to know where we can place our feet before we can step across. Otherwise, we may be swept away outright. (4)

One of the reasons I love design research so much—beyond the joy of connecting with people who live lives that are different from mine, teaching me new ways of looking at the world—is that I can observe what attitudes, beliefs, motivations, needs, wants, and desires they share with me and with other like-minded groups.

All of this is data. Much of it is meaningful. And an important fraction of it illuminates patterns of behavior, from which we can design practically anything that will encourage the right kind of behavior change, if we've identified all of the forces that may stand in our way. From there, we can design new patterns to support, adapt, adjust, improve, delimit, or remove options from the chessboard that may complicate a potential positive effect we want to create. (5)


Think Small, Design Small, Adapt, Repeat

Real life, however, is not chess. To deal with world problems in a tangible way, we have to ignore the numbers game and focus on realities. Instead of projecting possible futures in our minds, we have to touch the dirt with our bare hands, turn it over, feel its weight on our skin, use it as the material for plantings the seeds of more effective ideas for social change.

Find a problem that you care about and want to influence for the better, no matter how small it may make you feel. Analyze the portion of it that impacts you most, closest to your home. Design a solution for the better. Share your solution with the world. Let others adapt it to their problems. Be prepared for your solution to become a set of new problems, especially if you want to influence larger communities.

I'm not advocating spending two to three months at a shot, wallowing in data and slowly coming to conclusions that are then designed through a waterfall process that spills over years until a solution is deemed "shippable." Prototyping, iteration, and continuous testing of (possibly) more effective ideas is the only way to see if a set of solutions will have the desired influence before believed "constants" destabilize. We need to strike while the iron is barely warm.

There is a language of patterns developing around social innovation, which are not fully tangible for the layperson. Much as the open source software community pushed forward new models of collaboration to create platforms for technological progress, I'm excited for the next technological leap for the sharing of social innovation patterns in an easily accessible format that anyone in any language can adapt. Science and empathy, art and technology, history as tilled soil for sustainable futures. (6)

By building these structures of thoughts and deeds, we can demonstrate that beyond all odds, we can influence other people's lives for the better in immeasurable ways. Not as statistics, but as reflections of ourselves.



1. This is part of the reason it's so important to provide planning documents like creative briefs and other documentation that helps to constrain the space that any designer can explore at the start of every project. It's also why it can take more than one, two, or even ten designers to work through a design problem that spans a great number of deliverables in a short time period. It isn't physically possible to solve the stated problem with any confidence that the solution will be appropriate, even if it is aesthetically pleasing.

2. The number of options in factorial notation is 250!, or 1*2*3*4 all the way up to 250. My iPhone won't even calculate above 101! without giving me an error.

3. I say relatively because by using the term "fixed," I mean at the point in time you'd observed that there may be a constant, and that it may be constant at the time you present a design solution to the world. After that point, your solution may change that constant or the behaviors that made it fixed, thereby throwing it into flux again. Sometimes we step on a rock when crossing a creek and it can't hold our weight, so we fall into the water.

4. At InfoCamp Seattle, I presented "Designing the Design Problem" with this chessboard analogy. Jacob Burghardt provided a very good comment about this, in that when dealing with a world problem the size of the board is epic when you begin the game, so the initial game-tree possibilities are multiple orders of magnitude higher than 100 billion—so there is even more complexity to manage. In conversation afterward, Jacob also brought up Christopher Alexander's Notes on the Synthesis of Form, which has a mathematical proof that similarly explodes the math behind dealing with systemic problems in the domain of architecture and urban planning. Christopher's thinking applies to what I'm discussing here, but I'm going to try and take a different angle on it. I agree with Christopher's assessment that sketching out and visualizing frameworks that highlighting the interdependencies between various actors in a system helps to clarify the system's behavior and opportunities for optimization.

5. These forces are often summarized for us neatly on PowerPoint slides provided by the appropriate authorities, but such statistics can be like bundles of firewood that, over the winter, infest our homes with vermin. Unknown unknowns, per Rumsfeld. The details we didn't identify because we didn't have access to the right data at the right time. We just need to know the right questions to ask—and designers are always good at reaching for the root cause of practically anything that seems specious.

6. I didn't quite understand this two years ago, when I had heard John Thackara urge a room full of 500 UX designers to find projects in their community that can make a difference on the local level. Then, last year, I saw a great presentation on how these small-scale local efforts were becoming templates (i.e. patterns of behavior) that could be replicated to create more sustainable cities. We're starting to understand, thanks to thought leaders such as Clay Shirky, that millions of dozens rather than dozens of millions may be the model to defuse the problems of material-based societies.


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