Abductive thinking and Sensemaking were terms that I had been struggling with until I stumbled upon Jon Kolko’s writing that has begun to put it all into context. Thanks Jon, my mind is gently being blown. Jon is prolific and appears to be in the process of completing the design trifecta: worked at frog, spoke at TED, and now in the education as as a founder and director of the Austin Center for Design.
In an article written for Core77 and then published in The Alpine Review – a delightful critical thinking and art mag that I am currently obsessing over – Jon outlines why systems thinking is crucial and how “sensemaking” is a bona fide practice of generating tangible actions out of large and often incongruous observations.
As I begin to explore more of his writing, I am seeing an obsession with “synthesis” as a design activity that needs further unpacking, development and practice with clear purpose. This is so deeply aligned with questions I have been bouncing around that it proves to me that designers are all trapped inside a singular brain space, like some kind of weird black t-shirt, jeans wearing ant colony.
Jon defines “sensemaking” as:
“the ability to synthesize large quantities of often incomplete or conflicting information… connecting discrete insights… depth of thinking, rigor of connections and strategic and creative reasoning.”
More specifically the challenge is bringing clarity to messy investigations that are a natural outcome of any systems research.
Simon Roberts is a researcher at Arup, an engineering group doing amazing research and pioneering work. You may remember a previous post where I shared recent obsessions around systems thinking, and so this continues along the theme of understanding and communicating complex systems.
You might be a little confused why I share this movie for the first, but at about halfway everything goes bonkers, with graphs and arrows and chaos that becomes a huge, wild map of excitement. Most excellently, the logic becomes clear and the big messy visual begins to make some deep sense.
While the topic is out of my league to comment – England’s economy is hardly an area I’ve considered a lot of – the economic driver that Simon recommends for further review is in the area of service innovation which is something I’m reflecting a lot upon recently, and will likely post on soon.
So enjoy this one, and a huge thanks to Simon and Arup for sharing:
I have been re-reading a superb paper by Hugh Dubberly about the future of design as we (which I mean in the grandest sense) move into an age of biology. Every time I read it through something new sticks out at me. The paper is an excellent review of a whole range of different ideas of change, transition and sometimes tension.
Throughout the paper there are a series of tables summarizing these ideas. This one below is a personal favourite:
What stands out to me are the discussions about control, the shifting relationships and the “stopping condition”. Biology suggests a concept of good enough – optimizing over time – which is outside of the scope for human design when the solution being generated is fixed. I’m personally fascinated by what this implies for ideas being more “malleable”, which is easy to understand when it comes to software and coding, but a little more abstract when it comes to tangible design. But what if architecture begins to become organic?
I have written previously that the definition of success will deeply influence the outcome of the project. When looking at innovation projects as a system, I believe that the design criteria are the greatest place to intervene and inform the overall flow of creative thinking. When you look at a project through the lens of evolution, the design criteria are the selective pressures that shape how organisms adapt to their contextual conditions. It’s all biomimicry… of course.
In Nature, there was an incredible Comment article by Heather Piwowar titled “Value all research products” which discussed the emergence of different measures of success in scientific research. These “altmetrics” are simply:
New ways to measure engagement with research output.
Basically, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is now measuring researchers on content beyond papers. This means that data sets, or engagement in online research forums will now be taken into account when determining the success of a given researcher and whether they should receive further funding. This new selective pressure could deeply influence the shift towards open information, alternative research models and increased collaboration.
There is a “manifesto” outlining the details behind altmetrics which discusses the bottle necks currently occurring in the status quo of peer reviewed journals and how new metrics will not just alter the content being produced, but how it gets validated and shared. One of their interesting statements is around the opportunity of speeding up information exchange:
The internet is a wonderful and bizarre thing. I received a lovely mail today saying that someone “liked” my blog post. With my ego getting a little bit of encouragement I went and investigated. It turns out that Stefanie Di Russo is a PhD candidate at my old university (that I didn’t graduate from) in Melbourne. Wow that is a small world.
Even better it turns out that Stef produces enormous quantities of excellent, thoughtful content all with wonderful illustrations. I may have had a very good coffee this morning, because I just spend the last hour scouring her blog and writing many rambling comments. I thoroughly recommend you to explore her site, with a couple of entry points that may be of key value:
In my biomimicry classes I am repeatedly asked by students for permission around how they are “allowed” to use the biological models. This is a strange phenomena. In other classes conversations exist around how to find and use inspiration, but in biomimicry it is more specific:Can I use this organism for my project? I started using X organism, but now I want to use Y organism, is that ok? How many organisms am I allowed to use for this project?
This highlights a problem. Any creative process requires many different tools, methods and approaches in order to achieve a result. When one of those elements becomes constrained by rules, it then influences and impacts the others around it. Biomimicry can have that effect in both positive and negative ways.
Positive disruption from biomimicry
If you have ever wondered what it would look like if Manhattan was a glacier that was melting, then this movie is for you. If that hasn’t crossed your mind and your more interested in large scale environmental actions, then you’re also in luck!
The largest ice melting ever recorded. Remarkable.
Unfortunately the movies don’t seem to want to embed, so click on the images below to enjoy.
I don’t think I’ve explained that I’m currently doing a masters in design. It is a program called “Strategic Foresight and Innovation” which is a vague and ambitious title that allows me to answer differently every time someone asks what it is. An Austrian friend asked me if we get given crystal balls when we sign up. I’m very disappointed that we didn’t.
This semester one of my classes is titled: “Understanding Systems & Systemic Design”. Anyone reading my bouncing thoughts would clearly recognize this as a topic I really enjoy. The readings are great, ranging from incomprehensibly dense to “forehead-slap” worthy. If you haven’t heard that before, it’s when you realize something that makes you hit your own forehead thinking: “oh yeah, that’s what I’ve been thinking but couldn’t say”. I’ll share some of the content as I make sense of it.
Anyway… being the keener that I am, I recently attended a systems dialogue event co-hosted by my instructor; Peter Jones and systems expert David Ing. David and Peter set up a space at OCAD University where brilliant people came and shared their knowledge and experience with newbies such as myself. There was a paper that a few people debriefed insights to the group and then we broke out and started a discussion around the question:
Is systems thinking a science or a compliment to science?
Thanks to a friend, Paul Dowsett from Sustainable.TO for sending me this gem.
Massoud Hassani took inspiration from tumbleweeds as a child to create toys that raced across the desert. As an Industrial Designer he is making tumbleweeds that can bounce across desert landscapes filled with landmines, detonating them as they go. I hope this means that there is more space for them to play games. This is a lovely story of childhood curiosity leading to innovation.
Enjoy the movie below, it is gorgeous. And if you want to see images of the process and alternate prototoypes, Core 77 has an excellent article.