Beginning to Learn Systems Thinking

I'm getting a little self conscious about how much time I spend thinking about thinking...

I’m getting a little self conscious about how much time I spend thinking about thinking…

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? 

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Learning from Nature is not a Design Project

Image by johnnybaker: While it might be a great life statement, when someone's paying the bills it needs to be important to define the destination at some point...

I have had some odd circuitous discussions in the last few months about using a biomimicry process for innovation without understanding why. It highlights to me that there is a real danger in getting overly attached to a process and losing sight of the bigger picture.

In a previous post, here, I raised the idea that some people within innovation are interested in the journey, while others are interested in the destination. At the extreme, journey people care about process and methodology and could happily work in a vacuum for the sake of achieving the nirvana of perfect conceptual methodology. At the other end are the people who only want a win, who care nothing for how the win is achieved and are generally quite impatient about getting to their goal.

Personally, I have the fortunate opportunity to play within both spaces, as an educator we explore the journey deeply and have the freedom within an academic setting to truly experiment and play in this space. But within both education and consulting there becomes a time when the experiments are no longer as important as the conclusions, which allows me the opportunity to shift gears which I thoroughly enjoy.

Getting lost in the methodology

The reason for this post, is a recurring disconnect I’ve seen when people ask for a journey when they really want a destination. I.e. they ask for biomimicry but don’t know why. A student several weeks ago came and pitched her thesis project as; “I’m going to do biomimicry”. My response was obvious and not helpful. “Why?” To which, there was no answer beyond; “Because it is cool.” It took us another hour to really identify what her core interest was (packaging) and why she wanted to learn from nature (reusability, complex deployable structures and packing efficiency).

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When to Let Go

Ahh... the never ending frustrations of design process...

In any creative process it is always difficult to know when you have what is needed to move into the next stage of thinking. Moving from research, the gathering of insights, into ideation, transforming those insights into action, is almost always a surprisingly difficult process. If you’re a little over-enthusiastic like myself, you’re likely to want to explore every insight and try to solve every possible challenge.

The real trick is identifying exactly what should move forward, and what can be left behind.

Good insights derail design process

As mentioned previously, the insights from good design research are usually extraordinarily simple in hindsight. But in the thick of things it can be almost impossible to summon up the courage to commit to such a simple observation, especially when you have reams of other data that you don’t want to go to waste.

For example, imagine you are doing an architecture project for community development in a specific habitat and have exhaustively researched all the biological models and that align with your functional design challenges. You are swamped with articles, spreadsheets and diagrams of incredible insights and opportunities. With your nose to the grindstone and a deadline looming, it is easy to be overwhelmed when generating ideas as you rush to pull every little element together into the utopian building that will foster the perfect community.

But do you really know what needs to be designed?

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Biomaterials of the Future

Nanofabricated hairs that self-assemble into different structures on command. From Harvard WYSS Institute

Science fiction may be getting closer to reality in the future of materials.

The WYSS Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard is an interdisciplinary “alliance” between the internally diverse schools of Medicine, Engineering, Arts & Sciences, as well as a broad array of Universities and Research Centres. Their focus is the development of new materials using the deep, micro scale principles of self assembling natural materials, and the vision of their research is pretty wild.

The deceptively simple mission statement of the WYSS Institute reveals incredible goals:

The Wyss Institute aims to discover the engineering principles that Nature uses to build living things, and harnesses these insights to create biologically inspired materials and devices that will revolutionize healthcare and create a more sustainable world… Understanding of how living systems build, recycle, and control is also guiding efforts focused on development of entirely new approaches for constructing buildings, converting energy, controlling manufacturing, and improving our environment.

The self assembled future

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