Stop at that top turtle and you miss that it’s turtles all the way down.
February 16, 2020 10:00 AM   Subscribe

But design isn’t magic. To address a wicked problem is to look for its roots — and there’s no hexagon map for getting there. Stop at “insufficient competitiveness” and what you get is a solution that can be tidy exactly because it doesn’t touch the deep causes of Gainesville’s economic stagnation. You get a solution that’s indifferent to the legacies of slavery and segregation, to the highway projects that systematically cut off and blighted East Gainesville, to East Gainesville’s miserable public transportation, and to Florida’s $8.46 minimum wage.
posted by Mrs Potato (23 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
This is a really compelling and thoughtful essay, thanks for posting it!
posted by oulipian at 10:30 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]

Hey I live in Gainesville!

As I read through that I noted both the emphasis on empathy. I also noted that the public leaders in charge of the campaign where white while the majority of people in east Gainesville are not.

We know from experience, over and over, that to solve a problem you have to include the people most affected. You have to do more than just listen, even if you listen with empathy.

I wonder if focusing on empathy as a first step allows firms and the people who hire them (both populated mainly by the privileged class) to sidestep bringing minorities into partnership. In others words does it give them cover for the same old paternalism?
posted by oddman at 10:49 AM on February 16 [14 favorites]

They seem to have elided the step of defining who they would empathize with. Or possibly the difference between empathizing with someone and doing something to reduce their pain (said the Walrus to the Carpenter).
posted by clew at 10:53 AM on February 16

   _____	   _____
  /     \      	  /	\
 /     	 \	 /	 \
/  YOUR	  \_____/   IS 	  \_____        
\      	  /    	\      	  /    	\      	   
 \     	 / 	 \     	 /     	 \	    
  \_____/ PROCESS \_____/  ALSO   \_____    
	\      	  /	\      	  /	\   
	 \     	 / 	 \ 	 /	 \  
	  \_____/         \_____/ RACIST  \    	       	 
				\      	  /
				 \	 / 
posted by scruss at 10:55 AM on February 16 [30 favorites]

A bunch of Silicon Valley dorks looking at a place like Gainesville and deciding what they needed to start with was revamping the city's logo, branding, and web site? I guess what design really means is only looking for your keys under the street light because that's where the light is best.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 11:05 AM on February 16 [23 favorites]

Can the values of Stanford graduates and professors even cross the railway line/highway to East Gainesville with the use of empathy alone?
posted by Mrs Potato at 11:18 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]

> A bunch of Silicon Valley dorks looking at a place like Gainesville and deciding what they needed to start with was revamping the city's logo, branding, and web site? I guess what design really means is only looking for your keys under the street light because that's where the light is best.

I believe from the article the website bit was one small part in the beginning of the document, it's a bit reductive and knee-jerk to make this particular joke - they suggested adding a department to city government as well, for example
posted by thedaniel at 11:21 AM on February 16 [3 favorites]

(Now I'm not saying that the technocratic approach that seems to have alienated the actual residents was good, just that this comment is the laziest snark possible)
posted by thedaniel at 11:29 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]

`Design thinking' is `consulting management' for the would-be gentry who want to be cool as well as authoritative -- a class of people who will not be judged on how well their efforts work longterm (for whom?) but on whether they belong.

Most powerful families jumped into the upper classes by being *very* useful, and some hereditary aristocrats have managed to be broadly useful anyway, but the approach as a whole is what made technocracy and meritocracy seem politically palatable.
posted by clew at 11:35 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]

Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow or go home
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:42 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]

For a less caricatured version of the basic idea here, check our the Participatory Budgeting Project.

The usual local government model, if you were to arrive at it with the same snark glasses with which we're viewing the stanford people, is also Highly Problematic. (And to be sure, I too, think Stanford people generally have their heads up their asses.) Public involvement in choosing how to allocate the city budget is often extremely limited, and more responsive to groups like, say, police unions than the people being oppressed by the police. How do you go about changing those systems? What do you change them to?

And for the snarkers: Are there ways for outsiders to a particular locality to help make things better, without getting blasted just for being outsiders in one way or another? Or should every locality just figure out their own local solutions? Do you know of examples of the kinds of solutions you think are workable?

"We know from experience, over and over, that to solve a problem you have to include the people most affected. You have to do more than just listen, even if you listen with empathy."

Well, if you ever pick up any text on design thinking, this kind of inclusion is exactly what it preaches...
posted by kaibutsu at 11:57 AM on February 16 [9 favorites]

Bless this essay for being historically grounded, not reductive, and written by a designer. "Design thinking" at its worst is reductive; the overall critique here is thoughtful.

There's a lot of internal debate in the design community right now about how design can and should apply to civic issues in particular. It's an important debate. Many of the folks involved have moved beyond the more naive / destructive approaches toward those which heavily draw from the community and from existing civic expertise. It sounds like this effort in Gainesville did some of that ... and then also did not do some of that.

Some other discussions of design thinking and design in the civic realm for the curious:

How I stopped worrying and learned to love design thinking by Christina Wodtke

Design for the long term by Cyd Harrell
posted by feckless at 11:57 AM on February 16 [9 favorites]

This time the specific fear is that the knowledge economy is coming for everyone. Bewildered and anxious leaders, public and private, have responded by throwing in their lots with the seemingly magical knowledge-work that is design.

Well-put. I think we will look back at a number of these projects as very very close to grift practiced on functionally less sophisticated leaders trying to latch onto trends largely manufactured to be sold to people like them.
posted by praemunire at 12:10 PM on February 16 [6 favorites]

1. Early in his career, Rittel often called design planning. Design, as he saw it, was the planning of complex systems, environments, and tools...
That as they say is an Outstanding Footnote. The relationship between physical design of places and the human experience of existing in them is even older than any of the fields this essay mentions—urban planning as a system goes back into the 19thC at least. These aren’t new urges to systematise; the OR and systems thinking people only applied data tools to old political processes; nobody can claim to be the first to try to think through social complexity and reform. You read the problems IDEO are describing and think yeah, Patrick Geddes was thinking about similar things at the turn of the 20thC. It’s frustrating to say the least to watch generously motivated empathists—which is a good thing to be!—founder on mistakes made by generations of similar people before them, going back to Victorians in hoop skirts and top hats.

As for this one unfortunately:
There was an earlier Anglo-American vogue for design — a love affair with industrial design, beginning in the Depression era — but it was relatively benign in its claims and its outcomes
If the 1930s vogue for industrial design was a love affair it was a multi-sided one, call it a polyamorous relationship, with some genuinely nasty and anti-human political movements extolling modernist changes, glorifying machines from the Futurists onward. Only an American would look at the moral aesthetics of 1930s planning and design and remember a benign golden era...
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 1:01 PM on February 16 [10 favorites]

I know it's just one line in a long piece but

to the highway projects that systematically cut off and blighted East Gainesville

"Highway projects" is a really grand and generous way to describe Waldo Rd and Williston Rd, which is the only thing I can think that they mean.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 1:24 PM on February 16

I'm making the assumption that the highway projects actually refer to I-75 and 441, the location of which favored Western Gainesville. I'd have to stretch to find the reference, but I believe they were planned to favor the University side of town over the older Waldo and Williston roads.
posted by ajarbaday at 8:32 PM on February 16

Snarks aside, empathy is not enough if there are no processes or tools or frameworks to get you out of your mental model of the operating environment to discover the differences in the context and challenges of the residents of East Gainesville. This blindspot in HCD's lack of contextualization (note their favourite Venn Diagram floats in space rather than within the conventional rectangle denoting the Universe set within which Venn Diagrams tend to reside) comes through whenever HCD/design thinking, particularly IDEO style, is applied in contexts which are new-to-the-team, such as interventions designed for developing countries, especially when funded by development aid/humanitarian funds.

Then, the issues raised in this article about the oversights in Gainesville become even more critical if your methodology itself isn't designed to bridge disparities in socio-economic conditions.
posted by Mrs Potato at 1:32 AM on February 17

I cherry picked and read just the Gainesville parts, and other than the line about "buildings crawling with Spanish moss" (uh, naw. Spanish moss does not grow on structures) and the blending of mayors (the nightmare Ed Braddy was long gone by the time we dragged Anthony Lyons into that GTFO meeting), this is just exactly what happened in Gainesville. True, yes, it wasn't all talk because in addition to changing the website and the city slogan, they added a department. The Department of Doing. It's like nobody ever read any Orwell around here.

In fact they really did do a lot. For one, they spent ENORMOUS money on a new city park for rich people with young children centering around the very-expensive-to-get-into but lovely-to-look-upon-from-the-outside Cade Museum, which is named for the chemist who invented Gatorade. Just before the meeting where Anthony Lyons resigned, there was a big blowup over rezoning because the rich neighborhoods realized they weren't going to be exempt from all the condominiums mushrooming up everywhere, so they threw an organized fit, and the now-mayor attempted to shame everybody because one sixteenth or something of every new condo that goes up has to be "affordable housing" thus the lawyers and profs were all being NIMBY racists and Gainesville has a proud tradition of fighting racism and blah blah blah.

I don't know the actual percent and should probably look up a fact once in my life, but it was a laughably small portion of the new developments that had to be affordable, and the city's definition of affordable doesn't match mine. Meanwhile, they've razed houses all over town and displaced lower-income people in order to put up pricey multistory cash cow properties.

Besides the pie in the sky motivation for all this big change (the supposed huge influx of tech innovators who are going to somehow think it's a great idea to move to north central Florida), there's an actual thing that may actually happen, namely the tide will rise and Miami et al will move north. The crowds of rich white people the developers have been catering to may actually one day arrive. Meanwhile, thanks to the Department of Doing, the people currently living in the town have a new built environment to enjoy from the outside!
posted by Don Pepino at 6:49 AM on February 17 [7 favorites]

These problems also didn’t have true or false answers, only better or worse solutions. They were not, indeed, like math problems. There was no definitive test of a solution, no proof. More effort might not always lead to something better.

This is a common misunderstanding of math! That is, modern advanced mathematics has lots of examples of problems where there are multiple possible approaches, each having different pros and cons without one necessarily being a universal "best" or "right" answer.

It's also, unfortunately, an entirely accurate critique of the problems with how math was applied in the mid-century era, from what I read. Over-simplification of models, failure to check that hypotheses or initial conditions are satisfied before applying a mathematical result, etc. If you thought the discussion of this history of design was interesting and want to read more about the math end of things, I recommend the book Soldiers of Reason.

It seems to be related to some strains of thought intrinsic to philosophy of math, as well - I don't mean to imply that the issue is entirely one of non-mathematicians applying math incorrectly. There's the platonist versus constructivist debate, plus the history of math in the 1800s was very much aligned with this rationalist approach - attempts (eg. Russell and Whitehead) to build all of mathematics up from formal logical foundations, the general idea behind Hilbert proposing his list of key problems that were still open at the turn of his century but whose solution he felt would almost complete the field of math, etc. But limitations of this rationalist project quickly arose within math itself, as well (Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem, quick solutions to some of Gilbert's problems showing they weren't as important as predicted, and entirely new branches of math generated from work toward solving other of the Hilbert problems showing that math was far from a complete edifice, and likely to continue expanding indefinitely). But I'm going off on a derail from the main topic of this fpp here. Some key developments in math from the last 100 years or so that do relate to the article and are important ideas in general are the study of complex or chaotic systems, including the development of probability theory and statistical tools to study complex systems; as well as the realization that even seemingly very simple systems can exhibit chaotic behavior in the sense that their long-term behavior can't necessarily be predicted from knowing the initial state, without just observing the system as it develops over time. In particular, the study of systems with emergent structure or emergent behavior (basic example: Conway's Game of Life) can give some important insights into some of the behavior and/but also some of the potential difficulties or limitations in modeling the sort of complex human social systems that the fpp article talks about.
posted by eviemath at 7:09 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]

I think the embrace of or discomfort with epistemic freedom is a key idea, too. This part resonated with me:
This methodlessness, Rittel believed, was a wonderful thing. It entailed, he wrote later, an “awesome epistemic freedom” (the italics are his), without algorithmic guardrails or rules of validity. “It is not easy to live with epistemic freedom,” he wrote, and so designers often sought out sachzwang — practical constraint, inherent necessity, “a device to ‘derive ought from fact.’” But they shouldn’t. Without methodological constraint, design had room for heterogeneity. It had the capacity to surprise. “Nothing has to be or to remain as it is,” Rittel wrote, “or as it appears to be.
posted by eviemath at 7:27 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]

And for the snarkers: Are there ways for outsiders to a particular locality to help make things better, without getting blasted just for being outsiders in one way or another? Or should every locality just figure out their own local solutions? Do you know of examples of the kinds of solutions you think are workable?

I think the answer is that new solutions aren't really what's always needed, regardless of their source. So often leadership has a fetish for innovation (and its corresponding publicity) when in truth the "radical" solutions are already known and kind of basic.

How to solve the wicked problem of inequality? Trade unions might help. Contaminated drinking water? Industrial regulation used to work pretty well. Food desert? Municipal grocery stores used to be a thing. Like the pull-quote says, by choosing to address 'competitiveness' in the abstract, rather than real and known problems in the concrete, they sort of set up a straw-man that can never really be resolved, but can be consulted on endlessly.

I like how Gram ties the source of innovation and ideas directly to class:

There’s another problem, too. By embracing “design thinking,” we attribute to design a kind of superior epistemology: a way of knowing, of “solving,” that is better than the old and local and blue-collar and municipal and unionized and customary ways. . . . Often, as in Gainesville, the implicit goal is to elevate the class bases of the institutions that have organized their informants’ lives.
posted by Think_Long at 11:03 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]

Thanks for this post, and for the comments about Gainesville from those of you who know the town. I've spent 15 years of my life raging against "design thinking", while teaching something not too different.
Recently, some of my students asked if we could have a presentation from another institute here at the university, who do the design thinking stuff. They had "learnt" it from friends over there and thought the whole class should have access to this brilliant method. Their initial work was a perfect demonstration of why we shouldn't do that. The discussion gave me new insight into what is wrong with the thing, (obviously I don't speak badly of colleagues in front of students, just for the record). They had 50 pages of emphatic interviews with potential users, post-its, research into concepts and materials and some ideations and prototypes and testing. But their actual proposal was rubbish. It was complicated and ugly and useless.
I think that for lay people, and young students, the most mystical part of design is how you get the "idea", the basic concept for the design. Indeed, this does seem to be very difficult, even for some designers. I had a professor who literally screamed at students who used his one idea in life. Design Thinking offers a transparent "method" for getting to a concept, something anyone can learn after a course at IDEO, or many other places in the world who have bought into their model. But getting to an idea or a concept is only 10%, max. 20% of an actual product or solution. The real challenge is how to get that concept to become a succesfull product, and that involves months or years of complex teamwork across disciplines. It involves drawings and models and prototypes, and discussing those with all of the stakeholders. Look at that infamous IDEO mouse. It's a nice piece of engineering, but it is hardly a good design.
I've seen dozens of situations like the one in Gainesville, and I've seen my students make the same mistakes again and again. A consultancy comes in and does a lot of empathic workshops with tons of post-its, they make recommendations, and eventually something is imposed on the very same citizens who thought they were being listened to. There is no dialogue about the actual designs, and no attempt to bridge between the project owners and the users/citizens. And I'm actually a bit impressed by how often the users/citizens are right, and the project owners should have heard their voices for their own sake. This in an example where my students were involved at an early stage. The citizens wanted a greener solution, but the municipality and the financing trust wanted B.I.G., the celebrity architects. Now everyone acknowledges that the paved-over result is not optimal for handling the extreme weather we are already dealing with because of global warming. Oh, and the kids resent being reminded of their multicultural heritage in the international press. They just want to be normal kids.
In short, the IDEO method encourages stakeholders to have a lot of discussion at the abstract concept level of design, and that is mostly useless. Dialogue is interesting when there is something real at stake, which is why the Participatory Budgeting Project posted by kaibutsu above is interesting.

Finally, this whole discussion about design methodology is also driven by the fact that most actual designers are not very aware of theories of methodology - they are practitioners, and they are working just fine. The people who write about it are not. But think about it. If design methods were such a mysterious individual and tacit thing which no-one can describe, how can architects and designers and planners even work together? Which they do all the time in huge collaborations. I've done interviews with several succesful designers across many disciplines, and they are all quite accurate about what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. It always involves some very repetitive work of making proposals at every scale of the project, drawing them, constructing models and prototypes, evaluating the results critically and repeating either until the product is excellent or you have run out of money. In the case of a car, that might be 7 years of working on a model/prototype that gets incrementally better. And all of the people I've talked with have repeated that there is no shortcut. How you get to the first proposal can be different, and it is interesting, but it doesn't matter much in the end.
Renzo Piano is a good architect, and so is Peter Zumthor. They get to their ideas in radically different ways, but at the end of the day, the way the proposals become major works is through the hard work of repetitive proposing and critical review, where all the different issues of the design are gradually brought into play.

Design Thinking has little to do with the actual work of design.
posted by mumimor at 11:36 AM on February 17 [8 favorites]

Yes, yes, YES, they post-it-ed us all half to death. They had us fill out these surveys to get our input, and then when they rezoned my neighborhood so that our community garden can now be shaded by a six-story condominium to house the people they displace from the three-story condominium when they tear it down to build a 12-story condominium in its place and all of us who had been at the brainstorming meetings flooded into City Hall to wail and gnash, I had the ultimate joy of seeing how they had used my "input." They'd given us about an inch of space in which to write our ideas, and I'd filled up that space with writing about how they shouldn't build condos on top of the community garden and continued my argument into the right margin and then around the bottom and up the left margin. There, reproduced on their powerpoint slide proving to the city that they took our ideas into account, was my Beautiful-Mind-looking survey response. You couldn't read it, of course, but you could certainly see that the Department of Doing did their due diligence and got the community's input.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:00 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]

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