We can no longer predict the outcomes of our actions when dealing with complex systems, like cities. According to Tim Brown, CEO at IDEO, this calls for a democratization of design and we must all participate.

How can we design cities when we cannot predict the outcome of our actions? This was one of the key challenges that were discussed at the High-Level meeting on Design, Innovation, and Urbanization in Tokyo hosted by the Global Agenda Council on Design and Innovation. Tim Brown, CEO at IDEO, was one of the panelists arguing strongly for a more democratized design approach as a response to the challenge; an approach in which design is to be perceived more as a code than as an artefact. But what does such a design approach look like in practice, and how can it relate to city planning? We took these questions to Tim Brown to learn more.

The design of behaviors

“Intentionally improving the state of things is what design is all about,” Tim Brown explains when asked about the development in design thinking, “but this very top-down linear approach, that design and planning have generally followed for the last couple of hundred years, struggles or fails when it is put into a situation that is sufficiently complex; and cities are sufficiently complex to challenge that notion. We don’t understand the dynamics of everything that goes on in urban environments well enough at the scale of a city. We don’t understand it well enough to be able to predict the outcome of any particular large scale system design that we might carry out.”

“What I am arguing is sort of a biological approach, where one builds on the ideas of Charles Darwin. What we need are design approaches which are essentially focused on the small scale, but which scale up, and where we are focusing on the design of behaviors. This is where the notion of design as code comes in.”

“The traditional idea of design is to freeze our intent in the form of something like a blueprint, where we decide every possible outcome.” As an alternative Tim Brown suggests an emergent approach, “An emergent approach would be one way that we might actually design the code, or design the behaviors, which will end up as some sort of emergent effect, that we can’t necessarily completely predict, but if we do a good enough job at designing that code and designing those behaviors, we will end up with positive outcomes.”

When further explaining our lacking ability to predict the outcome of our design Tim Brown uses an analogy from the field of biology, “We may not be able to exactly predict what [the outcomes] are going to be; just like you can’t exactly predict the shape of a flock of birds when they are migrating. The birds are behaving around a set of rules, a sort of code, but the way that adds up when it comes to the very large scale is not something that is predictable.”

Democratization of design

This mental model of approaching complex systems, like cities, from an emergent biological perspective challenges the traditional blueprint model. But to achieve this we need to find and implement the right mechanisms. “I believe that [the mechanisms] fundamentally lie in getting the tools of design, both the methodology, the mindset, and literally the physical tools of design into the hands of many many more people.” Tim Brown says, and continues, ”When you only have a single, central point of control, as the designer or architect, you will inevitably get a linear top-down design solution. But if you put the tools of design into the hands of many more people, then you will get something that is emergent and bottom-up. That is the fundamental principle in my opinion; you need to literally democratize the tools of design so that many more people in these complex situations, such as cities, can actually participate in design.”

As a concrete example of how design as code can materialize, Tim Brown points to the service sector, “For instance, there is this grocery market, here in San Francisco, that is famous for very high quality service, and in fact, many of the largest retailers in the world come to visit them to figure out how they do it. What the owner of that store does, is that he just have these simple rules about how his staff engage with customers. For example, if customers are within 10 feet of a staff member then one of the behaviors is to just look him in the eyes. By looking him in the eyes you are offering the opportunity for that customer to ask you a question if he has one. That is an example of a piece of code. It is not saying: ‘always say this to the customer’. It is not a script. It is simply saying: ‘if a customer is a certain distance from you make sure to look him in the eyes, so that if they have a question or a request you are creating the opportunity for them to ask it’. That is a very simple idea of a piece of code. And I think you can imagine those kinds of things happening not just in service scenarios, but in all sorts of situations in cities that might create a higher degree of collaboration, or make it easier for people to achieve things together.”

The democratization of design is already happening, which platforms like Kickstarter and OpenIDEO are great examples of. But if we wish to reap the full benefits of this approach in city planning and our shared lives in general, we all need to take part in the design process. For those of us who are still hesitant Tim Brown has a simple message, “People are not lacking in the core talent. Everybody have creative talent. What they lack is the confidence to exploit it.”

About The Author

Kasper Worm-Petersen
Managing Director

Kasper is Managing Director and co-founder of Grasp. He is passionate about education and the intersection between the humanities and business. He is currently finishing his MSc in Philosophy and Business Administration from Copenhagen Business School and is a Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum.

One Response

  1. blobbysox

    Of course the world is complex , successful design in dense cities really can only take place, when all the stake holders are present, if there is no “buy in” from the community there is little cohesion for the whole and everyone becomes a trusting victim

    For myself I do take note of the 10 foot rule and management’s correct understanding that looking someone in the eyes does create a connection between people, a rule that many cities and city planners have not really recognized, but people in the street do.

    Good article thanks


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