Nov 29, 2012

Design Thinking and Building Resilient Systems

Annie Nguyen's picture
Annie Nguyen
User Experience Designer

Being a user experience designer and researcher, I tend to question the status quo and think about how to improve experiences. And since Sandy hit New York, I’ve been thinking a lot about storm preparedness, response, recovery, and relief.

The interesting thing about designing in today’s age is that we can no longer create rigid solutions and expect them to be meaningful 5, 10 or 20 years out, as the population increases and the environmental shifts continue. Solutions must be more flexible and adaptable, especially when they apply to one of the most complex systems of all—cities.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, "Learning to Bounce Back," PopTech founder Andrew Zolli writes about resiliency (an area of interest for Hot’s Sarah Brooks, as well). “Resilience speaks not to just how buildings weather storms, but to how people weather them, too,” says Zolli. Building resilient systems requires empathy and compassion, knowing people and understanding their needs, communities, culture, networks, and attitudes to the conditions and environments they live in. We must take all of these into account when we design and plan, which is the essence of a design thinking process.

Design thinking is a holistic approach that can tackle complex system problems. It considers the bigger picture and offers myriad possibilities, which can be flexible and adaptable. Design by nature is collaborative and consists of teams from different backgrounds and disciplines. This should also be true when it comes to tackling natural disaster planning and recovery. Designers should be at the table with government officials, institutional and company leaders, urban planners, economists, and other stakeholders to think of creative ways of working, reorganize information in thoughtful ways, and develop processes to implement.

Now more than ever, we need to come together in a coordinated effort. We must to learn from our mistakes and to do so we need to be transparent about the process and the decisions we make. This will allow room for continual adjustments along the way and for people to play integral parts, especially residents who eventually are the ones who rebuild in the long term.

Chuck Owen, distinguished professor emeritus at Institute of Design, IIT, said it best in his article “Design Thinking: Notes on Its Nature and Use”:

“...the handiwork of humankind is finally beginning to impress itself on the global environment and on us, its inhabitants. This should inspire us as design professionals to reconsider what we do, who our clients are, and where we can best offer our expertise. In particular, the decision processes of high-level decision makers are in need of serious overhaul. The ultimate value of human- and environment-centeredness is a guarantee that the best interests of humankind and environment will be considered in any project.”

Our work needs to consider the complex systems in which people work, live, and play. Today we have information, technology, and talent at our fingertips. We must shift our mindset that complex systems in place cannot change. They will eventually fail if they don't. Rethinking our systems to becoming more resilient is an investment. Designers dream to tackle big complex problems and the time has come to make it happen.

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