Politics and design thinking: more in common than you think

Last week, USIP’s Andrew Blum wrote a great piece (on Tom Murphy’s A View From The Cave) about the limitations of design thinking when it comes to politics. Blum makes the solid point that design thinking works best when a certain amount of consensus exists around the problem that’s being addressed. For political issues, which are all about contested power and disagreements over values, such consensus is elusive.

Design thinking has found its entry points into political issues with narrow targeting. Blum’s example is the Atrocity Prevention Challenge. It focuses on information-gathering as a way to prevent violence, while essentially ignoring (or making unstated assumptions about) how the gathered information actually translates to violence prevention. The narrow targeting is necessary to apply design methods, but it constrains the overall impact that can be made.

However, I think there’s hope. Design thinking can take many forms. Like any discipline, it includes a range of methods and frameworks that can be applied to a variety of problems. Because politics itself lies at the intersection of so many aspects of human activity, political analysis must pull from a wide variety of disciplines. Design thinking has the potential to contribute to that.

There are several natural overlaps between design thinking and political analysis. I see these overlaps in my day job at Reboot, where we apply principles from design (as well as other fields) to inherently political issues like governance, accountability, and institutional development.

Chief among these overlaps is a human-centered approach. Design calls them “users”, while political terms vary based on where you’re sitting — “targets” or “constituents” perhaps. Regardless, both fields recognize individuals as the primary decision-making unit. If you want to design a better smartphone, you need to truly understand how users will interface with it throughout their day. Likewise, if you want to sway political decision-makers, you need to understand the various pressures and incentives competing for their attention and action. Empathy is critical in both cases.

Another area of overlap lies in multi-disciplinary understandings of context. Understanding how a user might interact with a product or service requires a mix of disciplines — psychology, linguistics, aesthetics, anthropology, and even biology, depending on what’s being designed. Political analysis requires an understanding of similar disciplines, with an even heavier reliance on economics, governance, conflict, rhetoric, and often ethnography. Both require analytical processes to capture insights from across multiple disciplines, synthesis to understand how they relate, and horizontal thinking to consider unexpected outcomes.

Finally, the iterative and adaptive nature of both fields is obvious. You see this built into design with practices like prototyping, and you hear it in phrases like “fail fast.” In political action, adaptation is equally critical. Think about pilot-tests for new initiatives, trial balloons floated to gauge support, or the recently coined “problem-driven iterative adaption” approach.

Abstracting a level: the link between these two fields is that both grapple with complexity in a pragmatic way. When they’re at their best — avoiding the lofty idealism of political rhetoric or the techno-utopianism of designers — both fields find ways to act and create progress in a confusing world. They both avoid the detached analysis-paralysis of academia and the temptation to build grand theories from simplistic assumptions (I’m looking at you, rational-choice theory). Politics and design both live in the messy middle.

These similarities suggest that the methods of one could be useful to the other. Design thinking can supplement political thinking on problems such as public service delivery or institutional governance. Blum is right that design thinking, as it’s currently applied to narrowly circumscribed topics, does a disservice to political issues. But I think we can broaden the scope a little bit.

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