Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Guest post: Derek Miller: Design Ethics for International Peace and Security

This is a guest post by Derek Miller, founder of the Policy Lab and senior fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). The Policy Lab provides research and design services at the policy, organization, and field-levels to reduce barriers, create conditions, and design solutions for strategic engagement with local communities. It is the successor to the Security Needs Assessment Protocol (SNAP) project of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva (2006-2010). The SNAP project was an innovation initiative to explore the potential for best process approaches to the design of local action on security matters by UN operational agencies. With Derek and his colleague Lisa Rudnick, and ethnographer Gerry Philipsen of the University of Washington, I co-organised a three-day conference on Strategic Design and Public Policy at Glen Cove, NY, in June 2010, the brought together specialists from design, policy and cultural research to explore the idea of bringing local knowledge to the design of local action in the context of security and disarmament.

Design Ethics for International Peace and Security
October 2010

Lecture delivered to the University of Gothenburg, Business and Design Lab, 6 October 20101
by Derek B. Miller

Thank you for coming today. I hate it when I’m booked into a large room and no one comes. I have to suffer the double indignity of talking to myself and then having my own words echoed back at me.

My thanks as well to professor Ulla Johansson, whom I met at a conference in Cleveland on the convergence of design and management.

I do want to discuss a topic that I believe is important. It is not a topic I have seen addressed in any great detail or with particular urgency, and yet the topic deserves both. If we to boil it down to just a phrase, I’d say the topic is design ethics, and my particular concern is better ensuring that the ever-closer relations that design is forming with public policy is informed by the necessary seriousness of mind required to achieve some real good in the world. Underlying that aspiration is also a concern. The concern is that failure to do so could mean that we actually cause a harm.

As designers look towards ever-new domains for social innovation, especially in public service, it would be wise to ensure that this aspiration towards social betterment is guided by the tutored consideration of our actions and their impact on others.
My perspective on design comes from outside the field looking inward. My vantage point for reflecting on design has been Security Needs Assessment Protocol project at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva. Started in 2006, SNAP was an innovation initiative into the design of community-level peace and security projects and programmes by the United Nations. I designed and ran that programme with Lisa Rudnick.

SNAP was supported by the Swedish, Dutch and Norwegian foreign ministries and its purpose was conceptualize, design, and test new ways to A) generate local knowledge at the community level and B) turn it into a strategic asset in the design of local-level interventions. Our work was thematically concerned with community security — that is, attending to matters of violence — though the applicability of our work extends rather farther.

Recently, I’m pleased to say, the 22nd Biennial of Industrial Design (BIO 22) being held at the museum of Architecture and Design in Slovenia selected SNAP as one of the “good practice examples” in the field of Service and Information Design to recognize this innovation in bringing social research, design, and international peace and security closer together. I’d like to add that our introduction to the field of design was assisted by our colleagues at Live work in London and Oslo. This wasn’t a client relationship but rather, since 2008, has been an on-going conversation into the relationship between our professional domains. Our conversations with Lucy Kimbell at the Said Business School at Oxford further contributed to our induction into the profession of design. Those conversations continue.

The process of bringing together the professional domains of socio-cultural research, design, and international peace and security was a revealing exercise. And today, albeit briefly, I want to share a few things it revealed. The center of gravity for this discussion might be termed “responsible design.” The framework for considering responsible design is the topic of ethics.
To discuss this properly, I find it helpful to begin with a distinction. The distinction is between an ethos for doing good, and the ethics of doing good. An ethos is a general orientation, or set of guiding principles. It is like choosing a direction, like facing east rather than west.

Many designers today, especially the younger generation of designers, want to do some good in the world. They no longer seem satisfied simply creating objects of desire for profit. This is laudable. But for the good intentions of the design profession to actually result in some good, it is going to be necessary to carefully attend to how we design. Design is both a social process, with implications for others who are participants to that process, and also brings something new into the world that may have social force. Attending to both matters responsibly will be essential as the field moves forward.

This is especially true as design steps into the wider world of international peace and security — given that the issue here is not consumer value but life and death.

If an ethos is an orientation, then ethics is the set of rules we establish and enact to guide and judge to our actions.
There is some limited discussion about ethics in design, but in comparison to codes of conduct in, say, anthropology, architecture, and medicine, one would be forgiven for finding them undeveloped. Design ethics appears to be under-theorized, and under- codified given that design research is now crossing the borderline into social research, including ethnography, which involves research with or on human beings. It is worth recalling, for example, that since 1947 and the establishment of the Nuremberg Code, the voluntary consent of people to research has been treated as “absolutely essential” by many organizations. Though written in direct response to medical experimentation, design research is now stepping into a world, as mentioned, where the process of learning, and the outcomes of learning both have social implications. It is time to turn an eye towards the ethics of design research.

Perhaps even more importantly, design is also stepping into the area of social action, through such activities as social innovation, whereby the outcome of a design is a social change in the world. This invites a rather obvious question. What, exactly, is guiding your conduct? It is a profit motive that allows the market to regulate value? Or will you uncritically adopt the mandates and missions of the organizations that hire you? Will you trust your own inner voice to lead to you to proper conduct, or will you endeavor to determine what common ethical grounds can be created for cooperation? How will you do that?

We are not going to solve this today. But we can take some preliminary steps to map out the terrain that we are going to face. That terrain is conceptual. It is a place of ideas, and the relations between ideas that in turn guide our actions. Clarity is helpful in that regard. So let’s first try, for just a moment, to conceptualize and situate design in continuum between knowledge and action.

Close your eyes for a moment. Try to remember the world before Powerpoint. Imagine two circles beside one another. They do not touch. The circle on the left will be labeled knowledge. The circle on the right will be labeled action.
What is the relationship to be between knowledge and action? And where does design fit in that relationship both conceptually and procedurally?

In my field, of international peace and security, we can actually see the institutionalized distinction between knowledge and action. The university system and think tanks, policy centers, and research NGOs constitute the “knowledge sector.” They get money from governments to go generate knowledge and then bring that knowledge across the street to the decisionmakers in the operational agencies as well as to the politicians. These latter people are the decision makers. They are the consumers of knowledge. (If we’re lucky). This is not ideal, but it is real.

Those who generate knowledge are welcome to advocate for certain types of actions. But ultimately, it is the elected leaders, representatives or the civil servants who will really decide. (I’m speaking here about liberal democratic systems, and the international institutions modeled on them. That might not be the whole world, but it is that part of the world that cares about design.)

Notice how something interesting has happened here. One of the inadvertent functions of democracy is to keep knowledge distinct from action. Action is to be a product of democratic choice, and bureaucratic implementation, not professional knowledge.

That is, action comes from decisionmaking, and decisionmaking is a political process, subject to political correction. You don’t like the decision, you throw out the decisionmaker and elect another one. Design exists only in debate. Not as a process for moving knowledge to action.

What is absolutely crucial to understand here is that the legitimacy of actions by decisionmakers — whether they are policymakers or civil servants — is derived from the political philosophy of democracy itself. Liberalism. The social contract. Self-government. We the people. That sort of thing. That is why it’s OK for them to do things to you. Raise your taxes. Tear up your roads. Go to war on your behalf. Change your health system. Legitimacy, in political processes, is presumed by the system. Is not a product of the system.

Here’s what’s good about the democratic model: It allows for, and creates, systems and processes to try and ensure that the will of the people is expressed in the action of decisionmakers — whether at the highest or lowest levels. Said differently, social action is meant to be derived from democratic processes. Insofar as democracy is good, social action will be legitimately enacted.

Here’s what’s bad about it: There’s no mechanism for good designs to be introduced into the system, because no one is really wondering what to do. When answers are dictated by political processes, people don’t entertain a lot of questions. Instead, they are given platforms, mandates or missions to fulfill. Because that’s what people want. The knowledge-to-action nexus simply does not create space for design process.

So is that end of the story? If there’s no design space in public policy, isn’t that the end of the road for design?

Actually, no. I think it’s just the beginning. And here’s why. The times are changing. Deep in the bowels of democratic nations, the very definition of legitimacy is starting to evolve. People don’t just want a voice anymore. They don’t just want to elect people who will advance their will. They are starting to demand results.

If at one time governments simply had to make hard decisions about peace and war, the economy, and other matters, today, the systems into which they are making decisions is so complex, so non-linear and dynamic, that sheer force of will and character is no longer enough. Climate change, global terrorism, the depletion of fossil fuels and the energy crisis, the shortage of clean water, the threat to the nation-state system in most of Africa and the Middle East, the breakdown of almost every social service including transportation, health, and education... these aren’t decisionmaking issues. They can’t be solved by leadership alone.
These are design issues. They require tutored and fastidious attention to the process of both generating knowledge, and moving it to action through processes of design.

I think the door is opening for design if we conceptualize design as a process for moving knowledge to action in innovative, rigorous and ethical ways. Design is the application solution for knowledge.

It's time to go back to the circles. I want you to push those two even farther apart now and make space for one right in the middle. And we will label that one “design.”

If we see little space for design in public policy due to certain philosophical premises in democracy — which become manifest as routines in bureaucracies — we do see comparably more space for design between knowledge and action in industry, where results somehow depend on the design of solutions to problems. Here, legitimacy isn’t presumed. It’s earned.

It is no wonder, then, that designers and business leaders are thinking that design can now be applied to public policy.
After all, if people want results, and we design results, it should be a pretty smooth transference of skill sets. And so, with energy and a whole lot of money, design is stepping into the unknown and promising that it can lead.

And yet, for those of us who are serious researchers and are serious public policy people, one can’t help but sense a certain loose relationship between design today and the simple notion of rigor.

I had a professor at Oxford who once said, “the less you know about something, the easier it is to develop a theory about it.”

As design moves away — or at least broaden from — its creation of objects of desire to social processes and systems, it is reaching a point of creative tension with its own premises. These premises are challenged as it steps into new domains, and also as it steps into new cultural systems. Premises about value. About utility. About rationality. About social relations. Even about the very nature and use of time.

This is a wonderful moment because design now has a chance to step through the open door being offered by the re-imaging of public services and government. It is a formative period too, because the directions you set out on will have profound implications down the road as the paths further diverge. Get it right, and design will take it’s place between the philosopher and the king at the high tables of social influence. Get it wrong, get distracted, go the easy route, and design will be a trendy, marginal field that could never gets act together.

My concern right now — as I advocate for design in public policy — is that the field is adopting some rather under-developed theory at what seems to be alarming rate, at a very formative moment. In the rush to be useful, to be seductive, to be creative, to be responsive, the professional field of design might be taking shortcuts that will lead it quickly to irrelevance. There could be a “design bubble” developing and it could pop.

One way to avoid this is to not mistake the panic of industry to find new ideas with the quality of ideas its finding. Panic buying tends to push the price of ideas, and therefore the investment in them, down. In a panic, any old idea will do.
However. If the goal here is really to achieve some social good in the public service, lead design into a more socially influential future for the greater good, and actually mainstream design at the nexus between knowledge and action, then we might just need to slow down, and grow up.

Those are two odd requests for design because, historically, it hasn’t needed to. But as design looks towards public service, and as business looks towards emerging markets, fragile states and conflict zones, business as usual is going to get people killed.
That’s not a mere turn of phrase. Here are the topics I deal with at UNIDIR, in no particular order. Small arms and light weapons, landmines, conflict prevention, crisis management, post-conflict reconstruction, peacebuilding, weapons collection, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants, crimes against humanity, child trafficking, gender-based violence, conflict analysis, conflict sensitive operational programming, and that’s just the small stuff. Add biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, weaponization of space, terrorism and counter-terrorism, state fragility and just basically war, and we’re starting to fill out the topics that come up on Monday mornings at 11 at UNIDIR’s staff meetings.

These are real, grown up issues that need real, grown up attention by people who are committed — professionally – to trying to figure out what is wrong with their own ideas, and not what is right about them. Designers are worryingly not involved in that process. Design is trying to prove itself, rather than disprove itself. It is the latter, though, that will serve the social good.

Allow me to explain. What my don at Oxford meant by his quip was that every idea seems like a good idea until you learn what’s wrong with it. And generally speaking, you learn what’s wrong with it by trying to.

There is a very strong school of thought in science, and I count myself in this camp, that believes we cannot truly prove things. What we can do, however, is disprove things. We try to figure out, not what’s right about a given course of action, but what’s wrong with it. If you turn it over and over and over again in your mind and can’t think of anything, you give it a go. We haven’t proved it’s a good idea. But we’ve hopefully weeded out the worse ideas and in doing so raised our confidence in the course of action we’ve chosen. Karl Popper is a key reference here.

Today, design does not seem to be centrally concerned with building theory or processes that can be disproved. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be interested in process at all. It seems to be interested in thought. And yet, thinking and acting are not the same. If one can engage in “design thinking” then it stands to reason that one can have “design thoughts.” But ... now what?

The problem with so-called design thinking is that it is about just that ... thinking. Mapping out — or just speaking metaphorically — about ways of thinking is not the same as producing systems, processes or frameworks for mobilizing thought to action.

Design thinking — though a catchy slogan to be sure — is not a developed analytical concept, is not distingusiable as a means of thoughts from other forms of thought, and let me go on record saying it is not a “methodology.” In the words of Gertrude Stein, there’s no there there. If it cann’t be distingusihed, defined, enacted, or falisfied, I’m not sure what it can do other can sparkle and hypnotize.

For “design thinking” to be worthy of serious consideration, rather than just rhetorical appropriation, it will need to evolve into an actual analytical framework that tells me something about the world, and in turn allows me to differentiate it, genuinely, from other forms of thinking. Right now, it doesn’t. In a nice blog entry at the Harvard Business Review, Peter Merholz (9 October, 2009) shared a smiliar lament. He wrote, “We have librarians, and historians and fine artists. All of these disciplinary backgrounds allow people to bring distinct perspectives to our work [in business], allowing for insights that wouldn’t be achieved if we were all cut from the same cloth. Do we need to espouse ‘library thinking,; “history thinking,’ and ‘arts thinking.’” Merholz was right to call this absurd and to point out that design thinking is merely clever repackaging of some social science — but sadly, not good social science.

The reason this troubles me, rather than just distracts me, is that “design thinking” is directing creative attention away from the pursuit of intellectual clarity, and the progression of design as a serious endeavor. And part of that failure is ours. Ours as a design community. And at this point, for this reason, I will include myself among this world of designers.

Our collective failure to demand clarity from ideas — especially when our ideas lead to actions of moral consequence — is an expression of moral weakness. It takes courage to demand clarity. To stand in front of the masses and say, “I don’t understand. You are going to need to explain that again.” And an idea continues to make no sense, we must entertain the notion that the fault is not ours. Some things in the world are wrong. And it requires courage to say so.

I would like to see a new contract formed between design and public policy. But only if that contract is well written.
I want to end this presentation by briefly mentioning what we’ve done to establish a new agenda and programme of work for design and public policy.

In June of this year, the SNAP project at UNIDIR, in cooperation with the Said Business School at Oxford, and the Center for Local Strategies Research at the University of Washington, hosted an agenda-setting event called Strategic Design and Public Policy. It included top thinkers and practitioners in cultural research, design, and international peace and security. It put together a real and serious agenda. It is not as shiny as some of the other things on offer today. But I assure you, isn’t dull either.

In considering those three circles again, it is now clear – following that event – that there are serious issues between and among all three of these thematic areas that are going to need attention if a new model for legitimate and socially beneficial design is to be developed. We need to step away from metaphor and mystical thinking, and get serious about strategic design.

The Strategic Design and Public Policy agenda, created at Glen Cove in New York, explicitly notes the theoretical, methodological and practical gaps between the generation of knowledge and its application to design processes, on the one hand, and the integration of design processes and products into public policy on the other. We view these as matters for attention, and challenges, not obstacles.

In the discussion that drew the event to a close, participants from cultural research, design (especially service design) and public policy suggested next steps as an agenda for strategic design and public policy. These steps are already being implemented in at least half a dozen organizations including UNIDIR at the UN, the University of Washington, and live|work, among others. It is a detailed agenda, but there are four categories for action.

These are:
1. Supporting cooperation to develop new methods, tools and practices to learn more about each others’ ways of working;
2. Developing resources for cooperative action;
3. Promoting awareness of strategic design and its value for public policy and programming; and
4. Pursuing solutions for social betterment through social action.

This cooperative agenda opens possibilities for research, design, and public policy to start working in closer synergy in a rigorous, ethical and systematic manner to build the foundations we all need to take more confident action for the public good. And I hope you’ll join us.

I’m delighted to speak here at Götenberg on this topic, and my hope is that is the beginning of a conversation and not the end.

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