Our ambition in this course is a really challenging one. At different times I have moved between feeling that there is something, there is a lot, there must be something, what on earth is there, that design can do in this situation.
Much of the work that is taking place in the fields of:
- social design
- social innovation
- participatory design
- service design
Occurs within a domain of relative certainty and a clear problem to be address.
In our case we have a clear ambition – to assist our partner, Citizens for a Safer PA in achieving their goal of having a Child Protection Law introduced into the State of Pennsylvania. As such we could say that our partner (client) has a challenge and they need designers to help them realise the outcome. One act could be for us to design their publication and communication material. This is what design studios would normally do, and there is no doubt that better designs do support people and organisations in achieving their goals. We however have not taken this easy route in.
We might also have worked with local organisations and gone out in small groups to work closely on specific issues as designers – helping them to design artefacts, services, communication strategies etc. We may have even done something that is in the not for profit community action space in this way. This too would have been a valid and appropriate approach and one that typically occurs in DESIS labs.
But we haven’t – we have instead, spent time working to understand the complexity that any of these design interventions would have occurred in. Wicked Problems are the stuff of design thinking and design practice. It is where design and designers flourish. The term wicked problems is increasingly used by design studios, design researchers and designers within public sector agencies to explain the complex world that we now design within. This is especially the case when thinking of things such as environmental sustainability, social well being, health, new economies, post-oil transport, population growth, aging and all manner of other behaviour change agendas. The further we go into the issues around guns in relation to American culture, and the desire to protect children from being shot or killed, the more wicked this problem becomes. This is a truly social,cultural, economic, political, and emotional problem space for designers to enter. It runs core to who and what Americans and American culture believes itself to be. Its history, its victories, its origins and the political ethos of the ‘individual’ that runs core in the nations identity. For some this is stable, for others it is open to change, must change or has changed. No matter which way you look at the issues that make up child safety in relation to guns – whether it is at a national, state or city level – no one thing exists of functions in isolation.
As we have worked through this we have talked about the system, or the supply chain issues. An example of this is the theft of a gun from a rich suburban home may result in the death of poor inner urban youth. This is a supply chain perspective. Stop access to the guns for theft, and presumably less deaths. Have gun buy back schemes that may take what some think is a lot, but others think is but a few, guns off the street, and you decrease potential deaths. Again, a kind of supply chain perspective. Help people feel safer in their homes or support forms of home security that don’t rely on guns, and you decrease the number of guns in the home and with that you decrease the number of accidental deaths (eg. where a child shoots themselves with a found gun). Again a supply chain approach with a few variables that could occur in relation to each other. But each is a discrete phenomena and action – and if undertaken in isolation will make an impact, and if they all happened at once, well… then there may be large scale change and increased safety for children.
It is for this reason that we are working in what we are calling an ecology of wickedness – multiple wicked problems which together form a socio-cultural phenomenon, that we are seeking to help others and ourselves, to design into.