Level up to Systems: From Design to Game Design Thinking

Design thinking has enjoyed incredible success in the for-profit sector and is increasingly extended to products and services aimed at positive social impact. To tackle systemic and persistent “wicked” problems however, design thinking will have to be enhanced with techniques from game design.

Where there are start-ups, there is design thinking, and the reason why is relatively clear. When developing a radically new product or service, there are a lot of risks and a lot of unknowns that mean even brilliant start-up ideas won’t make sense as an ongoing business concern. At least not as it was originally conceived.

Design thinking mitigates such risks, or at least increases the chances of revealing them before you’ve dropped millions of dollars in development.  Empathizing with the user and maintaining a laser-like focus on his or her experience and developing rough and ready prototypes for feedback often means that either an idea fails quickly, in which case you move on to the next one, or that the final product or service offers exactly features and experience that the user wants.

The design thinking approach can be contrasted with the waterfall development, a model rooted in the age of mass manufacturing.

Waterfall Development (c/o Wikipedia)

The waterfall model was originally adopted for software development, and the reasoning was also fairly clear: it follows far more closely our ideal of a rational course of action than design thinking. Figure out what the end user wants up front and then figure out the most efficient way to get it to them. Easy peazy, lemon squeezy.

The hard part is when the user doesn’t know what he or she wants up front. Or thinks that she knows, but changes her mind once she starts using it. Doesn’t like this feature, would really like to have this one. Or even worse, maybe there is just something “off.” Here design becomes less of a rational or linear process, but rather one of empathy, intuition, and experimentation, and this is where design thinking excels.

If we check out the design thinking’s Wikipedia entry we see it is associated with addressing wicked problems, “a class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing” (Rittel and Webber 1972). Wicked problems include those such as persistent poverty, which has proven to be more than a match for efficient manufacturing processes and many of our current environmental problems, which the successes of mass production played and continue to play their role in creating.

But while design thinking has shaken up the hotel industry through AirBnB and IDEO, and the leader in the practice is now moving to disrupt the remarkably resilient consulting industry, we have yet to see any exciting new businesses make progress on disrupting the problems we really care about, our persistent and evolving social and environmental problems. And while social impact accelerators and incubators exist and are producing all sorts of exciting companies and ideas, we have not yet seen social start-ups scale to make inroads on the pressing problems of our day, and even the most successful are currently not within any reasonable distance or disrupting or acting as a reasonable complement or alternative to our current, highly inefficient and unsatisfactory political and policy making processes.

The reason is that design thinking was developed primarily for developing consumer products, it gives the consumer what he wants. But there is no single product or service to ensure that water is used in a socially equitable and sustainable way, or to eliminate poverty, i.e. the problems that Rittel found to be truly wicked. Fortunately there was an approach developed explicitly for wicked problems, and it has been used with success by a community of practitioners working in renewable resource management since 2000.

The approach, ComMod, has an orientation that will not be completely foreign to practitioners of design thinking. Empathy is inherent, as is prototyping. The difference is the type of client it is aimed at, and the type of design problems it aims to take on. It is geared towards solving problems in social and ecological systems by assisting with the design of institutions, and thus by necessity it is equipped to deal with a higher degree of complexity and uncertainty than design thinking, as well cope with very diverse values among the clients, i.e the users and managers of the resource system. The client is not an individual consumer, the client is society, or rather the segment of society that is concerned about or involved with a particular wicked problem.

To deal with the complexity endemic to issues such as protecting biodiversity, and promoting best practices of land and water management, ComMod puts researchers at the center of the process. Clear decisions on such issues are of little use if they do not have an adequate scientific and technical basis. But as these are wicked problems, and thus are not clearly formulated, it is not clear from the outset where the researchers should devote their time. Different stakeholders will have different understandings of the underlying problem, as well as what the solutions are likely to be, and thus different takes on which factual matters need further research and which are irrelevant. If the researcher merely begins research without consulting the stakeholders, her work is likely to reflect her disciplinary background research interests which maybe be academically interesting and useful. But if she consults the stakeholders she gets a problem similar to the one our design thinkers deal with, stakeholders will be unable to give a common or coherent view of what the goals and requirements of the research should be.

And this is where the game design and prototyping come in. Starting with one stakeholder group the researchers are able to get one perspective on the underlying problem, and possible solutions, and then are able to represent that understanding of the system of interest through a role playing game. This artifact, the game, can then be played by other stakeholders in the system and critiqued and iteratively improved. Stakeholders with diverse backgrounds are now working from a common object, understanding the assumptions and important facts of others, and seeing their own views incorporated and critiqued.

They also engage with and “play” with the problem and each other, which can allow them to temporarily put aside their own frame of reference, and thus better understand those of others and become more open to creative solutions. This avoids the situation often endemic to wicked problems, where stakeholders continuously argue past each other. It also looks a lot like the “second generation” model of planning advocated by Rittel and Webber, one that is an “argumentative process in the course of which an image of the problem and of the solution emerges gradually among the participants, as a product of incessant judgment, subjected to critical argument” (Rittel and Webber, 1973).

A ComMod river basin game (c/o Paolo Campo)

A ComMod river basin game (c/o Paolo Campo)

Prototyping isn’t everything. The final research product to support decision making is accomplished by simulations based on the final prototype in a computer environment. But this research product is far more likely to be relevant to the important decisions at hand, as well as understood and accepted by the involved parties, because they played a role in creating it.

ComMod has been applied successfully in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and Oceania, it has been used for issues surrounding agriculture, biodiversity, water scarcity and flooding, livestock, fishery and forest management. That it is not more widely used and known is likely a function of language, the approach was developed by French researchers (ComMod standing for Companion Modelling being a somewhat awkward translation from La Modélisation Comme Outil D’Accompagnement) and because the practicing community has remained largely in academia. Both of these are changing however, as new geographic settings bring new linguistic settings, and as private practice is increasing. Lisode is a private firm that serves French language clients, and Sim4Act, which will bring ComMod to English language clients (full disclosure: I am a co-founder of Sim4Act), is currently in its start-up phase.

These are welcome developments, as the increased use of ComMod is important for communities facing traditional wicked and commons problems such as resource scarcity and ecosystem management, or ones trying to grapple with new ones such as climate change adaptation. ComMod promises to be an important tool in the hands of policymakers and citizens trying to deal with politically contentious risk management problems where science is necessary but not sufficient to drive decision making. It fits neatly with the National Research Council’s (NRC) recommendations a number of U.S. entities, including the U.S. Department of Defense, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, EPA, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and American Industrial Health Council, and the Electric Power Research Institute in its report Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society. ComMod fits the bill of the “analytic-deliberative” process that the NRC recommends, and offers an excellent alternative to cost benefit analysis, an approach which the NRC openly warns against as being bureaucratically convenient, but often poor at informing the public.

In an era of persistent and multiplying wicked problems, it’s time to take extend design thinking’s successes based on empathy and prototyping our urgent social and environmental problems through game design thinking. It’s time to scale up from individual users to systems.

Rittel, Horst W. J. 1972a. On the Planning Crisis: Systems Analysis of the First and Second Generations. Reprinted from: Bedrifts Økonomen (Norway), No. 8, October, 1972. Reprint 107. Berkeley: University of California at Berkeley, Institute of Urban and Regional Development, as cited in Buchanan 1992

Rittel, Horst WJ, and Melvin M. Webber. “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” Policy sciences 4.2 (1973): 155-169.


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