Does design have a role in the making of rules?

April 5, 2009 — 16 Comments

Following the G20 summit this week, it seems as though we are in one of the most significant periods of new rule making we have seen for a long time. Our government leaders were promoting all kinds of new regulation to control hedge funds and banks. Similarly this year we expect to see new regulations emerging from the Copenhagen summit on carbon emissions. Here in the US, new rules are being proposed for health care, particularly around access, affordability and medical records.

Two of my colleagues at IDEO, Tatyana Mamut and Lionel Mori, have proposed that innovation, and particularly systemic innovation, is determined by a balance of three things – behavioral norms, tools and rules. As designers we tend to take rules and regulations as part of the existing constraints but in a time of rapid regulatory change I wonder whether there is a more active role for design thinking.

Take Formula 1 motor racing as an esoteric but illustrative example. This is a sport where the rules are often changed with little notice and the race teams invest millions of dollars in their response, attempting to gain tenths of a second in performance over their fellow competitors. Formula 1 is a kind of experimental hotbed where new rules are constantly tested. The intent of the rule makers is often to create a predictable reduction in performance so as to create safer or more competitive racing. What often happens however is that the ingenuity of engineers and designers combined with poorly written rules result in faster rather than slower cars. Design is testing the rules and innovation is the result.

What if design was used to test some of the rules our government leaders are proposing? Could we go through some experimental cycles using design and prototyping as a tool before final decisions are made about what rules to adopt? Might this help us avoid our tendency to create new rules and then walk away, under the assumption that our finance, health and global energy systems will now behave in the way we want them to?

Tim Brown


16 responses to Does design have a role in the making of rules?

  1. Imho, today in this transitional period we seem to be in, the questions you’re asking aren’t even questions so much as a “given”. perhaps the only rule should be “prototype, prototype, prototype”

  2. I do have a related query on this ?

    Are game designers able to predict behaviour and action sufficiently when designing games ?

    If so could a game be devised and developed which could overlay some of the rules, underlying assumptions and actual usage data , business intelligence analysis in some sort of a open role play prototype?

    Would real time learnings from this game etc be an indictor of how new rules would play out in the real world?

  3. Peter Thomson April 5, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Others will argue that this is not just a possibility but a necessity. They’re right but I will add that it is also a reality. Many traditionally “rules by decree” institutions are now actively involved in prototyping and end-user testing of their rules. Although, you’ll more often hear it referred to as a “pilot study” these health, tax processing, welfare and alcohol policy institutions do use design thinking in launching new rules and testing existing ones. Maybe the real challenge is to get the “human centeredness” part of design thinking into public policy not the “life in prototype” part.

  4. Hi Tim…

    Prototyping attitude requires being comfortable in ambiguous situations (to a varying level). Designers are ok in taking the time in testing ideas to find the best fit.. but if you look at the bigger picture within a country, you’ll find many who prefer strict rules that organizes their lives. Those people expect the government to lay down the rules that everyone will abide by. It will be difficult to accept from a government to say that they don’t really know the answer and need to test few things before putting a rule.

    On the other hand, the attitude of prototyping can be built at school using some exiting opened doors to government regulations. Usually everyone has access to some government bills before they become laws. If schools and universities, nonprofit organizations and even some public agencies use those bills to test them out (depending on their focus) then we get a small portion of our “rules” prototyped. It doesn’t take much, basic awareness on where to find them and basic awareness of publicizing the learning and findings after testing them.

    Interesting how you mentioned the F1 and their link to design thinking, I read a recent blog from an Oxford university researcher (Mark Hylton) linking F1 with design thinking and leadership and how to create an environment of innovation.. check it out


  5. Hi Tim,
    prototyping like this is already being done in summer schools on international governance where students get to enact the rule making process. So far, I haven’t heard of an example where effects of decisions are being prototyped. Though there are many model societies and city districts (architects love this stuff), I haven’t yet noticed an example where an approach like this has been followed through. Wouldn’t that require a whole lot of people to actually prototype organisations and effects of rules in order to test them?

  6. There is no doubt that design thinking has a place in the development of the rules by which we are governed. As Randah Taher correctly points out, there are many rules that are developed based on information from “prototype” activities. However, these initiatives are the low-hanging-fruit where policy developers often test the waters on ideas that can be implemented in the short term. This is not a bad thing; unfortunately, prototypes to address the enormous economic and social challenges before us today span well beyond the terms those who make the rules. Accordingly, policy makers are more likely to set rules they think will be successful rather than test new ideas for fear of being labeled indecisive. For design thinking to be truly effective, we need to be open to changing the way rule makers are empowered.

  7. F1 Racing does have a lot of rules, but I think the rules being developed to restrict performance push teams to interpret and “bend” the rules as much as they can without breaking the rules or cheating the rules and using innovation to not get caught. Business and people seem to respond to rules and regulations the same way. When Italy made the law that seatbelts must be worn; t-shirts with the print of a seatbelt across the front were made and sold millions – Innovation used to avoid adherence. The rules and regulations developed by governments need to create a desire to abide by them or even a urge to go beyond what the rule dictates.
    Maybe rules will always create opposition and this is the issue we need to address. Design thinking and prototyping applied to how we can accept new rules instead of lobbying and fighting could unlock some great new ways in which we create rules and regulations and the way they are instituted.

  8. Tim,

    I think that one neglects the fact that rule making is in itself an iterative process constantly being updated by “citizenry” feedback. Laws, rules, and regulations are constantly being rewritten and reinterpreted to make them more adaptable to contemporary contexts and future practices. Rules are often changing as conflicting value systems seek to maximize their integration into society and power systems wax and wane in influence.

    As for testing the rules before full implementation, others have argued above that this happens through piloting processes already in place. For example, the large government reconstruction bailout was first “piloted” in Louisiana through the post-Katrina reconstruction money.

    Often good rules are those which are broad yet clear in their intentions, so that other parts of the legal systems (such as the courts) can refine the rule interpretations through suit and appeals.

    If the idea is to use design thinking to generate rapid innovation, the contexts of rule making as regulations for society require a different time frame because the full effect (positive or negative) of a rule change may not be felt for decades. In a crisis situation like this, innovation is necessary because the status quo had such broad negative effects. But in many ways the value shifts being proposed are not innovative, what we have are different tools we can use to make manifest those values and their intentions more clearly.

    So this is to say that what you consider to be “design thinking” in terms of flexible, iterative, empathic approaches problem framing and solution making is already part and parcel of rule-making culture. Where one finds bad policies has to do with a power fraction choosing to benefit a small set of members with whom they have share empathy over everyone else to whom they are apathetic. If design thinking can remedy this challenge, then it can design world peace.

  9. The decision making in Formula I is directed and consistent with design objectives to reduce speed and improve safety. The race team objectives are clearly to maximise speed and compliance with the rules.

    The decision making in a government committee settings is obscured by “unseen agendas, backscratching, and corruption”. Remember when the Olympics site was decided because a major country was lobbying small African countries for their block of votes? How does a “rule maker” design around such unpredictable human behaviours? It is not easy and possibly it is not possible to do. Systems thinking can only go so far when we meet limitations of human behaviour.

  10. Great post Tim! When it comes to decisions in this particular instance where there is a bottom feed loop, the interesting catch is that new rules have a vast resource. The populace knows very clearly what has not worked (in spades!) and the ideas are already there ten-fold. It is a matter of listening to the true decision makers- those who walk in the shoes of the decions. That is a big problem in many decisions, even in design: Are we listening?

  11. Tim,

    You should read the book by Drs. Ann Schneider and Helen Ingram in Policy Design for Democracy (U of Kansas Press 1997). In it, they outline the role of design (as both understood in the policy community and the design community a la Herbert Simon) in the identification of goals and problems, the definition of targets, rules, and tools; the forces of agents and implementation structures, and the framing of rationales and assumptions. They form the basis of all my theoretical work on design policy for the U.S. National Design Policy Initiative.

    The failures of rule makings have to do with what Schneider and Ingram describe as “degenerative policy designs” in which:

    Policy makers, potential target populations, media, scientists and professions, and others seek to define the issue in terms that will enable them to rationalize policy designs that will serve their own narrow interests.” (p. 103 Figure 5.1).

    Great provocation.

    Dori Tunstall, organizer U.S. National Design Policy Initiative

  12. well, of course, the answer is yes – design thinking has a role in the making of rules. BUT…

    design thinking must first crack those “constraints” you mentioned FIRST.

    they say that here in the US, the fundamental problem with lawmakers is that they spend 80% of their time fundraising (assuring their re-election) and 20% on lawmaking.

    flip these percentages FIRST. you can’t have their ears until you have their bodies in the same room as you.

    lawrence lessig discusses “the first problem” in more detail – look up “Teddy’s Idea”.

    barring this change, i do not see DT getting much traction at all. apropos tunstall’s point, DT fails when the time horizon is looooong, and when power structures only use narrow self-interest to guide their decisions. DT at its core is very populist – which is only one flavor of several philosophies of governance.

    the underlying assumption you are making is that those in power actually WANT to optimize rules and regs for all – in politics, that is sadly not the case.

    again, DT must crack “The First Problem” first. The incentive to make decisions that benefit the most people is not something you can assume all lawmakers actually want. to believe this is to reveal DT’s greatest weakness – its naivete.

  13. To a cobbler, everything is a shoe. To a designer, everything is a design.

    Well, perhaps this is true. Don’t religionists speak of a “grand design” that in mysterious fashion engenders the universe and everything in it? At this level of generality, however, it matters little whether one injects design rationality into the argument; those of faith do not basis it on rationality.

    In a sense, design too requires faith. I don’t think I’m exaggerating if I presume that most things in our lives are not systematically designed employing design thinking but rather occur, not spontaneously necessarily, but as a result of factors colliding on their own. And most of those that are so designed do not live up to their promise or purpose.

    Of course, the best do. But would I stake the future of world affairs on design rationality? Sentimentally, yes. Or faithfully, yes. Realistically? Not really.

    I’ve been practicing scenario planning as a “design” tool for at least two decades (its origins go back much farther). So have nations, armies, NGOs, domestic policymakers, and community groups (aided by planners). Probably tens of thousands of scenario planning efforts take place, if not each year, then at least each decade. The extent of this discipline’s influence is even more pervasive in terms of mini-scenarios, etc., that are run on a day to day basis. Have public policy and governance been much improved? One can argue the null case, that if it wasn’t done, policies and various acts of governing would be much less effective — but it’s unprovable. Not only do we not keep tabs of these efforts (as we do not keep tabs of which designs ultimately prove successful and which do not), but there is by now a vested interest in conducting scenario planning at every level of policymaking that would politically protect its interest and keep scenario planning a viable profession. The recursion produced by institutions created for one purpose which they outlive is irresistible, as Gregory Bateson so well explained.

    Recursion is the reason why applying design thinking to policymaking may be commendable — I’ll address that claim last — but probably is irrelevant. The making of policy regardless of outcomes is a process infected with conflicts of interest and professional claims of authority. Completely apart from the objective factors that determine a policy’s outcomes, there are subjective factors — personal allegiances and personal histories and national histories and extraordinary long-lasting traditions (born of conflict and confederation) that will quickly diminish the small contribution that design thinking might make. Even getting it on the list as a possible tool will be a struggle. It’s difficult enough in corporate settings where ultimately one or a few people call the tune to apply new methods; in a public or international arena, it will be vastly more challenging.

    (This doesn’t mean advocates shouldn’t try. It just means they have to decide upfront how much time, energy, and opportunity they’re willing to invest in the effort. I suppose with so many designers now threatened by unemployment, at least during the crisis it might be worth it given the alternative.)

    To the heart of the question: can design thinking make a difference. Yes, it can. Will it be the difference the designers seek? Possibly. Will it be big enough to merit the effort? Only in exceptional cases where (a) a great investment is made in the process or (b) demanding problems have been conclusively shown to be intractable using conventional means. The sheer complexity of the most important policies, those that affect the greatest number of people or environmental phenomena, will prove the most difficult to solve using design thinking because too many factors cannot be externalized, thereby leaving the designer with an almost infinite degrees of freedom and no constraints with which to work. (Unless, of course, designers do what others do in this situation: oversimplify and hope for the best.)

    This complexity is why Technocracy, a political movement championing scientists and engineers making policy and governing, failed. Design thinking lightly applied to policymaking and administration could be a successor to Technocracy. Following in the footsteps of a failure generally isn’t treading a path to success.

    As an innovation consultant, I can state without many reservations that design and policymaking sound good together but that the combination has been tried before — over several millennia — and the results are problematic. No, I would say, disappointing. Each “progression” of human experience guided by the prevailing design thinking (prehistoric imperialism, Classical philosophy, Middle Ages religious fervor, Renaissance ingenuity, Enlightenment realism, and in our own time, Modern engineering — a cognate of design — produces a better way of life … until now, when we sum it up and discover we’re in error on every indicator that matters, to the point of our species’ very existence being imperiled. I’m not one for throwing up my hands, but it seems to me that orthodoxies prevent really new ideas from being tried out and organizations do the same with innovations.

    (I do not agree that design thinking leads to innovations. It may lead to identifying problems requiring innovative solutions, but work that my colleagues and I have been doing in Scandinavia seems to indicate that designers are good at filtering and refining innovations but usually make awkward innovators. They generally try to pare down factors and apply constraints before an innovation is fully formed, thereby truncating the innovation process. I imagine that doing so for complex problems — or even more so, wicked problems that mutate under observation — like international economics and climate-change preventatives will produce policies and processes that may look good but operate inadequately.)

    So should we throw our hands up and give in to unsystematic processes, commonsense (meaning vernacular decisionmaking), or out and out irrationality? Never! The fact is, a lot design thinking already goes into public policymaking and governance. If it’s badly done, that’s worse than if it wasn’t done at all. Advocates of design in the public realm should buckle down and begin a continuing critique from a design-thinking perspective of how public policy is made and how governance occurs. If they influence no one else but the planners who are so involved, that’s a major positive contribution. Gradually, as the designers become more adept at understanding public policymaking and governance, perhaps they and design can fuse in some sort of new discipline that doesn’t insinuate itself from outside, like missionaries, but that speaks to policymakers and administrators in a language they can understand as close to or even their own.

    * * *

    Why I think as I do: I was trained in public media and regional planning and worked in the California Legislature for a decade helping to make the state’s first information policies, applying scenario planning and other innovation techniques. I later became an R&D lab director in a cutting-edge field and founded two companies, both related to visual and network design. I currently consult to businesses, agencies, and NGOs on innovation management. I’ve recently become involved in an international political issue with a decided design emphasis. I can see where Tim is going, but I’m not confident that even a design firm of IDEO’s competence, skilled in applying design to strategy in the private sector, can deal with making top-level policy and guiding governance more reliable. I welcome my skepticism being disproved!

  14. After rereading my preceding polemic, to be fair, one could as well make the opposite argument — that the piling up of defective policies could be the result of inadequate application of design thinking. As with most innovations, we learn as we go. If IDEO and other designers can insinuate themselves into the policy process and make a go of it. more power to you. I would suggest partnering up with experienced policymakers and policy analysts, however, to accurately get the lay of the land depending on the engagements. You need to conquer a steep learning curve. Dori’s points (above) are also well taken: designers will not be trodding on virgin soil, although they may be breaking new ground.

  15. “You’re Pirates!!! Hang the code and hang the rules! They’re more like guidelines anyway…” Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean.

    Say, there are plenty of arguments pro and con. But if the only contribution of Design Thinking were to minimize the unintended consequences of so many ill conceived rules, that alone would be well worth the effort. Having seen Design Thinking at work in some unusual domains, I’d be optimistic. Although in the abstract, it’s not clear what the prototyping parameters might be, DT is about getting tangible. So you’d have to give it a go to find out.

    In other words, Go for it!!!

  16. In following up this thought, I’m familiar with government bureaucracies in which the ‘wisdom’ that organizations tend to acquire amounts to learned helplessness. Design Thinking has the potential to break out of that mindset, especially when the iterative rule process in place has generated overwhelming complexity when it was neither necessary nor desirable. Consider the tax code (I’m still smarting over completing mine at the eleventh hour, even with the help of TurboTax)… Does this represent something that anyone wants or needs?

    And I’ll stick my neck out even further in suggesting we might consider rewriting the Constitution. Yes, yes… gasps of shock and exasperation…

    The founding fathers may have been design thinkers at heart, allowing for the adaptation of of the prototype over decades. Centuries later, could we take a better shot at redesigning this prototype accounting for amendments that acknowledged when we said all men were created equal that we really meant not only ‘all men’ but also all people? It’s a radical thought that would surely generate the pouring forth of lots and lots of ‘wisdom’ about why you could never do it… learned helplessness…

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