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Start Designing Your Life

November 21, 2012 — 5 Comments

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Throughout Change by Design, I tried to show that the designer’s skills can be applied to a wide range of problems—and also that these skills are accessible to a far greater range of people than may be commonly supposed. These two threads come together when we apply them to one of the most challenging problems of them all: designing a life. There is a big difference, though, between planning a life, drifting through life, and designing a life.

We all know of people who go through life with every step preplanned. They knew which university they would attend, which internship would lead to a successful career, and at what age they will retire. Unfortunately, this never works out as planned. And anyway, if you know the winner before the start, where’s the fun in the game?

Like any good design team, we can have a sense of purpose without deluding ourselves that we can predict every outcome in advance, for this is the space of creativity. We can blur the distinction between the final product and the creative process that got us there. We can learn how to take joy in the things we create. We can work within the constraints of our own natures—and still be agile, build capabilities, iterate. We can conduct experiments, make discoveries, change our perspectives.

Think of today as a prototype. What would you change?

Image by Peter Macdonald / IDEO

(posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

I recently moderated a fascinating session at the World Economic Forum ‘Summer Davos‘ in Tianjin, China. Two network scientists, Cesar Hidalgo of MIT and Albert-Laszlo Barabasi of Harvard, discussed the underlying science of how networks operate and how this knowledge might be applied to business and economics.

At the outset of network science a key question was raised: are networks random? If so, all nodes would be more or less similar to each other. But that is not the case. The reality is that certain nodes have more connections than others and play the role of hubs. New nodes in a pre-existing network tend to connect with highly connected nodes. After a certain threshold, the removal of highly connected nodes can make a whole network fall apart. Thus interconnectivity is beneficial but also brings in vulnerability: if you and I are connected we can share resources; meanwhile your problems can become mine, and vice versa. This happens in many different kinds of networks, from financial systems to social media to electrical power grids. Numerous complex systems can be mapped and analyzed, such as transportation and biological systems.

Network science and tools are readily available to shed light on factors that were not considered in the past and to inform decisions in many different sectors and organizations. The adoption of network science and tools for decision-making are especially powerful when designing for complexity. Hidalgo even proposed that the future economic growth of nations can be predicted based on an analysis of networks of production.

In our own organizations, network visualizations and analyses can be used to inform management decisions by looking at how employees connect to each other and how information flows through networks.

Here’s more from the session on the power of networks: weforum.org/sessions/summary/power-networks.

(posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

Like most designers, I am quite comfortable with the notion of designing simple things. I can pick up just about any object and tell you how it was made, and I could probably have a reasonable crack at designing an equivalent of it, even though I’m not a particularly technical person. That’s because it’s possible to definitively know everything important about a simple object: its form, the market for it, and the best method of manufacturing it. The traditional design process entails figuring all of this out beforehand and ‘making it so’ in the world. The essence of this Newtonian model of design, which personifies control and defining every outcome, is the blueprint.

As designers and leaders in increasingly complex systems, we need to go beyond designing blueprints. Like Darwin, we need to consider a future of constant evolution and emergent change. We need to design for human needs amid unpredictability on a global scale. But how? We can start by working with a design model beyond the blueprint: our own DNA.

At one level, genetic code represents a biological view of design, because it is an ‘instruction set’ for biological behavior. On another level, it represents the idea that code is only the beginning of something: it sets off a series of behaviors. While most of us don’t understand how to work with genetic code, many of us do understand how to work with software code. The digital design revolution—more open-ended than ever—points the way. How might we go beyond Newton’s blueprint in other areas to design for emergence?

(posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)