Not Knowing What We Need

batOne of the challenges with complex systems is that understanding of the problem and solution co-evolve — you can’t determine root causes, you can’t identify all the variables that affect the outcomes, and you can’t predict what will happen. That makes it hard to ‘solve’ problems like global warming, world poverty, violence, corporatism, unaffordable health care and dysfunctional education systems.

What makes it even harder is that we often don’t know what we need — what the ‘future state’ would look like if we ‘solved’ the problem. When it comes to global warming, for example, some see the ideal future as one of strict conservation, while others see it as one of miraculous new technologies that allow energy consumption to increase forever. It’s hard to figure out how to get there when you can’t even agree on the destination.

The School for Designing a Society focuses the attention of activist groups on collectively answering the questions “What are you for?” and “What would you consider a desirable society?”, questions that identify the destination, the future state, before attempting to prescribe a way to get there.

Matt Dineen at Passions and Survival interviewed the School’s ecological design instructor, Rob Scott. He said that the school’s objective is to go beyond available alternatives. In our modern world of horrific imaginative poverty, solutions are presented to us as dichotomies: Party A or Party B, socialism or capitalism, SUV or hybrid, Brand X or Brand Y. All these ‘choices’, which are not really choices at all, have the effect of focusing us on the available alternatives, and precluding consideration of other possibilities that don’t currently exist, but could exist.

As globalization succeeds in McDonaldizing the planet, these limited available alternatives become ubiquitous, and it becomes harder and harder to find, or imagine, additional possibilities: a society without political parties, a gift economy, a world where cars are unneeded, buying NoLogo products from people we know and trust.

By starting with an imagined Future State, one not directly or obviously connected to the Current State, we open ourselves up to additional possibilities, beyond available alternatives.

The problem is, we are now so rooted to the Current State and its limited choices that in imagining the Future State we subconsciously start with the Current State and linearly, incrementally design the Future State from there. In so doing, we short circuit the innovation process.

Because we have forgotten how to imagine, we no longer know what is possible, and therefore, we no longer know what we need. The iPod was the product of imagination — if you asked people in the days of vinyl and cassette tapes how they would like the distribution of recorded music improved, you would have received responses anchored to the Current State of the time: make records unscratchable; make cassettes that you don’t have to turn over to play the other side.

So the School is a great idea. But only if its enrollees either haven’t forgotten how to imagine, or have relearned to do so. My guess is that imaginative people are a tiny minority, and in the fracas of a brainstorming session with the huge majority of unimaginative people, they would be drowned out. They wouldn’t be heard. The vast majority could not imagine what they were talking about. Suppose it was you, in 1970, surrounded by a pile of disks and people invested hugely in them, imagining a future where all music could be downloaded free over the airwaves, in seconds, onto a device that would hold your whole music collection inyour breast pocket. Can you hear the laughter?

How do we re-learn to imagine, so we know what we really need? I’ve already written about that.

Category: Innovation
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4 Responses to Not Knowing What We Need

  1. David Parkinson says:

    I’m always surprised by the lack of imagination in people who really ought to know better. People are so willing to accept the framing around a question, without stepping outside that frame (i.e. thinking radically). I know I am guilty of this myself, but when I catch myself lazily drifting along with someone else’s definition of the problem space, I can usually step back a bit and rethink it.The overwhelming frame around everything is utility, which really means profitability. Doing something purely because it will bring pleasure or dignity to people is suspect, and usually these considerations must be smuggled in aboard “use-value”, or “cost/benefit”, or some other consideration that can be worked out using numbers. It gets tiring.

  2. lugon says:

    Imagining is work, and takes time. Off the net, most likely. With friends and alone.Lots of time.There’s no substitute for time.How much time?And questions.Which questions?

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Here’s a comment from Rob Scott, who’s profiled in this article, sent to me by e-mail:Name: Rob Scottemail: rob@designingasociety.orgwebpage: http://www.designingasociety.orgComment:Thanks for picking up on our project… you write “…the School is a great idea. But only if its enrollees either haven’t forgotten how to imagine, or have relearned to do so. My guess is that imaginative people are a tiny minority, and in the fracas of a brainstorming session with the huge majority of unimaginative people, they would be drowned out.” Feel free to investigate our work all you please, and help us amplify over the drowning out drone of available alternatives.Our blog lists some projects we’re currently trying to amplify: ScottSchool for Designing a Society

  4. patti digh says:

    I believe we cannot imagine or co-create a future from “angel or devil” thinking, and that the dualities we are fond of (us/them, good/bad, black/white) actually keep us from moving in a “react against” rather than generative state. We have to learn to use the tension between Point A and Point B to determine what we are for, and not focus on what we are against. Innovation comes from the tension between…in relationship.

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