A creative way to wrestle wicked problems

You might not know it, but you are a designer. We all are. We create things with intention, utility, sometimes in collaboration with others, and shape the world around us through what we produce. Nobel laureate Herbert Simon said:

“A designer is anyone who devises a course of action that seeks to change current situations into preferred ones”

If you want change and do something to make it happen, you’re a designer.  Design thinking is an approach modeled on the way designers approach problems and helps you think about the questions and possible answers to the big, thorny, sometimes “wicked” challenges that we face in our communities. Wicked problems are those that do not have a single cause and bring multiple consequences, are often new to us, have few precedent solutions, and are often laden with contradiction and complexity. Problems like: balancing growth with conservation, diversity with harmony, youth with advanced age.

Design thinking encourages us to think about the nature of these wicked problems and helps us frame a way to create ways to deal with them. It also gets us to think about the big picture – the systems that our communities are a part of and what influences them to organize the way they do. Design thinking is a mindset, a skillset and a toolset that can help navigate complexity and help Calgary create the city it wants rather than just respond to changes thrust on it.

Change is a big focus of the process. Even if we want things to stay as they are, we need to make some changes because the world around us is constantly moving. So how do we do this in ways that make our organizations, ourselves and city better? This is what the Great City Design Table sought to explore as part of United Way’s Social Innovation Ideas Festival.

Paying attention is where we start. Being mindful and attending to what is going on is a way to learn more about what is really going on. Asking “why” something exists five times can yield enormous insights. When someone asks a “why” question of an answer five times the answers often reveal the true nature of the problem. Once that is known, the next step is to find the right people to help you answer it.

Together, generate ideas – lots of them.  Even the wildest, weirdest and outlandish idea might have something in it that leads to a creative breakthrough. Don’t hold back. Make them visual, talk about them and open your mind to new possibilities. From there, focus those ideas towards making a prototype solution. Your first try probably won’t work the way you thought, but keep trying. Design thinking embraces the spirit of try-and-fail-and-try-again until the fit is right because there never is one, simple, obvious answer to a wicked, complex problem (that’s why they are called wicked, after all).

Test it out, evolve and repeat. Design thinking allows us to be creative, have fun, but find ways through some of the vexing challenging we face in our community and allow everyone, no matter how creative they think they are or where they come from, to be designers and design the future of this great city.

— Cameron D. Norman, PhD, is Principal of CENSE Research + Design. Norman was in Calgary this week to speak about design thinking at United Way’s Great City Design Table Report Back event at Hotel Arts. Follow him on Twitter at @cdnorman.

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