Suboptimal Systemic Design is a Moral Challenge


To be human is to be a moral agent. To be a designer is to be everywhere and always a moral agent. Design is an act of nontrivial choice. That is to say it holds the prospect of nontrivial impact on others. In absolute terms consequence is beyond knowing. It may be a harsh and uncomfortable truth to face, but as a designer there is no butterfly defense. As a designer you own both your success and the chaos you cause. How then to find a legitimacy for action?

Firstly, design is an act of imagination. Imagination has horizons far beyond the possible. The borders of human imagination include both the best of all outcomes and failure. Design then is an act of extraordinary optimism or arrogance. To design is to imply that the outcome will be better than what would have emerged without your action. History is literally a record of our successes and failures. At least on average over the last 200 years our successes have outweighed our failures. In a period unmatched in history human well-being has improved at 2% per annum. Albert Hirschman made the observation that humans appeared to have two powerful attributes. The near universal ability to underestimate the scale and complexity of a problem matched by the human’s extraordinary capacity to solve problems once we assumed them. This though does not provide an ethical foundation for the reckless juggler of fate. What would have been the achievements in overcoming poverty and disease if our design failures had not cost almost as much as our successes?

Despite the best intentions of our undergraduates, for success, it is not enough to simply reject the heavy stepping design of our industrial past. Passive resistance is not an ethically resilient response to that brutal insensitivity. Two wrongs do not make a right. Pious intellectually limp environmentalism doesn’t heal the earth. It is not what you say that matters, it is your choices. An empty bus driver doesn’t have a green job. As a designer your intentions are important, just like good aim is important to an archer, but it is the arrow that fells the foe. G.L.S. Shackle and Ludwig Lachmann aren’t on the regular reading lists of your undergraduate design degree. However just like Aristotle, they wrote and our ignorance is no defense. Radical uncertainty fractures our design decisions from future consequence. Consequence matters, but in this world design intention alone does not determine success. There lies a design limit of the consequentialist ethic on which action rests. Design determines the very boundaries of the future world, what should guide the hand of the designer?

Exceptionalism is the dominant faith of design history. The hero shots of architects and engineers stare with unnerving certainty from every designer’s collection of coffee table references. Self assured assertive modernism marks both the successes and abject failures of Le Corbusier. Despite our faith in swaggering genius this the most prosperous point in human history is barely decorated with their artifacts. Yet our world is now almost utterly the product of design decisions. Every house everywhere is the product of design and not just jewels of glossy heavy stock magazines. Design success clearly isn’t a product of any particular cult.

The choices of designers determine the very speed limit of societies progress. Ethical design must be successful design. Neither design by precedence nor supplication to a superstar offers assurance of success. Everything that stands between mind and mud is the object of design. That has never been more important than at our moment in history. As we stumble beyond the first years of the 21st century our fears of failure seem matched by the scale and prospect that lies before humanity. If those challenges are beyond recourse to 19th century Consequentialism and 20th century hero fetishism what allows us to act?

At the time of writing, we watch as the very systemic design of The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is failing our future. The border of peaceful democratic and prosperous Europe is being smashed family-by-family, town-by-town, and dream-by-dream. Totalitarianism in democratic drag has used missiles, tanks, nationalism, and lies to suppress its neighbors in Ukraine as well as Russia’s own citizens.

This is very much a question for our time. It isn’t abstract and it isn’t lying for lack of attention in unvisited stacks of academia. Nicholas Nassim Taleb has pushed rich and deep ideas onto the edge of common consciousness. Taleb has increasingly gained collaborators in engineering, systems design, mathematics, physics, economics and philosophy. As the speed and magnitude of design decisions increase, it is an imperative that an effective ethic of design choice be established. That ethic clearly needs to be independent of ends. That is it cannot seek its justification it what may be, rather it must be rooted in justifiable means. Fortunately, the enlightenment philosopher David Hume provided a starting point for such an ethic with his concept of Just Rules. The great 20th Century economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek recognized the application of Just Rules to meet the challenges of a modern social order. The current work on the Precautionary Principle by Taleb and his colleagues is a significant down payment; there remains much to be done.

Certainly bureaucrats and diplomats have already enjoyed the careers and cocktail parties that were the design consequence of the OSCE’s establishment. Right now though, who would suggest that a veto for the aggressor was a feature of successful design? Who west of the Volga would proudly stand and own that choice? The design flaw was there to be seen on the day it was signed. So who owns the dead? Certainly the aggressor remains responsible, but what of the designers who knew the wall would collapse? Where are they now? What consequence for bureaucrat and politician whose fine speeches marked the ceremony that brought the OSCE to being? Neville Chamberlain notoriously claimed to have designed “Peace in our times.” Perhaps his everlasting shame is consequence enough. I doubt the 10s of millions of dead who paid the price in World War II would think so. The price for the right to continue lifting billions from poverty is the establishment of a universal design ethic that is fit for purpose. Is that too much to ask?

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