Suboptimal Systemic Design is a Moral Challenge

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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?

Design by Rationalised Constraint and the Nature of the Designer

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Design limits choice, and that is why design matters.

Even the best design displaces the existence of other design solutions. Under one set of preconditions this doesn’t matter. Where there is no more optimal design solution, and that solution is freely chosen, then and only then, can we be certain that design has limited choice to the least possible degree.

Since the 1700s design and free choice has lifted billions from the poverty that had defined the human condition till then. Yet what gives also takes away. Suboptimal systemic design makes us fragile, limits prosperity, and reduces the nature of human being. As ignorance is no defense we have a moral imperative not to limit or risk future human agency. Cities are complexes of systemic designs that have been the venue for that unprecedented generation of value, and nonetheless they determine us. Where there is competitive choice this is generally of less concern. On the other hand, monopoly solutions frequently have long-term nontrivial consequences. Under those conditions design optimality really matters.

Both the nature of the particular designer and the designer’s choices determine the design outcome. While the world in which designers act is constrained, his or her imagination is not. Equally all design solutions operate in the unknowable future. Therefore we benefit from the creation of value that has been imagined into the world, while suffering loss at the hands of designers whose imagination overreaches the boundary of what can and cannot be designed.

All design comes into being within one of two social orders. It either emerges in a market where success is rewarded and failures are cleared, or it is the direct or indirect product of a design of the state. State and market designers have fundamentally different intentions and mechanisms of legitimacy. This profoundly determines the nature of design outcome, failure and consequences. The market designer’s legitimacy is a direct function of the consumer’s willingness to pay. That legitimacy only exists transaction by transaction. The essential good or service of yesterday is rapidly made redundant. Therefore the market designer can only have an intention to satisfy the demands of the consumer. To do otherwise would be to meet certain failure.

In complete contrast, any designer acting under the authority of the state is a party to the creation of an imagined future good. Despots and democratic governments both claim a legitimacy drawn from their right to determine the nature of society itself. Thus the designs of government directly intend to limit choice and any individual design can systematically fail over the very long term to meet its stated objective as it in fact forms part of a larger design.

Humanity increasingly lives within the complexes of systemic designs known as cities and therefore design really matters. Those cities exist in what Karl Popper described as a piecemeal society of state and market, and are subject to how each system of design limits choice. How we design, no matter who we are, is of greater consequence than ever. Design solutions are a product of what we know and what we do not know about a radically uncertain future. Those realities need to determine our design methodology. Design by Rationalised Constraint has been explicitly developed by Marque’d to resolve complex design solutions under those conditions.

Design by Rationalised Constraint

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In a world where the majority of the human population now live in cities design matters more than at anytime in history. The recently released Mapping Australia’s economy: cities as engines of prosperity (ref) substantiates the significance of that trend claiming 80% of all goods and services are generated on just 0.2% of the Australian land mass. So design as non-trivial choice determines how we live and the prosperity of our future lives in the deeply interconnected systems and technologies that make up the world in which we live. Design matters, and it matters deeply.

Every intention we hold is defined by constraint. The universe is a large, but limited place. It isn’t constrained, because without intention there is simply nothing to be constrained from. We are defined by constraint, and yet the human imagination is not constrained to what can and cannot be. Humans chafe against the constraints that define them, while without constraints we could not exist. The power of an imagination that stretches beyond the boundaries of what can and cannot be, frees us to fail. It also opens the prospect of a future world ever richer in human experience.

Our intentions whether non-trivial or important to us alone, exist in the face of an unknowable future. Being fully human seems to require us to value the nature of our future despite its radical uncertainty. We have designs upon the future that we value, and achievement of that intended state of being requires resolution to problems that stand before us. The largest public companies and individual consumers are equally subject to the constraints that define the space between today and their intentions. Every problem belongs to someone and has a value or it simply isn’t a problem. An effective design brief describes the nature of every material constraint acting upon the specific problem.

For a designer, an opportunity may exist to resolve that problem. Each and every designer is however uniquely constrained, as in all other areas of human endeavor they are the product of history, circumstance, and genetics. Every opportunity to provide a solution is unique and only available to that specific agent of design. A design solution will be perceived as more closely aligned to the problem than a solution available to any other designer. Our urban life has a problem that the light commercial vehicle seems to resolve. However there are no generic light commercial vehicles, instead there are competitive offers from Mercedes, Ford, Renault, Toyota and Hyundai. And even where there are shared components, it remains true to say that Ford simply cannot design a Mercedes solution.

In an abstract sense, a designer cannot achieve optimality by perfectly matching a solution to a problem. Design optimality is practically the matching of a design solution to the opportunity available to the designer. Two forms of design failure become visible, the choice of the wrong designer and a design solution that is not the best fit the designer can achieve. In both instances there is an opportunity cost of the solution forgone that would more effectively have resolved the problem.

Optimality in a future state is essentially achieved through the combination of two complimentary design processes. A design can only exist as a product of both. The balance between them is defined by the nature of the problem. All problems exist in the future and are therefore subject to uncertainty. We cannot know the future; so all information is fundamentally surprise. That surprise can be understood to exist as either as unknown answers to knowable questions, or unknown answers to as yet unknown questions.

Almost all of successful design is sweat. Design analysis that rationalises the constraints defining a problem reveals almost all of an optimal solution. There are knowable characteristics of nature, laws and lores determining human exchange, and perceptions that govern a design solution. The designer’s methodology and competence limits their ability to synthesis understanding through subjectivity, complexity and network effects.

Every design solution ultimately exists in the future and resolves future problems, and so it embodies a degree of speculative pattern making or creativity. The degree and nature of that creative act will depend on how much of the design solution exists beyond the boundaries that which is known in the present. Any one looking at a wheel knows what a great design it is; its appearance however was a great surprise. Albert Hirschmann recognized an empowering paradox in human endeavor; we underestimate the scale of any problem by about the same degree to which we underestimate our own capacity to resolve it.

Successful design simultaneously more productively resolves toward intention while effectively reducing risk than any other opportunity. In a world in which our future being and prosperity are increasingly determined by design choices, design matters. Design by Rationalised Constraint is not in conflict with creativity. In fact a successful creative act is only possible if the designer has first really understood the problem.