This past week we’ve seen the “exponential” part of exponential growth hit the world like a tidal wave. Markets have dipped, businesses are scrambling, and the people that constitute both are unsure of what’s coming.
What we’ve seen with this global crisis is a failure in planning, and for those of us who are designers, planning is our business. At its core, Design is a time-delayed activity: one where we engage with people and systems to plot out a path to a better future using artifacts and experiences. In this pandemic, we’re instead seeing a reversion. Far from having planned redundancies and designed for resiliency, we’re instead facing the stark fragility of a system co-designed with agents of unchecked growth and profit.
In this definition of design, we have two key components: foresight and intervention.
Foresight asks: what is needed in the future? Why do we believe this? What needs to happen for that to exist? What else might happen? On a systemic and world-spanning extreme, the peak of this practice is in world-building fiction. Books like Max Brooks’ World War Z and Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest both take a worldly and step-by-step approach to exploring human behaviour and outcomes given distinct conditions: for World War Z, a global zombie pandemic; and for the Dark Forest, an impending apocalypse and humanity’s instinct to flee, fight, or simply give up.
For the nearer term, the designer has a host of tools available, from card games like those created by Near Future Lab for generating scenarios, and structured “gap-filling” tools like backcasting to map the pathway to the preferable outcomes. But at best, foresight samples and extrapolates from the potential territories that we march toward, and informs the context and constraints of our design activities.
On the other end is intervention. With the current coronavirus outbreak, the rhetorical focus has very much been on POLICY interventions: how can we wield the apparatus of states to tackle a collective action problem like a global pandemic? For examples of this discussion, there’s a great episode of Vox’s The Weeds on the American policy response, and Vox’s global affairs podcast Worldly has an additional North American-centric exploration of outcomes and implications as well.
But we’re also seeing an active response in how design engages with the crisis. As Malcom McCullough points out in his book Digital Ground, “The success of a design is arrived at socially.” Across China —an already incredibly sophisticated and integrated surveillance state— software serves to mitigate, inform, but also surveil. Chinese public-private partnerships have led to a colour-code based access system to public space, with quite legitimate concerns for social acceptance of surveillance post-pandemic. A state’s over-reach might seem prudent in a crisis, but what provisions are in place to revert once the crisis has passed? We don’t always get Cincinnatus, after all.
South Korea is taking a similar intervention with a different implementation — free drive through testing in your car with a simple text-message based notification of your results which allows testing infrastructure to be incredibly lightweight in a country where two-thirds of people own a car. In other words, we are seeing “crisis architecture” churn through society once more: the modular hospitals in Wuhan being in the same family as the post-9/11 segmentation of America’s airports.
Clearly, design has a role in this crisis, but how does the individual designer engage? The most useless thing I’ve read about the coronavirus was this list of how design thinking is going to save us from coronavirus. If you’re a “design thinker” only asking these questions now, you’ve already failed. The examples in China and South Korea are an adaptive strategy with an adaptive design to a fast-moving crisis that came from either excellent foresight activities (taking a more strategic approach) or simply learning the hard way (the more intuitive approach). As such, the context for an appropriate design to emerge, succeed and hopefully obviate its utility already exists, as we’re already seeing with the 1000 bed hospital in Wuhan being disassembled.
As we collectively weather this pandemic, the thing we should recognize is that foresight without intervention is simply speculation, and intervention without foresight is naive at best and incredibly harmful at worst. As those working in or adjacent to design, we have a responsibility to look ahead: both systematically using the tools of our trade, and ambiently by absorbing information globally and from many sources.
Be safe and be generous. Finally, look after yourself now, because like everyone’s favourite William Gibson quote, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Just as China is finding itself able to respond to Italy’s needs because of how it handled its own spike in infections, we all might be in a position to help others depending on where we are in our own infection curve.
A newsletter to ISIS members, translated by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a researcher focused on the Syrian civil war. As objectively evil as the Islamic State is, it is still an organization that has to look after its members and do what organizations do: communicate, align, and act. Some of the language in the newsletter is pretty interesting from that lens and a good cue for how these kind of societal threats get translated across orgs and cultures.
Monthly updates from Andrew Lovett-Barron, mostly writing about design practice, theory, and projects. Occasionally, I may link out to a new project.