in other words: The Important Messiness of Design Thinking
in other words is a regular feature of i.e. Every month, we take a closer look at current events and trends in energy, ground them in relevant data and context, and offer our insight about their potential impacts and implications. We look forward to your input and feedback.
There is no silver bullet for optimizing energy savings. With all of its moving parts, energy conservation is most definitely a "wicked problem." Is design thinking cut out to illuminate problems of this magnitude? Last August, my colleague Lester Shen wrote a blog posing design thinking and two of its principles, systems thinking and user empathy, as a way to uncover missed opportunities for energy savings. While affirming this notion, as a designer, I push us to look more in depth at how the complexity of a problem can affect the design thinking process.
Currently, the world in which buildings are designed, built, and used is far different from the one in which energy efficiency programs are designed, implemented, and evaluated. Energy efficiency work not only provides a complex overlap of systems, but also of professions and ways of thinking. This illustrates the need for complex problems to not only use design thinking, but to facilitate a process that shares detailed context of the overlapping systems amongst utility professionals, government energy offices, architects, contractors, and product engineers. While design thinking has been used increasingly by businesses to solve internal production or organizational issues, the need for design thinking to include a diverse and comprehensive collaboration is sometimes remiss. In the instance of energy efficiency, embracing the complexity of thoughtful collaboration will make the problem solving process more nuanced and rewarding.
Iteration is the other element of design thinking that deserves further highlighting. While applied examples of design thinking are not devoid of iteration (such as the prototyping done during the redesign of TSA security checkpoints), all of the ramifications of an iterative process are not apparent up-front. The fact of the matter is that in design, the process of creation and problem solving is never complete. It is a cycle that is only broken by the reality of deadlines. Once a solution has been presented, it is then prototyped or tested and spun through the design process again, applying “double-loop learning” and building upon prior solutions.
While not said outright, this is like planning for a series of small failures amidst your solution making process. New York Times columnist Alina Tegend’s Better By Mistake explores the benefits of reaching outcomes through mistakes. One of her case studies recalls a school teacher that never perceives "wrong" answers as failures, but as "partially correct solutions." This shift in perspective to "partially correct solutions" is an important one when endeavoring into a process such as design thinking.
At its core, design thinking is a problem solving tool. While promising creative, empathetic, analytical thinking, it does not promise to deliver solutions neatly or quickly. Bruce Nussbaum, a professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons’ The New School of Design, critiques design thinking as a prelude to his new book Creative Intelligence, calling it a “failed experiment.” Proposing a new paradigm for measuring creativity, he criticizes design thinking for over simplifying creativity, packaging it in the form of a neat process. While there may be some truth to the over simplification of design thinking, it is still the right tool when applied correctly.
While practice has shown that some of the most successful solutions have been proportionally small to the scale of the problem they serve, the complexity of a problem still needs to shape the problem solving process. It is essential that complexity informs the design thinking process and its participant base. Design thinking is a well suited tool to help uncover partial or iterative solutions for energy efficiency. While design thinking can be applied neatly, welcoming complexity and nurturing it in the problem-solving process will provide better long-term solutions.