Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: design

Let The Power Fall – The Value of Fripp

Last week I met with Simon Barrow of Ekklesia and Richard Murphy of the Tax Justice Network. It was a productive meeting on many levels, but I was particularly excited when Simon mentioned the thinking of the guitarist (and beating heart of King Crimson) Robert Fripp.

Back home I dug out the postcard Fripp included in his excellent album Let The Power Fall (guitar meets echoing tape loops). Here is Fripp’s mixture of philosophy and system theory.


i) 1. One can work within any structure.

ii) 2. Once one can work within any structure, some structures are more efficient than others.

iii) 3. There is no one structure which is universally appropriate.

iv) 4. Commitment to an aim within an inappropriate structure will give rise to the creation of an appropriate structure.

v) 5. Apathy, i.e. passive commitment, within an appropriate structure will effect its collapse.

vi) 6. Dogmatic attachment to the supposed merits of a particular structure hinders the search for an appropriate structure.

vii) 7. There will be difficulty defining the appropriate structure because it will always be mobile, i.e. in process.

i) 8. There should be no difficulty in defining aim.

ii) 9. The appropriate structure will recognise structures outside itself.

iii) 10. The appropriate structure can work within any large structure.

iv) 11. Once the appropriate structure can work within any large structure, some larger structures are more efficient than others.

v) 12. There is no larger structure which is universally appropriate.

vi) 13. Commitment to an aim by an appropriate structure within a larger, inappropriate structure will give rise to a large, appropriate structure.

vii) 14. The quantitative structure is affected by qualitative action.

i) 15. Qualitative action is not bound by number.

ii) 16. Any small unit committed to qualitative action can affect radical change on a scale outside its qualitative measure.

iii) 17. Quantitative action works by violence and breeds reaction.

iv) 18. Qualitative action works by example and invites reciprocation.

v) 19. Reciprocation between independent structures is a framework of interacting units which is itself a structure.

vi) 20. Any appropriate structure of interacting units can work within any other structure of interacting units.

vii) 21. Once this is so, some structures of interacting units are more efficient than others.
Let The Power Fall by Robert Fripp

This was often pinned on my bedroom wall as child and student and I suspect it has a profound impact on my own thinking. In particular I think it has encouraged my (often naively optimistic) belief that you can always bring about positive change – wherever you are situated. Also the notion that we must be conscious of the consequence of the structures we work within. I continue to seek the more “appropriate structure” despite knowing that there is no utopia, and time undoes everything.

At a time when it feels our “larger structures” are less and less appropriate, less efficient, it is encouraging to believe that action with integrity and authenticity remains the key to meaningful change.

How Do We Defend the Welfare State?

The second principle is that organisation of social insurance should be treated as one part only of a comprehensive policy of social progress. Social insurance fully developed may provide income security; it is an attack upon Want. But Want is one only of five giants on the road of reconstruction and in some ways the easiest to attack. The others are Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.

William Beveridge, Social Insurance and Allied Services, p. 6

If we are just interested in defending an existing social institution then we do not need to limit ourselves to any one justification or line of defence. Often it is helpful to have more than one argument, particularly as you will need to find common ground with people with whom you may not agree about everything. You may believe that your justification is the best or the only true justification, but this is not helpful as a defence of the welfare state if most people can’t see the truth of your justification.

For instance, the UK welfare state was largely developed by William Beveridge. But when Beveridge was making the case for his reforms he did not rely on any narrow moral or political theory, rather he tried to outline the central problems for which the welfare state was a solution. These were the the Five Giants: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.

Rhetorically, evil can be much more helpful than good. For we can all quickly agree that something like the Five Giants are bad and agree that we will attack them. However we may find that we all define what is good in rather different ways. So while we may agree on the need to attack an evil we may have very different ideas about how to avoid an evil and what we should do instead.

So, from a design point of view, only knowing what you want to avoid is also something of a weakness. If we do not know what the welfare state is for – not just what it is against – then it can be rather hard to design it or defend it. We may find that we are so divided by our different conceptions of the good that we no longer agree on what it is we are fighting for.

In fact I think this is our current predicament. Sometimes critics of the welfare state seem to be against the welfare state, but it often turns out that they are really offering different visions of the welfare state. They still want to attack the Five Giants but they are arguing for different ways of attacking them. This does not make them right, nor does it make their arguments any less dangerous, but it means we are living at a time when it is no longer good enough to simply argue that any proposed policy change is a ‘threat to the welfare state’. Simplistic defences of the welfare state as ‘an obviously good thing’ have become far too weak.

It is no longer good enough to point – however truthfully – that a policy is an attack on the welfare state. The welfare state’s legitimacy has been weakened too much by decades of bad policy-making by Left and Right. Too many people are now convinced that the problems with the welfare state are so grave that they will allow government to fiddle with or undermine it – to their hearts content.

We will have to rethink our approach. We will have to develop a more positive account of what we are defending – one that can unite a wide range of different perspectives – but one that is specific enough to create a real challenge to the great erosion of rights we see today.

This is what the Campaign for a Fair Society is trying to do and why we have published a dynamic Manifesto for a Fair Society setting out key principles – as well as detailed proposals. It is also why we are going to invite anyone who has their own ideas to share those ideas with us. Its early days for this project – but if you think you could help I’d love to hear from you.

The Good, Bad & Ugly of Welfare Reform

The Welfare Reform Bill is the most radical reform of the tax-benefit system since Beveridge. It is a mixture of the good, the bad and the very ugly.

At its best it recognizes the problem. It recognizes that the current system creates fears, burdens, taxes and bureaucracy for the very people who need the most support. This marks a break-through admission by the political system.

Unfortunately the solutions proposed are poorly designed. Universal Credit aims to provide a framework for integrating tax and benefits in order to engineer the required incentives. However this system will lead to increased confusion and uncertainty, especially as the necessary information technology systems are lacking.

The second proposal is to abandon Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and replace it with a more restricted benefit – Personal Independence Payments (PIP). This is despite the fact that DLA has been a highly successful benefit, subject to no significant abuse, creating no disincentives to work, and is vitally important to many disabled people.

What is truly ugly about these reforms is the way in which they are being used to drive down the cost of benefits. The government’s intention is to cut benefits by £18 billion, 20% of the whole budget. This will only increase income inequality in the UK, already the third most unequal developed country in the world.

There is a real problem in the benefit system; but these mean-spirited proposals are not the right solution. Instead we need both positive incentives and real securities.

This article was originally published in The House Magazine on the 19th January 2012.

Designing with Constraints

Good design is the art of progressively adapting oneself to increasingly high levels of constraint  – until only one solution is possible – the best.

Design Requires Deeper Thinking

Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn’t what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really work out what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.

Steve Jobs from Wired in 1994

This seems to me to be true of design in our welfare systems too. People are always in such a hurry, working so hard, but thinking so little. What this leads to in the end is poorly thought-through public policies.

It is not the lack of ‘research’ that is the problem – no design innovation ever came from research. But design should be driven by a deeper understanding of the problems that need to be solved and the outcomes desired. This understanding is certainly informed by research, but it also needs to be informed by an understanding of human psychology and a commitment to basic ethical principles. Without this moral and social realism new designs will just be short-term fixes that will fall apart under the slightest pressure.

Having been responsible for designing several new systems for the organisation of welfare systems (individual budgets, self-directed support, resource allocation systems etc.) nothing is more depressing than to see people get enthusiastic about new ideas without making any real attempt to understand how and why they work. This is what then lead to such poor implementation. Without any deeper understanding people implement a process, e.g. the seven steps to self-directed support, as if it were a magical formula.

Sometimes it is better that people are sceptical and resistant than that they naively embrace innovations for the sake of novelty. Innovation must serve powerful moral purposes; it must right real wrongs. Otherwise it will be wasted effort and distraction.

Three (or Four) Kinds of People

Three officials were assigned to guard the king’s treasures. They proved to be corrupt, and dividing the valuables, ran away. One thought better of it, and returned of his own accord. The second was persuaded by a friend to return. The third witnessed the execution of an embezzler and returned out of fear. The first was restored to the king’s confidence; the second received a less responsible post, the third was appointed executioner of the embezzlers: 

“There are three kinds of people in the world who act like these three officials with respect to the fulfillment of God’s injunctions” explained the Pulnoer.

An Hasidic Tale

This story reveals a theme which runs through moral philosophy. Are we motivated to act rightly because of duty itself or because of external influence or fear?

In my own work I find the similar fourfold distinction useful – not for analysing moral behaviour – but in terms of attitude to change:

  1. Motivation by belief – to have a vision of the possible and faith in the unseen – these are the natural innovators
  2. Motivation by status – to seek evidence  and stay close to authority – these are the followers of fashion, the makers of movements
  3. Motivation by price – to look for the consequent value of the innovation: it makes life easier, cheaper, more fun – these are the utilitarians who wait for trends to be set and for prices to drop
  4. Motivation by fear – to know the negative value of the innovation: to fear the loss, the change and the unknown – these are the sceptics

Notice that each of us takes a different attitude to change in different aspects of our life. Nobody is an innovator in every walk of life. Notice also that each attitude has a positive purpose and that the tensions between these perspectives are legitimate.

So if you value an innovation remember that the other person, who does not seem to understand the value of the innovation, is not being purposefully stupid or wicked. Instead they are either:

  • Worrying that there is not enough evidence – What would it look like if they backed something that proved false?
  • Worrying that there is not enough value yet – Is it the right time to invest in this? What will my return be?
  • Worrying that they will lose something else they value –  Doesn’t this threaten me?

For social innovators it is important to respect these fears – knowing that you cannot resolve them at once. You also need to develop strategies that:

  • Increase data and improve understanding of the value of the innovation
  • Reduce the price, increase simplicity and ease of application of the innovation
  • Design the innovation so that it is sustainable and respectful of other values and approaches
Perhaps most importantly, if you have a vision of how things could be better, you will need to find ways of sharing your vision. Most powerfully this is achieved by making your vision real – even if its just in some small way.

Four Kinds of Designer

There are four kinds of designer or innovator, each with their own style. No style is right; each has its merits and its limitations:

Radical design – this is direct and active – it tries to identify a core functional structure – for example, making a garden from scratch. The radical designer is still constrained, but tends to treat all existing constraints as ultimately negotiable (although is clearly an impossible extreme – many constraints will continue to frame the design, even if they are in the unconscious of the designer).

Compensatory design – this is indirect and passive – it accepts the limitations of all the prevailing structures and identifies a different functionality – for example, putting a building into an existing garden. The compensatory designer is respectful of all constraints; how this is also an impossibly conservative extreme – anything new must in some way change what was already in place.

Adaptive design is direct and passive – it accepts the constraints of the prevailing structures, but tries to find new ways of building in functionality – for example, managing a garden over time. The adaptive designer is mindful of the finite nature of resources, and seeks to massage the given into something more useful.

Constructive design is indirect and active – it treats the foundations of the structure as fixed, but tries to add new or positive features – adding plants, sculpture to an existing garden. The constructive designer is highly tolerant of additions, of bells and whistles, of new features and new ideas.

For those of us involved in trying to reform the welfare system we must be mindful of these different styles of design. Often we may find that we agree about the need for redesign but that we do not share a notion of what kind of design is best. Simplifying we might say:

  • Theorists tend to be radical designers – “What we really need is…” or “The system is wrong!”
  • Bureaucrats are compensatory designers – “We can’t possibly change anything that already exists!”
  • Managers are adaptive designers – “How can we reshape what we already have?”
  • Advocates are often constructive designers – “We need something different and new” or “That change is wrong!

Each designer has their own burden to carry and we are wise to recognise that each has their proper place. Those of us who think that the welfare system is badly designed at a very deep level will need to show some patience with those who have a different temperament and we will need to explore to what extent merely adding, adapting or developing new features can still help move us towards a more just settlement. We may even need to accept that our own radical ideas will need to be reinterpreted as additions, adaptions or developments by others. For there will be some truth in such an interpretation.

Designing from the Wrong End

The Master said, ‘To attack a task from the wrong end can do nothing but harm.’ 


It is easy to imagine change. It is easy to imagine you know what is wrong and what would be better. But getting there depends upon a very different perspective. In order to change things you need to know what sustains them as they are.

Systems of oppression, patterns of bad practice or injustices exist for reasons – not good reasons – but for reasons. It is only by tackling these factors that we can bring about the change we desire and often the path we must take is paradoxical:

  • If we want people to make better decisions we may have to give them the freedom to make worse decisions.
  • If we want to make one thing more attractive we may need to make something else much less attractive.
  • If we want to learn we may need to unlearn.

Very often the obvious solution is the wrong solution:

  • Let’s have a new structure – but don’t change the old structure
  • Let’s have a new profession – but don’t change the old profession
  • Let’s have a new process – but don’t change the old structure

Often these bolt-on solutions unravel as they bring about both resistance and inefficiency.

The challenge of genuine social innovation and welfare reform – as with any other design challenge – is to figure out how to make the ‘good idea’ be more than a ‘good idea’.

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