Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: reform

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.

The Kutuzov Strategy

In War and Peace Tolstoy describes the subtle strategy of General Kutuzov who saves Russia from Napoleon’s attack. The central image of Kutuzov is of an old man surrounded by yapping and competing generals. While they come up with one scheme after another Kutuzov concentrates on saving the lives of the common man, retreating before Napoleon and cutting off Napoleon’s resources.

Napoleon is defeated by winter, his troops reduced morale and the sustained commitment of the Russian forces. What is essential about Kutuzov’s strategy is that he puts all his energy into supporting natural forces – he does not put energy into defending or attacking tactical plans, nor into continual fights with Napoleon. He stands back, sees the big picture and uses the dynamics of the system at work.

For social innovators it is essential to exploit Kutuzov’s strategy. The social innovator has nothing going for them – they have no money, no power and rarely any status. So you must tap into the grain of things – the forces that lie latent with the current social situation. It is our faith in positive possibility, combined with these latent forces, that bring about positive change.

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