The Amateur Savant and the Wisdom of Crowds: Design Jams as a tool for civic engagement and urban creativity.

Wicked Problems
Many urban planning and design issues can be described in design parlance as ‘Wicked Problems’ (Rittel & Webber 1973): a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of ambiguous or changing requirements and complex interdependencies. The effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. One example of this might be ‘food systems’: we all want to eat good, local, healthy food, but the current industrial food production and distribution system is not set up to deal with the kind of tomorrow we’d all like to see today. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle there is a definite need to explore the heart of the problem from a macro-level in order to gain an understanding of what it might take to solve it. So where do we begin?

By definition wicked problems cannot be solved from one single point of view. There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that solutions to complex challenges are increasingly coming from ‘Zero Gravity Thinkers’ (Berger 2009). Amongst the designers he interviews and quotes in his book ‘Glimmer’ (such as Paula Scher, Michael Bierut and Tim Brown) Warren Berger discusses the notion with innovation expert and author Cynthia Barton Rabe ‘…that breakthrough ideas are more likely to come from ‘Zero Gravity Thinkers’, meaning those who aren’t weighed down by expertise and conventional wisdom. Some innovation pundits now refer to the ‘curse of knowledge’, which holds that as expertise increases, creativity wears off’. Berger continues by indicating that ‘The best designers seem to have a natural eye for spotting patterns and discerning possible relationships between things that most of us view as being separate and unrelated. Once they see a possible relationship, they work to make the pieces fit. Designers are trained to synthesise.’

Citizen Designers
Although they may be acting alone, or in a small group, it is the citizen (those who are grounded in the reality of their own lives) who often steps forward to deliver a single piece of the puzzle that makes up the diverse range of potential solutions that we can use to complete the fundamentally much larger mystery. Because of this new knowledge in design research, there is a need to provide citizens with opportunities to discuss and ideate solutions together. From there, we can start to see a more complete picture emerge.

This is what the Jam-space does. It acts as a lens through which a diverse range of people, (some of whom are experts, some are people who know little-to-nothing about an issue) can view the perspective of the other. This top down, bottom up approach creates the conditions wherein those present can work together. It gives them permission to ‘flow’ their ideas up and down the knowledge arch and work on the problem in an environment centred on ‘solution-finding’.

Case Study: Affordable Housing
Another common example of a wicked problem is the challenge of fostering housing affordability within urban cores—the subject of our May, 2012 Design Jam ‘re:THINK Housing’. On a macro scale, the re:THINK Housing event spoke to a new kind of civic engagement, that attempts to begin to tackle the and pierces ‘The 4th Wall’. This re-emergence of civic engagement is one that fits more in line with UK transformation designer Charles Leadbeater’s template in which governments work ‘For, With, By and To’ the people they are serving (not just by doing things for them, or to them, but creating opportunities to work with them on projects created by all). This process lets us know where we might be heading, and although it doesn’t solve the problem outright, what the jams do are help move the conversation on from a ‘problems’ to ‘solutions’ dialogue. It informs us that there are better ways to solving some of the most intractable and wicked problems of our time. And perhaps, looking to these kinds of lab, or incubator spaces for the future of public engagement, constructive dialogue and design prototyping is a good place for local governments to start.

To read the write-up for the re:THINK Housing event, click here.

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September 24, 2012 - 6:56 pm

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