Going beyond the limits of system design

During the last two weeks, the Rio de Janeiro 2016 games successfully captured the world’s attention. Global interest was sustained across a high crescendo of Olympic activity. Apart from weirdly-coloured water, an unfortunate, not-entirely-well-recorded robbery and a Paralympic funding problem, the 2016 Olympics managed to go reasonably smoothly, avoiding mission-critical mishaps.

But now, people are looking ahead. And some believe when Rio de Janeiro starts to deal with the sobriety of life after the Olympics, things might not look pretty.

The trough of disillusionment’s difficult to face in any circumstances. A halo effect can accompany the hype of peak experiences, but even so, the afterglow can be limited. In fact, it can be argued a faltering path to progress is almost hard-wired into the human experience, such has been the labour and endurance through which we’ve developed as a human species.

It’s enough to make one wonder if perhaps it’s in our nature to short-circuit away from continuous improvement. And, if so, there are implications in here for system-changers to accept.

Brazil isn’t the only nation to have faced the question of whether or not staging the Olympics games works as a game-changer. Despite two decades of economic growth, severe socio-economic problems persist and are likely to continue. Trying to stimulate change using an Olympic intervention, for example, highlights the inherent challenges that come with trying to confront complex systems with something as pre-determined as conceptual design.

In Spain and Greece, the games served to highlight the extent to which socio-economic problems lingered and were, perhaps, even exacerbated by the Olympic lights going out.

The interconnected and interdependent forces that operate and shape the networked nature of society are something we are only just beginning to understand. Our cultures are highly complex and slow to adapt. In such circumstances, it can be hard to establish a common vision, perspective and consensus about what an ideal set of next steps might look like.

Perhaps the very desire to be architects of impact indicates how far we have yet to go in conceiving techniques that can accelerate sustainable improvement well. Healthy cultures are diverse in nature; indeed, to thrive they will practically almost fight against any kind of monotheistic order. What are the implications of that for system designers? Well, we are still very much on a learning curve when it comes to understanding system design. Indeed, we’re barely beginning to appreciate and understand the nature of connected ecosystems.

Talking about striving for impact, Tatiana Glad, co-founder and director of Impact Hub in Amsterdam, said recently:

“The challenges we face today are so intricately connected to each other that we need to develop a new mindset and relational practice to begin to understand how to be effective – and how to be effective together. Working with others is easy, but really rolling up your sleeves to work towards common achievement – even when it means uncovering the ugliness, and examining it – is not. But it is in this very place of creative tension, and inviting in of requisite diversity, that innovation has the potential to emerge.” 

Apart from the value of the sporting spectacle in itself, Olympic events are pitched as an intervention to promote system change. Inspired by the great feats of athletes and with the world’s media trained upon them, they are intended to create legacies from showcasing a series of tremendous experiences and peak achievements, with the desired outcome and lasting impact that life won’t be as it was before.

Many organisations and institutions attempt system change without even the benefit of interventions or catalysts of this scale. It’s rare, in fact to have the opportunity to utilise the kind of positive interventions the Olympics are meant to represent.

So, what can we learn from this?

Firstly, that there are some roads you don’t want to go down. As in the ghettos and favelas, the less space there is for individual elements to thrive, connect and develop synergies, the more competition there is for territory, the less autonomous the agency is that exists, the less ability there is to create meaningful impact.

Secondly, no matter how large the scale of the design, if the intervention does not connect or is relevant in addressing the needs of an existing culture, it will fail. For system-changers, the trap is in being in thrall to the approach rather than being invested in the outcome.

What this means, I think, is that to be able to sympathetically effect lasting change involves going beyond staging showcases, interventions, system planning, or even innovative disruption.

Elegant, seamless transition that lasts involves understanding an ecosystem in depth, empathically, and developing agreed, quantifiable and qualifiable improvements and consensus around what is in the common good.

It means too, that system design is nothing without ecosystem mapping, where the latter takes a sensitive view of what already exists and why, understanding its provenance deeply, respecting existing heritage as much as crafting a vision collaboratively of changes to be made.

Architects are in the business, as we know, of creating imposed structures. These can be a magnet for positive good, changing environmental patterns, inspiring people to think differently. But to create sustainable change that’s built to last, the build cannot be hollow. One has to go much deeper into the roots of an ecosystem, mapping it, respecting and attempting to understand it.

System design can be a starting point for this of course, but I think it is time to frame the next steps of digital organisation, management and, indeed civilisation, differently.

We can only create useful systemic and holistic change when we understand the nuances, vagaries and intentions of what exists now and why, before we consciously and cooperatively design a better way.