On solving problems

December 20, 2017

I’m thinking lately how we like to think of ourselves as problem solvers that leave the world in a better state. While in some cases this is true, the statement feels divorced from reality. Just look at the world today. This is the world full of unintended consequences built one on top of the other. I don’t think it was intentional. It is the result of looking at problems narrowly. Thinking that problems are simpler and more defined than they really are. Not thinking holistically and focusing on local problems. Not anticipating the implications of decisions.

Take the car, for example. Hundred years ago it “solved” problems of transportation. But it created some other serious problems, such as contributing to environmental and resource crisis, traffic-related deaths and shaping our cities in so many negative ways, eventually making the transportation and the car itself a problem. Can we now, in retrospective, be sure that the car solved a problem of transportation?

Now, I’m not nihilistic. In contrast, I am only being critical because I think design can have a greater contribution to the world if we go beyond the problem-solving frame. Design is more than that. Orientation on solutions prevents us to understand problems in the first place and then anticipate implications.

We need to try harder to understand problems first, way before we try to solve them. To ask questions more and rush into solutions less. We have to be more critical than confirmative with ideas and requirements of stakeholders. We should also aim to find relevant problems. Not every problem is worth solving and not everything we perceive as a problem is an actual problem. Designing a better car is indeed a solution but for which problem?

We also need to shift our determination from problem-solving to future-making. Because inherently design is future-oriented and our decisions and artifacts do shape the future, as we have seen, often in unanticipated ways. Every little decision builds up. So we need to anticipate implications. To focus on making a more sustainable future than making a more usable or pleasurable present.  To stop thinking about people we design for as users who consume, but rather as humans, citizens, and neighbors equally capable of creating. To serve not only businesses and industries but also a society. Being responsible for a solution has less weight than being responsible for the future. Shift to thinking in terms of future-making could be a subtle shift, but an important one.

The wheels of capitalism need to keep spinning, but we could steer them in a slightly different direction. Possibly a better one.

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1 Comment

  • Yann Eves (January 7, 2018)

    “To stop thinking about people we design for as users who consume, but rather as humans, citizens, and neighbors equally capable of creating.”

    This line is so well put, it rings as greater empathy in design. Thanks for the great post!