Posts Tagged Design Thinking

Creativity, Philosophy, and Not Acting Your Age

A friend of mine teaches design thinking and hosts creativity programs. His second child was born 90 seconds after his first. He says they’re not twins. Go for it…

The story is true, not just an exercise in thinking out of the box. In our first meeting my friend issued this challenge, adding that only one person in his seminars had ever gotten the answer. I did what most people probably do; I entertained some possible but unlikely scenarios that could lead to that outcome. But no, he didn’t impregnate two different women within a few weeks of each other, who then coincidentally gave birth at the same time. Nor was he a sperm donor. Nor is he using the “father” term loosely in a case where his wife had been implanted with fertilized eggs from two different pairs of parents.

I pondered it for bit, and then felt a tinge of disappointment when it hit me. “Do you have triplets?”, I asked. He smiled and nodded. The incident left me wondering about some other creativity trainers I’ve known. It also got me thinking about the twentieth-century philosophers I praised in my last post. In the early 1900s, young Ludwig Wittgenstein realized that most philosophical problems – certainly those dealing with ideals and universals – simply stem from misunderstandings of the logic of language. Wittgenstein worked in the cold, hard, realm of logic we call analytic philosophy. Coincidentally, those fuzzy-thinking French at the far extremes of philosophy during the same era also concluded, through a radically different method, that language is definitely not a transparent medium of thought. Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, for all their incoherent output, actually do, in my view, defend this position convincingly. Richard Rorty, in his 1967 introductory essay to The Linguistic Turn, brilliantly compares the similar conclusions reached at the same time by these two disjoined schools of thought.

As we talked about using the triplets puzzle in creativity seminars I wondered if those who solved it might be more gifted in linguistics – or perhaps philosophy of language – than in creative thought. Creativity certainly had little to do with my drilling into the language of the puzzle only after plodding through the paternal possibilities. I was channeling Jacques Derrida, not being creative.

It is only a quirk of language that we don’t think that two triplets are also twins. In fact, I seem to recall that they often are – literally. That is, triplets often comprise a pair of monozygotic twins plus a fraternal sibling. So even by use of standard language, two of his triplets might be twins.

The idea of confusing creative problem solving with creative use of – or analysis of – language reminds me of another scenario that often puzzled me. Tony Buzan, the mind-mapping creativity guru, starts one of his courses off by challenging students to, in a fixed time period, record as many uses of a paper clip as possible. Presumably, creative folk find more than the rest of us. He then issues a 2nd challenge: how many things can you not do with a paper clip? Most people find more non-uses than uses. Tony jokingly suggests that we’re negative thinkers because we produce longer lists for the latter.

He then collects examples of non-uses for paper clips from the class, including that you can’t eat them or use them for transportation. Challenging that group to assert whether they’re sure there’s no possible way to eat a paper clip, someone eventually offers that if the paper clip is ferrous, you could grind it up and eat it as a supplement. Inevitably, a more creative student then realizes that Tony didn’t specify the material from which the paper clip was made. It could be made of dried wheat, and then, of course, you could eat it.

Once again, for me at least, the challenge now focuses on language more than creativity. Is it creative to call a paper-clip-shaped piece of spaghetti a paper clip? Or is it just undisciplined? Or both? I doubt that most audiences would have trouble coming up with culinary solutions when quizzed about what sort of things they could do with a paper-clip-shaped piece of pasta. So I suspect the difference between those who went down the route of non-metal (or non-plastic) paper clips and those who did not may stem from experience and situation more than from innate or learned creative abilities. And, by the way, I can easily drive a paper clip if it has wheels, an engine, and comes from Bugatti, not Buitoni. Cream-colored, or bolognese-red?

Once you become attuned to paradoxes that dissolve under a linguistic lens, you find them everywhere. Even in modern philosophy, a place you might expect practitioners to be vigilant. Experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe comes to mind. He’s famous for the Knobe Effect, as seen in the following story.

The CEO of a company is sitting in his office when his Vice President of R&D comes in and says, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.” The CEO responds that he doesn’t care about harming the environment and just wants to make as much profit as possible. The program is carried out, profits are made and the environment is harmed.

Knobe asks those presented with this story whether the CEO intentionally harmed the environment.  82 percent say he did. Knobe then repeats the story, changing only a single word. “Harm” becomes “help”: “… it will also help the environment.”

Knobe then asks whether, in the second story, the CEO intentionally helped the environment. Only 23% of people think so. Some see the asymmetry in responses as a direct challenge to the notion of a one-way flow of judgment from the factual (non-moral) domain to the moral. Spooky and fascinating as that prospect is, I don’t think the Knobe Effect is evidence of it. It’s a language game, Josh – as Wittgenstein would say.

The asymmetry stems not from different bridges (for “harm” and “help”) from fact to moral judgment, but from the semantic asymmetry between “intentionally harm” and “intentionally help.”  In context, “intentionally harm” is not simply the negation of “intentionally help.”  “Intentional” means different things when applied to help and harm. In popular usage “intentionally harm” is understood by most people to mean awareness that your action will cause harm, as its primary purpose or as a secondary consequence. However, “intentional help” is understood by most people to mean your primary purpose was to help, and not that helpfulness could be a mere byproduct.

As WVO Quine made clear, meaning does not stem from words – it stems from sentences, at minimum. No word’s meaning is independent of its context. Quine discusses such concepts at length in Pursuit of Truth (1990) and “Ontological Relativity” (1967).

I get a real kick out of Tony Buzan. I’m well aware that most of his claims about the brain are pure quackery. What percentage of your brain do you use…? His mind-map claims (ultimate revolutionary mind power tool) are a bit out to lunch too. But he’s charming; and I know many people who thrive on mind maps and do great things with them (“if that works for you, great…”). Kudos to him for putting the ancient Greek and Roman mnemonists on a pedestal, and for stressing the link between memory training and creativity. More importantly, anyone who champions games, daydreaming, not acting your age, while pushing rigorous memory training gets my highest praise. Oh, and he designs his own clothes.

I thought hard; and I finally I envisaged one thing a paper clip can never be. A paper clip can absolutely never be a non-paper-clip. But can it be a set of non-paper-clips? Or a set of all sets not containing non-paper-clips? Can you picture it?

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Is Clean Energy a Wicked Problem?

Deciding whether clean energy is a wicked problem involves two tasks. One is to define wicked problem and the other is a formulation of the clean energy objective.

Advocates of Design Thinking and Systems Thinking, among others, are fond of the term, wicked problem. Popular examples include climate change/clean energy, drug trafficking, homeland security, nuclear energy, natural hazards and healthcare. In the next few posts, I’ll argue that the characterization of clean energy as a wicked problem is, at best, not very useful and, at worst, detrimental to the stated goals of those who use it. I think the clean energy challenge is partly wicked – but only partly – and not for most of the reasons one might guess. In upcoming posts I’ll also argue that to some degree the clean energy problem is made wicked by characterizing it as wicked.  There is a Keyser Söze effect (seemingly omnipotent criminal whose omnipotence derives from his scaremongering) at work here. It demoralizes us and misdirects thinking that could be put to better use solving problems. My previous post, on philosopher Richard Rorty, ends wth Rorty’s appeal that if a solution to the problem of climate and energy exists, it is a matter for the engineers. Indeed. Let’s get to work.

The term wicked problem was first used around 1967 in lectures by Horst Rittel of UC Berkeley according to systems guru West Churchman, who first used it in print, in reference to Rittel’s lecture. The context of Rittel’s use of the term was social policy and urban planning. Six years later, Rittel and Melvin Webber defined wicked problems in detail in “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” published in the journal of the Society for Policy Sciences.

Rittel and Webber list ten distinguishing properties of the planning-type problems they classify as wicked. They note that wicked does not mean that anything in the problem space is ethically deplorable or that malicious intent exists, but that such problems are tricky, malignant, vicious and aggressive.

Both Rittel & Webber and Churchman do, however, go to some length to describe an ethical issue related to wicked problems. This important point is lost in most modern use of the term. The authors indicate that it is usually morally objectionable for a planner to treat a wicked problem as though it were a tame one, or to tame only part of a wicked problem. Churchman says that taming part of a wicked problem, but not the whole, is morally wrong, because doing so can create the illusion of safety where danger exists. He then calls for a new level of maturity and morality in operations research and management science. Churchman urges that his profession not only avoid telling management what it wants to hear, but that operations researchers should not tame parts of wicked problems even if they warn management that only part of a problem was solved. It takes more than a verbal caveat, said Churchman, to convince the management that a solution is incomplete. For the energy/climate problem, it seems to me this aspect of Rittel, Webber, and Churchman’s work may be considerably more important than examining the wickedness of the energy/climate problem. More on that in a later post.

Rittel’s ten distinguishing properties of wicked problems are listed below. These descriptions are excerpted directly from Rittel’s wording with very minor additions and clarifications. I’ve split Rittel’s item number 4 into two parts because I think he inadvertently connects two related but distinct characteristics – solution testability and likelihood of unexpected consequences. I differentiate these because non-function and malfunction (and the likelihood of each) are fundamentally different engineering concerns.

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. In order to describe a wicked-problem in sufficient detail, one has to develop an exhaustive inventory of all conceivable solutions ahead of time. The process of solving the problem is identical with the process of understanding its nature.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. You never know whether you’re finished.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better-or-worse. Parties may be equally interested or entitled to judge the solutions, but none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness.

4a. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.

4b. Wicked problems are prone to unintended consequences.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly. Every implemented solution is consequential, leaving “traces” that cannot be undone.

6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions.

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Despite long lists of similarities between a current problem and a previous one, there always might be an additional distinguishing property that is of overriding importance. The conditions in a city constructing a subway may look similar to the conditions in San Francisco, say; but planners would be ill-advised to transfer the San Francisco solutions directly. Differences in commuter habits or residential patterns may far outweigh similarities in subway layout, downtown layout and the rest.

8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. The process of resolving the problem starts with the search for causal explanation of the discrepancy. Removal of that cause poses another problem of which the original problem is a “symptom.”

9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution. Crime in the streets can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, too many police, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, too many guns, etc.

10. The planner has no right to be wrong. As Karl Popper argues in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, it is a principle of science that solutions to problems are only hypotheses offered for refutation. In the world of planning and wicked problems no such immunity is tolerated.

The definition of wicked problem has remained consistent through its usage. It appears in Design Thinking and climate-change circles often, with substantially the same meaning, usually referencing Rittel and Webber. Given that consistency of usage, we can next take a crack at what we mean when we say we want clean energy. With a useful definition of wicked and a fair formulation of a clean energy objective, we can then look at whether clean energy is a wicked problem and how that characterization might impact planning and design of solutions.

More on that tomorrow.

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Spurious Regression

William Storage           14 Jun 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Center for Science, Technology, Medicine & Society

I’ve been looking into the range of usage of the term “Design Thinking” (see previous post on this subject) on the web along with its rate of appearance in publications. According to Google, the term first appeared in print in 1973, occurring occasionally until 1988. Over the next five years its usage increased ten-fold, then calming down a bit. It peaked again in 2003 and has declined a bit since then.

Design-ThinkingRate of appearance of “Design Thinking” in publications
since 1970 (bottom horizontal is zero) per Google.

More interesting than term publication rates was the Google data on search requests. I happened upon a strong correlation between Google searches for “Design Thinking” and both “Bible verse” and “scriptures.” That is, the rate of Google searches for Design Thinking rise and fall in sync with searches for Bible verses.

A scatter plot of search activity for Design Thinking and Bible verse from 2005 to present shows an uncanny correlation:

US web search activity for Design Thinking and Bible verse (r=0.9648) Source: Google Correlate

From this, we might conclude that Design Thinking is a religion or that holism is central to both Christianity and Design Thinking. Or that studying Design Thinking causes interest in scriptures or vice versa. While at least one of these four possibilities is in fact true (Christianity and Design Thinking both rely on holism), we would be very wrong to think the relationship between search behavior on these terms to be causal.

A closer look at the Design Thinking – Bible verse data, this time as a line plot, over a few years is telling. Searches for the both terms hit a yearly minimum the last week of December and another local minimum near mid-July. It would seem that time of year has something do with searching on both terms.

Google Correlate relative rates of searches on Design Thinking
and Bible verse, July 09-July 2011 (r=0.964)

If two sets of data, A and B, correlate, there are four possibilities to explain the correlation:

1. A causes B
2. B causes A
3. C causes both A and B
4. The correlation is merely coincidental

Item 3, known as the hidden variable or ignoring a common cause, is standard fare for politics and TV news (imagine what Fox News or NPR might do with the Design Thinking – Bible verse correlation). But in statistics, spurious correlations are bad news.

Spurious regression is the term for the scenario above. In this linear regression model, A was regressed on B. But there is some unknown C probably having to do with seasonal interest/disinterest due to time availability or more pressing topics of interest. Searches on Broncos and Tebow, for example, have negative correlations with Design Thinking and Bible verse.

Watch for tomorrow’s piece on Politics Thinking and  Journalism Thinking.


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