What limits what I can imagine?

In this week’s theory blogpost, I am reflecting on the question “what limits what I can imagine?” To me, this is the heart of the dilemma of a human centered designer. I believe that design is all about tensions – tensions between what can be and what is, what I want to express and how I am limited by the tools around me, what I believe to be right and what I can be paid to do, what will liberate humans and the products that are currently on the market…the list can go on ad infinitum. Ultimately, as an idealistic human-centered designer, I am always thinking about how I might use design to build a better world. If there’s one thing that has been a theme throughout my experience at AC4D is: that’s a freaking hard task. There are many impediments to (re)designing human made systems to be more inclusive, humane, and equitable. In theory class, we’ve been focusing on developing a knowledge to explain why that might be. (While in our other courses, we are finding out about the practical challenges.) In this blogpost, I am going to focus my attention on thought-systems and how knowledge is shared.

As a baseline for a definition of design, I am going to borrow from Norman and Vergannti’s article on Incremental and Radical Innovation. In it, they state that design is, “ [t]he deliberate and reasoned shaping and making of our environment in ways that satisfy our needs and give meaning to our lives.” From this, I can begin to reflect on a significant challenge baked into the design process: designs made for and by humans will always fail since we are limited by our own knowledge. Here, I am defining knowledge as anything that I believe to be true AND I have a warrant to believe it to be true. This means, that I simultaneously imbue the knowledge with my own faith while also look for external validation from a community of people to have any certainty in my knowledge.

Now, as a reframing technique, imagine if I lived in a world with no more than 100 people. In this world, I depend on a small group of people for everything from food to health to education. There would be collective learning, of course, but knowledge would be transferred primarily through face-to-face interactions. I would probably have an apprenticeship and hear stories of my neighbor’s ancestors. I would get direct feedback about what I did right and wrong from the very people who were creating the knowledge and I could spend hours just observing how they accomplished their tasks. I imagine that much of the knowledge I acquired would be classified as embodied. This is tacit knowledge that cannot be transferred outside of its context. Tacit knowledge is the kind of knowledge you can only learn through shared experiences like rock climbing, pottery throwing or dog training. There would also be narrative knowledge, the kind of knowledge spread through story. Though stories can travel further than embodied knowledge, they lose richness and nuance of context as they spread. Though the systems that sustain my small village could be complex, I would like to believe that questions of how to scale our knowledge wouldn’t be an issue. There would be less need to have a formal system of communication that is abstract and codified. How much time would we spend writing manuals on how to farm if you could just walk down the street and watch how we have always farmed?


Of course, this is not the case. Our collective learning is co-created across space and time. How to scale knowledge transference is an awesome (both in terms of magnitude and interest) problem to attack. The simplest kind of knowledge to spread is abstract, codified, formal knowledge. It can be diffused easily. I reckon that is one reason why formal knowledge is so highly valued. From an academic standpoint, it is also an object of affection because it has been agreed upon by a community of “experts” (at its best). But, as I wrote in the paragraph above, formal knowledge is only one kind of knowledge. How can humans share (context bound) embodied and narrative knowledge? (If there is any value in it?)

There is a framework for how to think about how knowledge is created across organizations (and civilizations?) called SECI. There are four dimensions: socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization. Socialization explains how tacit (embodied) knowledge is transferred. Externalization explains the process that goes from tacit to explicit knowledge – whatever enables tacit knowledge to be shared. Combination is when explicit knowledges are combined and integrated. Last is internalization. This is where an individual has received new knowledge and applies it, thus making the knowledge tacit again. And on it goes again. Of course, this model has limitations. Knowledge transference isn’t so linear. It also prompts me to ask questions about how to locate users in this process and whether the experience is authentic or not.


Now, a big issue comes up here: this cycle is presented as if new knowledge is created as information travels through the cycle. Supposedly, new knowledge is created as it goes from tacit to explicit. I question this presumption. Of course, this framework is a model and thus must simplify a complex situation, thereby leaving out the nuance of the lived experience. However, at each stage, there are political, economic, and cultural systems constricting, molding, and influencing what knowledge is allowed to be transferred.

First, knowledge is built upon previous knowledges. Ways of seeing and doing are normalized by the institutions they live in.

Second, if we peer more closely at each one of the phases, we can start to imagine ways power influence the outcomes at every point. In the socialization dimension, we learn from others who have been trained within a knowledge system. We observe their behavior, what they pay attention to, how they move and interact with their environments. We share stories and choose how the story is told. Where we should focus, what metaphors we decide on, and how to classify our success and failures. In the externalization dimension, the data that gets translated is filtered through political, economic and cultural constructs. We highlight the details we think we should. We connect data that we are trained to. We communicate to create value. In the combination dimension, knowledge is limited by what has been produced, by the means we have to share knowledge (mostly likely abstract and formal), and by the selection principles at play. In the internationalization dimension, what we get to practice is constrained by the systems that we operate in. And then, the knowledge becomes socialized again.

I am not saying that there can’t be “new” knowledge creation in this cycle, though I do claim that what can be created is highly limited by the echo chamber built by this cycle. But how can there be a radical departure from this cycle? How can this kind of knowledge creation not just lead to an incremental evolution? I think about the articles we read on American medical education and the impact this system has on the patient experience. How might the cycle be broken?

I am again going to borrow from Norman and Vergannti to define radical and incremental innovation. Radical innovation is “doing what we did not do before”. Incremental innovation is “doing better what we already do.” As a designer, how can I step in and change this pattern?

As has been reinforced by my experience doing human-centered design research, my experience as a teacher for over a decade, and many of the readings selected for us in theory, human-centered design will not lead to radical innovation. As Norman and Vergannti state: “The more that researchers study existing human behavior, activities, and products, the more they get trapped into existing paradigms. These studies lead to incremental improvements, enabling people to do better what they already do, but not to radical change that would enable them to do what they currently do not do.” What human-centered design does do well is to help designers figure out where there are current breakdowns in information flow, gaps in systems, system work arounds, how to make technology fit in more seamlessly and more… What it does not help designers build something that makes humans do something that they did not do before. This requires a different set of tools.

It is my hope that through research I can identify patterns that would point to a human desire for meaning change. This could lead to a new way of being/doing. However, if it weren’t already challenging enough to step outside of the constructs our knowledge sharing patterns have established, if I can find new meanings hidden within our culture, how might I test this to see if I have a valid hypothesis? How might I actually innovate and design an intervention that gets people to adopt this radical new meaning? It seems that incremental innovation can be employed. If there can be a theory of change that inspires people to adopt a new way of solving their problems and that, over time, crosses a magical threshold into a new way of being/doing/relating.