Water Planning with the Best Intentions

The last couple weeks in our theory class we’ve been reading articles chosen to fit the theme of “With the Best Intentions”. Many of these had examples of design projects that were created with the intention of “doing good”, but may actually have had questionable outcomes. This theme was especially engaging for me, because of my work experience in government. I commonly associate my work and intentions to align with “doing good”, and take a lot of pride in my work. For this reason, I found myself reflecting on how the author’s viewpoints might relate to my experiences and the work I do, as well as my future work as a designer.

The story I used to frame my learnings in my presentation was a brief overview of water planning in Texas. Click here to read a quick one pager on how the state does water planning then come back here to see how my takeaways from this process could be applied to not falling into the “but it was with good intentions” trap for future designers.

Require diverse stakeholder engagement.

Involving many different perspectives (sometimes conflicting) doesn’t always lead to a clear picture or easy solution, but it often provides a wealth of insights and a more meaningful picture than approaching a problem with a narrower lens. This is especially important when dealing with wicked problems, or working in the public sector because a designer may not be a part of the community they are designing for, or personally affected by the problem. Not only can this create blindspots in the design that lead to the benefit of one group over another, but also a solution that could be more heavily influenced by the market instead of lasting change for good. By involving stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds a project can benefit from the knowledge brought by all parties to collaborate and try something new that none may have been able to come up with on their own. Lastly, relying on a wide range of stakeholders will help normalize a solution and make it more accessible and dignified for all users.

Empower the community to get involved in identifying and solving their needs.

The readings this week showed that involving the community you are designing for is not always enough if you’re not asking the right questions. Sometimes, it’s not enough even if you are asking the right questions if they are not able to answer them well. I think this is often why we jump to technology as an answer, because it is so good at giving us information quickly when that isn’t always the case with people. We as designers need to take the time to work with communities to provide the tools and resources necessary to help them identify what needs may exist, and participate in the process of developing solutions.

Create long term goals with iterative tasks.

We also read and discussed the importance of focusing on designing solutions for the root cause of problems versus the symptoms. Some examples showed that immediate, localized, or small impacts don’t always solve the problem, but may just lessen a symptom of the problem. With wicked problems it can be difficult to know the root cause of a problem because everything is so intertwined and connected. Therefore, an approach that incorporates a long term goal and outlook with shorter term iterative tasks provides the best chance of success and the ability to “design with”. This is because it allows for ongoing adjustments based on learnings and developments as well as steady forward progress.

Have good intentions, do your best, and feel good about it.

This is more of my own personal takeaway from the readings. I can see why these articles are good for us to think about as designers, but I was perturbed by many of them. Particularly irksome were the readings that highlighted how “doing good” has become a huge selling point and private industry has been capitalizing on it to profit. I don’t in general believe that private industry can responsibly solve wicked problems because they are driven by profit as opposed to government or non-profit organizations. Despite good intentions, thinking of consumers is different than thinking of people. However, I think it’s very important for designers and everyone to approach problems and the world with good intentions, do their best, and not let the idea of “selfish altruism” get in their way. Yes, I get validation from “doing good”, but it also inspires me and drives me to continue working and striving to have a positive impact which I refuse to find fault in – especially if I am conscious to keep the above takeaways and other learnings in mind.