An Imaginative Retrospective on my First Quarter of Design Research.
“Girls!”…. “Giiirrls!” -Polly yelled out towards the front pasture. Over the hill, blurred figures started roaming our direction, and within about fifteen minutes, all of Polly’s 50 cattle were peacefully grazing in the back pasture. Polly is gentle with her cows, nurturing them all as if they were pregnant, and yielding impressive fertility rates as a result. She also possesses comprehensive knowledge on the grass-fed beef industry, is well-versed in pricing and marketing, and generally kicks ass.
Even still, as a mid-sized, sustainable cattle rancher in Central Texas, Polly lives right below the poverty line.
The push for efficiency in our society has valuably progressed many systems, but now that the straightforward problems are more-or-less addressed, as Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber point out in the article Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, this continued push for efficiency is being challenged with “a renewed preoccupation with concerns for equity.” I am currently consumed by my preoccupation with Polly, and with all the other local sustainable livestock farmers in Central Texas, who are providing public goods in ways of air quality, water quality, and an honest food product, but who are struggling to scrape by. I had to probe deeper.
As a first step, I set out to understand what the government and other institutions are currently doing to support these farmers. As Rittel and Webber would anticipate, these institutions are taking a rational, systematic approach: they are putting economically- and environmentally-motivated grant and cost-sharing resources out there, assuming those who need for them will access them, but these local livestock farmers are not. The problem is apparently not be that there are no resources available, so why are these farmers so under-resourced?
A couple initial conversations with subject matter experts on Austin food policy were enough to start painting the complex picture into which these farmers are situated. Farmers aren’t accessing these resources because they don’t have the resources to access them, because they spend all day tending to their farm responsibilities, even though this only amounts to a small sum of money, because the market price for foods in the United States is so low thanks to government subsidies for commodity farms, because the government has an ever-growing population to feed, and, even still, 18% of Travis County’s population is food insecure (2015 statistic). It appears we have a wicked problem on our hands: within this network of systems, “the outputs from one become inputs to others” (Rittel & Webber). Every problem I uncovered illuminated as a symptom of another problem – one of the qualities of these wicked problems that Rittel identifies and Richard Buchanan furthers in his article Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.
So, I’ve got a wicked problem on my hands – where do I go from here? Rittel suggests formulating your goal, which, at this stage I would define as getting these local livestock farmers comfortably above the poverty line. In my naivety to the subject matter, I suspended any problem-stating or solution-finding, and I embarked into the field with an ethnographic research framework focused around my goal. Wicked problems are inherently ill-defined, and I knew my design research with livestock farmers would start to add clarity. In their article Design Thinking For Social Innovation, Jocelyn Wyatt and Tim Brown emphasize the importance of relying on local expertise to uncover local solutions, so, to avoid getting too far ahead of myself on a macro-level, I decided to focus specifically on sustainable livestock farmers that sold in Austin. Wyatt and Brown also suggest identifying any positive outliers in the community to understand what they’re doing that others are not. Well, thinking of the closest example of a positive outlier, I go back to Polly.
I visited Polly with questions around her business model and how she views the system. Polly became frustrated as she described the cattle auction ring – how volatile the prices are and how little the rancher gets. Then, she glowed as she described the bold move she made to gain control and increase her margin: selling wholesale and direct-to-consumer.
She meticulously planned and grew her customer base, and now she even has other family ranches within her consortium that she sells under her company name. This is, no doubt, an impressive business that Polly has grown, but it works within the confines of the current, broken system. Is this success if, at the end of the day, Polly is living in poverty?
It became clear to me that we needed to break out of the current food system to start addressing the underlying problems and solutions. So, what would this solution look like? If I could identify this, then I could work my way back to the problem getting in the way of my solution. Nigel Cross, in his article Discovering Design, explains that problems and solutions in design are closely interwoven, and consequently, “the nature of the problem can only be found by examining it through proposed solutions.” (Cross quoting Marples). So, now I just had to generate solutions to an aspect of a wicked problem – oof. Let’s go back to data synthesis instead, I thought, until I feel a little less overwhelmed. After all, Ritter writes that, with wicked problems, it’s important to not know too early which solution you’re going to apply. It just wasn’t time yet.
After hours of synthesis, my research partner and I sat stuck, wondering where to go with our half-baked insight statements. Then, Edward deBono’s “Six Hats” technique, even just employed for a minute, pushed us forward. We put on our “green hats,” which opened the floor to more alternative and provocative ideas. The first thing out of my partner’s mouth was, “Well, what if it’s the farmers holding themselves back?” That inspiration lightbulb finally went off after all our arduous debating. Small farmers are so caught up in the idealism and isolation of farming that they aren’t seeking to engage with greater systems.
The approach to wicked problems is not a linear one; the specifics of what that approach looks like varies between designers, but at the core they agree that it is not a problem-to-solution trajectory – designers bounce around, just as I bounced backwards from here. With this new insight that farmers are trapping themselves in an incremental, mindset, I revisited my original goal. While I still want these farmers to rise above the poverty line, my primary goal evolved into bringing these farmers into an experimental and innovative mindset where, united, they can challenge Big Agriculture and support one another.
Just as Wyatt and Brown urge every designer to do, I started working out rough prototypes of my solution, the design curriculum, and testing iterations with Polly and her peers for feedback on teaching methodologies and the content accessibility. Farmers generally aren’t very social, and some of the group activities were received with awkward hesitation, so I added ice breakers to the start of the group activities that didn’t run smoothly by consequence.
One of the key lessons I ensured to include is on Edward deBono’s approaches to creativity through lateral thinking. We can all practice deBono’s challenging, yet rewarding, cognitive operations to move into a new pattern of thought and elicit creativity. It’s a daunting concept, but one that deBono makes more approachable with some simple approaches, like the random word generation.
After helping me craft the curriculum, Polly served as a pioneer in her farming community, rounding up more intrigued farmers to attend the first official session. Since the fundamentals of the discipline are rooted within each person, farmers connected with the information more than they originally anticipated.
After the courses, I could see the inner-designer developing in each farmer as they navigated provocative discussions and began imagining new ways of farming and structuring their business.
I had a strong feeling this was just the beginning. Design made a lot of sense for this group of farmers, as their positions are complicated and challenged by the globalizing world. Pacione argues that, just as the industrial age made arithmetic a widespread tool, the complexities of globalization will push design into that role. In fact, we’re already seeing this happen, and, from there, we will get to a place where design is solidified as its own core discipline taught alongside mathematics, reading, and writing.
As a final thought to leave you with, I’d like to address the term “design thinking.” IDEO added on, “thinking” to communicate the intellectual aspects of the design process. Through the process of affinitizing and synthesizing practitioners’ verbalizations of the design process, one of my key takeaways was that design is centered around challenging cognitive exercises. Since “thinking” is at the core of the meaning of design, then the second word becomes redundant. Why muddle “design” when it’s so beautiful and all encompassing on its own?
Note: this post is inspired by a true story and expanded upon to see it through to a resolution.