2010 Edition Design Theorists – Collect'em All!

By popular demand, here are the Design Theorist Cards I presented today in class. Feel free to use it as a learning tool or the worst party game ever.

My original intent was to pair quotes with the authors, but I also liked the fact that the cards became an affinity model where I could group the the quotes into commonalities and themes I didn’t see previously. I’d really like to find out how to transcend my low-fi prototype into an interactive framework like we talked about in class. Adding the extra layers of context would really make the experience have depth and a perspective. Where should I start? Chap?

Isolation is the enemy of improvement

Tony Wagner said that about isolation. (And I wouldn’t have known about him or listened to his talk if it weren’t for the impromptu design theory framework discussion session with classmates tonight.) He says—and it’s fairly obvious that—with collaboration comes better learning and problem solving over all. The collective bar is raised as people actually see what other people are doing. And there is so much value in the informal conversations we have before and after and around and in addition to our structured classtime debates, that lead to listening to other people’s viewpoints, that lead to constant reframing, that leads to new insights.

Since we don’t have STUDIO SPACE, but still need COLLABORATION.

Workarounds for now:

  • Everyone log onto ac4d googlemail/chat, especially while working on ac4d stuff. Update status. For example, “working on framework for kolko”.
  • Send/share stuff for feedback while working on stuff. (We can do this digitally. And we could also start designating time—for instance the 15-30 minutes before class every day—as open time for people to show up and show progress and talk through ideas?)
  • Virtual whiteboards? Collaborative spaces online, e.g. a better Basecamp? I don’t know what these are. Anyone have ideas?

But seriously, we need studio space—where we hang out, because we know other ac4d folk are also hanging out, and where we can be our crazy selves without reserve.

Because this:

plus more of this:

leads to these:

4 Social Innovation Fellowships now accepting applications

StartingBloc Boston 2010

One of the most important factors for success in any field is the strength of your professional community, and the social sector is no exception.  Fellowships are a great way to instantly connect to world-class communities, and four of the best social innovation fellowships available are currently accepting applications.  Take a look:


StartingBloc is a people accelerator.  I had the great pleasure of becoming a StartingBloc fellow last February, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the experience to any young professional or college student finding their way in the social sector.  It starts with a 5-day institute shared with 120 of some of the most astounding social innovators you’ll ever encounter and continues as a professional community that has continued to introduce me to some of the most amazing people I know.  StartingBloc is partially self-sustaining, so there’s a fee to attend the institute, but I assure you it’s worth the cost.

Deadline: October 24th (Soon!) Apply for StartingBloc

The Unreasonable Institute

Have a 2+ person Social Sector startup in the prototype/pilot phase?  Do you have an internal revenue mechanism (not just donations-based)? Do you have an unreasonable ambition to reach at least one million people?  Then you’re perfect for the social venture accelerator the Unreasonable Institute.  After an astounding successful first year, they’re gearing up for their intensive signature summer institute that provides the best mentoring around and is guaranteed to refine your

Deadline: November 20th,  Apply for the Unreasonable Institute

Echoing Green

Provides seed funding and technical assistance to emerging social entrepreneurs with ideas for social change.  If your social-sector startup is less than two years old and you’re committed to working full time on the idea, Echoing Green could provide crucial assistance to get you through the rocky early years.

Deadline: November 12th, Apply for Echoing Green

Ashoka US

Do you have a radical new idea to change the world?  Are you ready to take your impact to the next level, scaling nationally or globally?  Want the clout of the oldest and largest association of Social Entrepreneurs behind you?  Then you should look into Ashoka.  With some of the biggest names in Social Entrepreneurship from Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus to Kiva’s founder Matt Flanner, you’ll be in good company.  Ashoka selects Fellows internationally as well as here in the US.  [Full disclosure and all that, I used to work for Ashoka]

Deadline: Rolling, Nominate a US-based Fellow (self nominations allowed)

Posted from Ryan’s personal blog, Back of the Envelope and Big Ideas

Perception of Creativity

In 2005, chess grandmaster Vishwanathan Anand was part of one of the famous chess tragedies against Van Wely. Anand literally threw the game away from his grasp when he went against his instincts and chose a complex chess move instead of a simple one.

This following quote the next day from Anand summarizes a great deal about the nature of problem solving – “It is ironic that if I had played Re8+ and not won the game people would have all said that I was not working hard enough at the board, just going for simple solutions. Now they will be saying I had overworked the position, looking for a convoluted solutions where there is a simple, elegant win available”.

What is so interesting about this statement from Anand? If Anand had won the game instead of drawing, we probably would not have had a chance to take a peek into the complexities that domain expertise adds to problem solving.

Figure1: The Circle of Knowledge

Figure 1 shows a conceptual sketch of the circle of knowledge. Circle of knowledge is a hypothetical term being used in this paper to indicate the depth of domain knowledge. It is important that we associate knowledge depth with this circle and not breadth. The reason for this is that we want to associate the insight we can derive from the problem specification with this circle of knowledge. I believe that the meaningful insight is dependent to a large extent on intuition, which can only stem from having some sort of domain expertise. What does this translate to in case of domain experts like Anand?

In the landscape of chess moves, Anand’s superior understanding would translate to him seeing more possible scenarios towards his end goal. However, with the superior domain skills also comes the curse of knowledge. The term curse of knowledge was coined first in a 1989 journal on political economy meaning that when you become the expert in some subject, it is hard for you to imagine not knowing what you do [1]. Let us explore an expert‘s strategy at solving problems. In [2], Johnson-Laird dissects the shape of problems. Laird argues that creativity is essential to derive insight, a critical attribute to problem solving. He argues that five elements namely novelty, optional novelty for society, non-determinism, constraints and existing elements are essential for qualifying as a creative solution. As per Laird, novelty is not a mere regurgitation of a set/known process. The outcome should be novel to the person or optionally, to the society. The other attributes like the solution not following a deterministic trend and building upon constraints and existing frameworks seem to be a natural outcome of this process. I think the first two attributes are very critical in terms of how experts view problem solving. Let us go back to Anand’s example. In his game, he was at a stage where a simple move could have sealed the game in his favor. Instead, he chose to go for an off the beaten path and a more creative and novel way of solving the problem. If he had been successful, that very move which cost him the game could have resulted in songs of his glory, and expert analyses about an unconventional move in a crunch game would have been written all over the world. Did the novelty bug bite Anand? Was he blindsided by his own creativity?

In a seminal work [3], Herb Simon argues about the structure of ill-structured problems. According to Simon, any problem whose structure lacks in definition in some respect is ill structured. Simon makes a great point that the boundaries are blurred between well-structured problems and ill structured ones. In that context, majority of the problems can be perceived as ill structured. In Anand’s example, it very well appears that managing creativity is an inherently ill structured problem with a huge interplay of social and personal dynamics. Co-incidentally, Simon talks about chess in [3] and in the context of artificial intelligence, he positions it as an ill-structured problem. While this positioning is not central to our discussion, it is essential to note that the process of managing creativity when dealing with ill-structured problems is much harder. This can be observed in Anand’s post-match statement quoted in the beginning of this paper. Anand talks about the quality of winning as one of the decision-making criteria. This is a great insight into the mind of this genius. Summarizing, when managing creativity in ill-structured problem domains, perception of solution plays a critical role in qualifying to be creative. Then, is “perception” the missing attribute from Laird’s original list found in [2]? It seems ironic to add an attribute loaded with social complexities (thus, making it inherently ill structured) as a necessary qualifier for creative solutions, which are more personal than social.

What makes perception a challenging qualifier is that it cannot be easily quantified objectively. Our perception of how people perceive our work is inherently a flawed metric. When that factors into our decision-making ability to solve a problem, the outcome crosses the line from

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being non-deterministic to chaotic. Also, this detrimentally affects the process of relying on instinct to derive insight, which is in many ways critical to creativity [2].

Figure 2: Using the circle of knowledge to find a solution

Let us shrink the circle of knowledge through the aid of constraints to make the problem simpler. Let me elaborate on this point in the context of the example used in this article. While Anand’s circle of knowledge is huge owing to his extraordinary domain expertise, his constraint might be the analyzable depth of the move scenarios. For instance, let us say Anand can think up to a depth of 7-10 moves. In this case, his circle of knowledge would shrink to reflect that stage in his current problem solving abilities. Based on revised scenarios, like the moves played by his opponent, his circle of knowledge would change to reveal more possible solutions. This logical course of problem solving is indicated in figure 2. The final solution in this case is arrived through mere instinct. If perception of the solution at each step is factored in the decision-making, the process gets more chaotic as indicated in figure 3.

As seen from figure 3, at every stage, adding perception can lead an alternate course towards the final solution. I am not arguing for one over other in this article; my point is merely to illustrate the point that managing creativity through social complexities is extremely chaotic.

Finally, though Laird [2] would not want to add perception to his original list of qualifiers for creativity, in the current socially integrated world we live in, this metric would be hard to ignore when one quantifies a creative solution. For, when one is quantifying somebody else’s solution, he is already introducing the element of perception. Right, or wrong, it is clearly an indispensable metric.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/30/business/30know.html

[2] The Shape of Problems, Philip Johnson-Laird

[3] The Structure of Ill Structured Problems, Herb Simon

Wicked Problems Filtered Through Design

The twenty-first century finds itself in the middle of more rapid changes and technological leaps than ever before.   While many of these changes have lead to solutions in medicine, science, and business, none has yet moved humanity closer to solving the complex problems of basic human rights in areas such as healthcare and education.  This paper examines the nature of solving complex problems in the world of these complex systems and explores how design might better move society closer toward answers to these issues.

According to computer scientist Herb Simon, there are two types of problems in the world, well-structured problems (WSP) and ill-structured problems (ISP).  Well-structured problems cannot be concretely defined.  To be classified as well-structured, a problem must meet the six criteria Simon spells out in his article “The Structure of Ill Structured Problems.”  Among these are the ability to test a solution, the presence of a problem space, legal moves, knowledge with the context of one problem space, and a requirement that information needed for a solution is practically obtainable.  In simplistic terms, if a computer can look at all possible choices for a solution and solve that solution in a reasonable amount of time, the problem is well-structured.  A simple math problem, 2+2, meets the criteria for being a well-structured problem with a well-defined solution.  However, when one leaps to theoretical math and the world of proofs and theorems, a seemingly simple, well-defined problem becomes anything but.  At the outset, theorems or a chess game would “appear to offer the best examples of well-structuredness” (Simon 185).  The problem, however, lies in the fact that the problem space remains undefined.  For example in chess, a computer player cannot practically play out every possible move scenario.  The computational power needed exceeds current computer capabilities.  Instead, the computer chooses the best move out of many random options.  To play a chess game “require[s] immense numbers of applications of operators and tests for their solution, so that the total amount of computation required may be impractical” (Simon 184).  To be a WSP, a problem must be conceivably computational, and a chess game is not. With each move, the problem space is continually redefined, violating the requirement of a well-structured problem of one problem space.

In a WSP, the problem solver cannot introduce new resources to the problem space while trying to solve the problem.  If the solver does, the problem is at once ill-structured.  Similarly, when a problem solver uses knowledge from outside of a solution space, the problem becomes ill-structured.  For example, if one had a sheet of paper with all the names and shapes of the countries of the world and had the task of labeling all of the countries, a problem solver needs to gain knowledge from another space, namely a map or a globe.  Information from another problem space violates the principle of a WSP.   Simon goes on to say that “problems presented to problem solvers by the world are best regarded as ISPs” and that there are not WSP, but rather “ISPs that have been formalized for problem solvers.”

However, with that claim, Simon examines possibilities in which ill-structured problems might have solutions.  Indeed, it would appear that problems in our world do actually get solved.  If, like Chris Pacione claims in “Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy” every problem is an ISP, then surely ill-structured problems must be tackled in the real world.  People manage to live productively. Simon proposes the example of an architect.  The nature of building a house is an ill-structured problem.  There is no way to test a proposed solution.  There is no definitive problem space because it would be impossible to look at all the possible structures imaginable using all imaginable materials.  The architect faces an ISP, and yet houses are built.  How?  The answer lies in adding constraints to the problem.  There are the internal constraints of the architect, the memory of what one desires to build and the architect’s stylistic choices.  External constraints also exist, for instance a budget and a timetable.  Once these constraints are in place, the architect breaks down the larger problem of building a house to small parts, for instance, a house is made up of a structure plus utilities.  A structure is made up of a frame and a foundation. A foundation is made up of concrete and steel reinforcement, etc.  This reductive process occurs until an architect has, in effect, a WSP.  The architect sees “the problem is well-structured in the small, but ill-structured in the large” (Simon 190).

Richard Buchanan adds a third category of problems, wicked problems, an idea borrowed from Rittel.  This category really is a subset of the ill-structured problem.  According to Rittle, wicked problems are a “class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.”  The aforementioned architect had the skills necessary to take an ill-structured problem and make it structured in the small, allowing the architect to end up building a house.  Wicked problems are more complex in that they involve social systems, people, which are inherently dynamic.  As soon as a designer defines a problems space and set of problems, the problem space has changed due to the social, people-centric nature of the space.  Whereas with a house, the architect knows when they have reached their goal and finished, in a wicked problem, the problem solver can never know that a problem is solved or if a solution is good or bad.  When is poverty eliminated?  Is not the poverty line merely a relative term based on one’s relation to the whole?  How then can these problems be approached?  Buchanan points out that these wicked problems are just an “amusing description of what confronts designers in every situation.”

What a designer really does is organize information and see new ways in which a problem can be framed using placements, repositioning an idea in a new light.  Looking at the world differently through a new placement is how a designer “intuitively or deliberately shapes a design situation, identifying the views of all participants, the issues which concern them, and the invention that will serve as a working hypothesis for exploration and development” (Buchanan 17).  What designers are paid for is their organization of information and their ability to frame a problem in their chosen subject matter.  This is a skill vital to solving the complex problems facing the world.  There is more information than ever on poverty, education, and healthcare, but information itself solves nothing.  It is in framing that information, discerning what is relevant and useful and then deciding how to approach a problem that is needed.  These are the exact skills that a designer brings to the table, and this is why design should be something everyone knows how to do.   If one cannot think critically about one’s world and know how to engage the information overloaded culture in a way that limits and frames problems, they will not succeed.  The ability to properly constrain a problem yet remain open to new ideas is a fundamental skill in the Post-Information Age.  Design is as fundamental as math and reading in the 21st century, and should therefore be included as a basic
liberal art.

To more clearly see why design is a liberal art of the 21st century requires an understanding of the concept of liberal arts.  Traditionally, liberal arts were essential subjects that needed to be learned for an individual to think critically about their world.  Richard Buchanan observes that “at their peak…these subject matters provided an integrated understanding of human experience and the array of available knowledge” (Buchanan 5).  Upon further reflection into the nature of liberal arts, their purpose is to frame the world in such a way that it can be reflected upon and analyzed.  For example, a core liberal art, philosophy, asks fundamental questions about life and the world, questions that are currently unsolvable and therefore wicked problems.  Over the centuries, many different philosophies have attempted to answer these questions.  It is interesting to note, however, that the liberal arts cannot be studied on their own.  Attempting to understand the recent philosophical trends of Deconstructionalism requires a grounding in intellectual history.  In fact, without an understanding of the context in which Derrida’s ideas of Deconstructionism emerged, it is impossible to understand his critique of the world.  Philosophy is irrelevant outside of its historical context.  Similarly, to even begin to understand Derrida’s deconstructionalist view of the world into signs and signifiers requires that one understand language’s structure in the first place.  Therefore, a foundation in another liberal art, here language, is required to understand and think about the world.  Not only that, but thinking in one liberal art enhances and informs thinking in another.  All of the liberal arts depend on one another, and while separated into different subjects and disciplines, at their core, liberal arts are the basic tools to think critically about the world and provide a context through which to approach problems.

Seen through the lens of problem solving, design emerges as a liberal art of the “Contextual Age.”  The sheer pervasiveness of technology demands that one have the ability to think critically about it and approach complex problems deeply intertwined in technological systems.  Design, like history or philosophy or language, provides another frame through which to look at the world, another way to frame the problem.  While no one has definitely solved humanity’s philosophical quandaries and definitively solved philosophical problems such as life’s meaning, the liberal arts have allowed for a reframing of the question, a way to understand it, to break it down into more manageable chunks.  The liberal arts have allowed us to approach the world more thoughtfully, more aware, more engaged, and more alive.  Similarly, while no one knows the answer to whether the wicked problems of the world like education, healthcare, and poverty will be solved, design offers new possibilities and skills to examine those problems, to enrich our understanding not only of solutions, but of thinking about the problems.  It is in this richness and approach that design finds itself the emerging liberal art in the “Conceptual Age.” Even though design may not solve these wicked problems, it makes life richer and provides new ways of looking at the world through placement.  The hope is that maybe, new perspectives on wicked problems, informed by the new liberal art of design, produce new solutions.  After all, no one can know what solutions and hope may emerge in the future, for the future is a new problem space.


Co-existence is the one word that defines the entire Indian social dynamics. It is the mantra to survive. Be it for an entrepreneur, an office goer, cricket mom (pun intended), student or a child. You need to learn to co-exist in this place. Rather, it should be the way of life. If you can do it, it is rather fun to live here. Every day there are new things to be observed and explored. You can choose to get amazed or frustrated. It is a choice. Lot of people stereotype a place like
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India to be chaotic. It is true. But, what chaos does is NOT MESS up the system but SHAKE IT up. This is a big difference. When things get shaken up, it looks similar to being messed up. It appears that the basic public services that we take for granted in United States appear to be broken in India. But, maybe it is not broken. It is just our perception. Maybe, we need to deeply plug ourselves into the chaos to see what the reality is.



Pitch the ball..literally!

hen I was in Dubai, in an unexpected turn of events I got invited to a party through my brother-in-law. The guests of honor were popular cricket players. Apart from it being an amazing experience to hang out with the cricket players I watched growing up, there was a particular moment I enjoyed most – Delivering an impromptu pitch!

I talked to Venkatesh Prasad, the former bowling coach for the Indian Cricket team. I had an idea in my mind that I had worked little bit on about an assistive sporting device. I pitched my idea to him. Just like that! Actually, I did a great job. Much better than what I did at class here at AC4D. The reason for that was, I had put so many hours on that project and synthesizing the idea. I had probably practiced the pitch atleast a 100 times in my mind at various stages in the past two-three years.

PS – And as Justin Petro says, “You never know who is watching. Be prepared”


Chaos, Magic and Home

There I am. I landed in Delhi finally after an exciting time at Dubai (a separate post). The recent conclusion of common wealth games meant that the city was clean and renovated to a large extent, which is a testimony to what pride of hosting a prestigious event can do (Note to self – blog post for later on “when does things change”). As I came out the airport, the mildly warm climate greeted me with a noticeable layer of smog. I sat in the cab and the fun started. When I was growing up in India, traffic patterns and non-existent lane driving were like white-noise. They were filtered out by my brain because it was always around me. Most of the time, our mind adapts to common patterns and tune them out. We hardly observe anymore in that state. It has been more than three years since I was in India and my “I wonder” lens kicked in immediately. It was beautifully chaotic. The driver used honks more as he cut across lanes and interchanges. Because it was early in the morning, there were no patrol police and less traffic. The red signals were greeted with honks as the cab blazed past them with gay abandon. On a side note, lot of people fold their side-mirrors in their cars in the figure of having them knocked off by a close vehicle. Meaning, you learn to drive without your side mirrors eventually.

This is a wonderful country were everyone is a survivor. They have to find ways that work. Like matrix, there are rules. And like Matrix, Sometimes you bend them and other times you break them. The goal is to get the job done as effectively as possible. Because, there is chaos, rules don't work. They don't help. You need to find your own rules. That is the secret of doing anything here. The driver was in his final two hours of a continuous 24 hour shift! In that time, do you obey the traffic rules? Almost everyone on the road knows that there is an unsaid cooperation and anger expressed through the only sound that could cut through the noise – horns!

The dynamics here are magical. Things just work. If you want to understand how to live in the real world, then forget the rules and embrace the chaos.

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I am home.