A path towards a distributed and integrative design practice.
This article proposes to approach Design in the face of organisational complexity (complex adaptive human systems) as a transdisciplinary integrative practice more than a narrow, domain or skill-specific, exclusive, and centralised point in the organisation.
Organising design (design management) is generally seen as an operationalization –and therefore compartmentation– of an organisational function. We isolate, rationalise, streamline, optimise, and measure for maximum efficiency. This works in a production paradigm.
But seeing Design for what outputs it produces in a linear fashion is narrow and limits its impact. Design can bring critical (re)thinking of what an organisation do; it can bring diversity and innovation in thinking & doing; it can create spaces for the emergence of unexpected ideas; and it can bring a new sense of agency, ownership, and responsibility to the people within an organisation. Design can fill a “soft fluid space” between functions, services, teams, people, for organisational regeneration & agility — and reframing the organisation as an intentional complex human system and giving it space to breathe and reflect.
Beyond organising people, designing ‘spaces’ for interactions
Organising “the design people” (designers) and the “design work” can be seen both in a formal AND informal way:
Tight relationship: People involved in specific activities (e.g. projects, products, etc.);
Loose relationship: People that gravitate around those activities (e.g. researchers, ops, facilitators, etc.).
But beyond “people” and “roles” we should even more so think of design in an organisation in terms of spaces and constraints for enabling different types of outcomes: from specific space for activity-focused practices to informal/unbounded space for connecting ideas, people, and increasing serendipity; from synchronous to asynchronous; and anything in between.
This allows us to shift our attention from individuals to interactions (and more specifically, “the kind of interactions we want to see”), which is ethically preferable:
Framing things from an individual’s perspective implies at some point, imposing them expectations (ours, the organisation’s), and when misalignment, expecting people to change (when we’re not asking them directly), whereas, shifting the perspective in terms of interactions within a space (be it physical, virtual, social, etc.) enable individual agency & autonomy within or given certain constraints which, depending on the context, allows divergence, diversity of thoughts, and heterogeneity.
These kinds of soft spaces can become the “dark energy” of an organisation, so to speak, imperceptible but actively influencing it through its indirect effects.
Soft Spaces and enabling constraints
I use the term “soft space” here as a concept repurposing from urban & policy planning, therefore not stricto sensu. The term arise from academic literature and was coined by Graham Haughton and Philip Allmendinger in their study of spatial planning and the evolution of governance practices in policymaking.
In their 2008 paper “The Soft Spaces of Local Economic Development” in which they examine the connections between soft spaces, soft outcomes and soft infrastructure in the UK’s sub-national economic development policy, they explain:
Formal planning mechanisms with their legal responsibilities are primarily rooted in local and (to a lesser extent) regional government.
These are the hard spaces of governance activity, involving statutory responsibilities, linked to legal obligations including democratic engagement and consultation, all of which take time, and come with a particular set of public and professional expectations around their choreography. This is fine and necessary — but for many politicians and their advisors, it also looks to be slow, bureaucratic and rigid. There is also a mismatch between the spatial scales at which such planning is undertaken and the more amorphous, fluid and functional requirements of development and cross-sectoral working.
And this is where the emergent alternative administrative geographies, or the soft spaces of governance, have a role to play, providing a series of alternative institutional spaces in which to imagine possibilities for future place making. In a sense, we’ve had them for some years now — the Urban Development Corporations of old, followed by inner city Task Forces, City Challenge areas. More recently though we have seen a trend towards commissioning area ‘Masterplans’, plus all those pilots, prototypes and other brave new world experiments such as Employment Zones and New Deal for Communities. These new institutional forms and spaces are invariably mandated to ‘break free’ of past rigidities, to introduce innovative thinking and new practices that can be learned from and adopted elsewhere.
We want to argue three things here in relation to soft spaces.
First, this is a deliberate attempt to insert new opportunities for creative thinking, particularly in areas where public engagement and cross-sectoral consultation has seen entrenched oppositional forces either slowing down or freezing out most forms of new development.
Second, that the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ spaces of governance are mutually constitutive. One cannot work without the other. The aim is not to remove ‘hard’ institutional spaces with new ‘softer’ ones, rather to create complementary and potentially competing opportunities for development activities to focus around, whether at some kind of ‘sub’ regional or ‘sub’ local government scale.
Third, the soft spaces of governance are becoming more numerous and more important as part of the institutional landscape of regeneration.
Paraphrasing, soft spaces are defined as informal opportunities and interactions within a formal framework that connect people, ideas, levels of intervention, etc. and allow them to make a coherent understanding of the situations and prepare for the actions to be undertaken within the formal “hard space”, the framework under which they operate.
Informal collective sense-making & change-making is important because we share and elaborate (more than one might expect) more than what we can formalise, each individual being both participant and interpreter of the emergent construct. This process can’t be formalised and operationalised in the hard space, rather it is the necessary input that the system awaits. If you aim at increasing your organisation’s agility –meaning its capacity to sense and respond to change over time– one has to acknowledge that complexity (of informal interactions) cannot be reduced without losing information, and working with the inherent ambiguity of human interactions means that things happen outside of the formal system anyway.
Talking about complexity, I want to draw here a relevant link between soft spaces (from policy planning) and constraints in complexity thinking. This is relevant because this informs my usage of the term in the context of this discussion.
Governing/Enabling Constraints: laws, rules, and codes create governing constraints. They give a sense of stability but are sensitive to change. Heuristics and principles, on the other side, provide guidance while allowing for distributed decision-making.
Internal/External Constraints: insects have exo-skeletons which limit the size to which they can grow but provide a clearly visible structure; mammals have an endo-skeleton which makes them all self-similar but with a wider variety and fewer limitations on growth. Organisation design tends to focus on creating a skeleton, or scaffolding, and ‘points of coherence’ around which unities interact with each other and with the scaffolding itself. This is the case of ritualized meetings, performance evaluations, career assessments, etc. As far as external boundaries think markets, resources, social foundations, and environmental ceilings.
Connecting/Containing Constraints: connections, like hashtags in knowledge management and links in networks, provide a flexible and adaptive structure but at the cost of visibility and control. Containers, like categories, spreadsheets cells, and departments, provide clear, reassuring boundary conditions. Changing connections between people and organisational units is less costly than trying to restructure or reorganize departments. As new connections start to provide new ways of dealing with issues, then the constraints can be tightened and eventually formalized into new units and departments.
Rigid/Flexible/Permeable Constraints: deadlines are an example of constraints that are usually intended to be rigid. Flexi-time is a malleable way to manage attendance at work. Rigid structures resist until their design conditions are exceeded at which point they break catastrophically. In contrast, flexible structures adapt to stress and conditions of constant change. Rigid and flexible boundaries increase their resilience with permeability or special conditions that allow for exceptions, but permeability brings the possibility of clogs, i.e. too many people applying for or expecting exceptions.
Dark Constraints: (a reference to dark energy or dark matter) we can see the effect of a constraint but we don’t know the cause. Dark constraints are like the several hidden meanings a term can assume for different people. When we mention a term and we see different reactions, we see dark constraints at work. Narratives are powerful antidotes against dark constraints. We can also get a sense of the risk going forward by modeling how much of the past we can explain by the constraints we are aware of. The more we can’t explain the less we can monitor, the more likely unexpected and potentially catastrophic surprise.
Constraints emphasise the need to think in terms of space and not just individuals, as the concept of Soft spaces does in its own way. Contexts embed inherent constraints (unintentional) to which we can design our own (intentional). Similarly, contexts come with inherent boundaries to which new boundaries can emerge (add, redefine, subtract).
Scaffolding and attractors
Other useful metaphors for thinking in terms of “Design”, “Soft Spaces”, and “Constraints” are the concepts of scaffolding and strange attractors.
A scaffolding is a structure, not meant to last, and that serves as a support to grow, build, or repair [something], usually the end-structure meant to last. The obvious example that comes to mind is in architecture & construction, but such structures can also be found in nature, as part of plants ecosystem for instance, and are used in medical application research.
In other words, a scaffolding is an enabler. Furthermore, we should be able to remove the scaffold (or let it decay) and whatever we helped grow should sustain itself. Funnily enough, we sometimes build scaffoldings that we mistake for the end structure, like say, our dear design processes.
Designing soft spaces means supporting and growing something bigger.
Attractors are defined as “a set of states towards which a system tend to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions”. In other words, an attractor exists by contrast or negative, as it is the mere result of the unexpected and unpredictable paths, of all possible paths, elements of a system tend to take. It displays a common pattern (despite the unpredictability of the system), although filled in with diversity. In an organisation, attractors happen to be “attractors” because of how information tends to revolve around –such as in narrative research, a trope is a form of attractor.
A form of attractor would be buzzwords, like say “new ways of working”, attracts a wide diversity of narratives, which taken in details might be contradicting each other and/or are informed by very different ideas & backgrounds, but taken as a whole is coherent. Another attractor could be in the form of cities, attracting a diversity of people, businesses, organisations, resources, infrastructures, etc. This diversity allows for divergence although revolving around the same point of coherence (the city), is thought to be a key factor in what makes cities more likely to enable inclusive & responsible innovation.
Designing soft spaces and their constraints for creative and unexpected divergence.
Creating soft spaces can play as attractors for a diversity of people, minds, thoughts, ideas, practices, experiences, (etc.) and as a scaffolding for long-lasting changes and innovations.
“Design excellence” as a distributed network, not a centralised point of reference
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