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Experience Design

Beyond Ideological Innovation - Into the Methods, Concept and Experience


I just spent the last two days observing members of an entrenched government and business community learning about principals of lean startup, design thinking, and agile processes.  That was a good thing and I'm proud of this community for walking down these roads.  By taking these steps they will be better equipped to produce strong results and different kinds of outcomes. Yet we should not confuse this set of practices as innovation.  There is a distinction between innovation methods, innovation as a concept, and innovation as an experience.

Methods
Innovation, as a term, has come to describe a set of methods to drive new forms of socio-cultural and economic production.  This brand of innovation, like all other ideologies, was borne of necessity within particular economic conditions. The rise of the merchant class advanced Capitalism, the Industrial Revolution pushed forth Marxism, and Silicon Valley delivered The Lean Startup. Like any ideology - complexity, nudge, sustainability to name a few others - innovation has been appropriated by corporations to benefit their bottom lines and advance their missions.

It is easy to identify when the concept of innovation has been repackaged for consumption. If you participate in a workshop concerning Innovation as Design, you will likely have to do something with post-it notes and white boards, and maybe have to participate in low-fidelity rapid prototyping exercises.  If it is concerned with Lean Startup, you might take a standard idea shared with your team then quickly go call a few customers to ask if they like it or make a mockup for them to test.  This is also the general description of many UX Design education programs today.  These strategies at their core attempt to reconcile the simplicity of the scientific method with the irrationality of social behavior.

These procedures are all good things to do. I do these things and teach them to others. More people should try them.  Is this innovation? Sometimes, but not necessarily. These processes can provide pathways to innovation, but more acutely, do more to provide pathways to success according to an already existing - but perhaps unarticulated - definition of success that is situated within the minds of the participants.  To satisfy the demands of a  shared disposition is not the same thing as realized innovation.

Concept
We must consider innovation as something far more powerful, a force at work within a paradigm shift.  When Thomas Kuhn wrote on the structure of scientific revolutions, he described the paradigm shift as a social process, in which an accumulation of outlier evidence - over time - suddenly sways social beliefs to then become the new normative reality. When the earth was believed to be the center of the universe, attempts to research the universe often validated this belief or were built off of the assumption. It was held as fundamentally true, and to simplify history, Galileo was executed because his evidence contradicted the belief. Over time, enough evidence accumulated in favor of Galileo's argument and the community changed their belief.  In consequence, a new era for the intersection of science, religion, and society was borne.

There are things like religion in which one must work to hold a belief - to have faith - and there are things we just believe outright, such as the shared experience of a color or the weather. Within this distribution of beliefs, science is held as objective and the scientific research method is void of human error, but we fail to consider how science or faith is founded on a widespread predisposition.   In theory we eventually learn to identify our collective errors and we pivot or manage the constraints. When that happens, the school text books are rewritten as the sun becomes the center of the solar system, the universe grows in size, and space/time is a fluid dimensional fabric we believe in but struggle to understand, because the evidence is at odds with day-to-day human experience.

Innovation is not about design, science, or lean frameworks. It is the distribution of events that brushed up against each other so as to transform the entire normative experience of reality. These moments could be anything - scientific evidence, a new idea,  an observation, or a conversation. Some of these moments might be brilliant and profound, but many are just outlier fragments and glitches of daily experience.  We like to imagine innovation as a singular act, but singular acts have limited force, and thus the power of innovation relies upon loose configurations.

These individual events have limited power as a singular instances, but in coordination, can become a fulcrum of radical difference. A strange turn of phrase, uttered at the moment a butterfly lands on your arm, might unlock the gateway to a new personal ontology.  When this moment happens en masse, all possible roads into the future shift toward a new direction of possibility.  When Latour wrote Artemis, the failure of the high-tech transportation system was described as a network effect of many flickering and semi-related life moments. Latour wrote this to prove that social systems do not exist but are merely perceived... yet when these flickers do align into a system?  That is innovation.

Obviously this approach to innovation is too complex for a corporation to adapt because it cannot be packaged as a playbook or a method.  It cannot be entirely designed and it cannot be diffused or appropriated with ease. The Cult of Innovation fills much of the demand for change but in 10 years, our corporations and governments will look to another trend for answers because the more tightly packaged a concept for distribution, the less that concept can satisfy complex organizational needs. A truer path of innovation will not be appropriated because it is a plurality of outliers, and the core of its value is a contradiction to what we hold correct. Design or lean tactics may bring us to innovation - but I suspect this happens with less frequency than we believe.

Experience
Often if something is innovative, we do not like it. We dismiss it.  It pushes against our values, rubs us the wrong way, and introduces friction into our lives. We can adopt methods to reduce pain or mitigate risks, but ultimately, change has a cost, and that cost is at times the very foundation of whatever we believe to be real and true. Innovation is painful because it forces our brains to work differently.  If you witness a singular event and consider it brilliant, it is only a good according to subscribed preconditions.  By this definition, Elon Musk's Hyperloop is a good idea, not innovation. It might be an innovative act with in lattice of other acts, but we will need to stand back and observe.  
We usually only know if something was innovative in the past tense.  We believe in historical periods and future epochs such as the renaissance, the 20th century, and the information age.  We do not know how to experience time in other ways and yet we also have no ability to determine if something is ending an era or creating a new one.  When a radical disruption creates discomfort and only appears to be situated within the broader trends of the present tense - then we do not call it innovation.  We expect dramatic paradigm shifts to be immediate and identifiable - but this is misguided thinking.

As innovation is ambiguous in time, diffused in activity, and dissonant in experience, we would benefit to stop repeating our expectations of innovation as 'sudden, concrete, satisfying and specific.' Changing our perception of innovation might give us a better path to embrace it. And later, when the dust has settled, we can look back to say innovation has happened, though we may not be able to repeat it. 

Designing Technology From Dust to Dust (Not Cradle to Cradle)


Tech companies might take responsibility for the workers who manufacture their goods, but do they ever think about the guy in Ghana who will buy a used mobile phone from his cousin in Canada?  What about the person inhaling toxic vapors melting down a disposed laptop 10 years after its release to sell the raw aluminum in Lagos? There are also thousands of entrepreneurs throughout the world who make a living by repairing small electronics, are they part of the equation when deciding how to lodge a battery in a tablet?

It is rare among designers to have deeper knowledge and connection to the places and people who extract raw materials for the earth and process them into materials for design.  Yet when I talk to designers about the desire to better understand the supply chains and life-cycle of their products, they are enthusiastic and want to know about these human interactions, but lack much information.  Certainly there is much to research in this area, but much work has already been done, at least enough to expand the way designers think.
Among social anthropologists, there is deep familiarity and research in the cultures around mining for resources, their collection, local marketing and distribution. An obvious "go-to" is the zabalyn community of Cairo scavenging, repairing, and reselling consumer goods.  But throughout the world, newer models of this practice have arisen that are strongly tied to technology rather than basic consumerism. A good example can be found in the Agbogbloshie dumps of Accra Ghana. Some of the more interesting research has uncovered relationships between this method of economic survival and local mysticism. From the collision of technology and local tradition is the emergence of email scamming that is locally conceptualized as experiments in magic .

Looking at this particular case study as a designer, it is suddenly clear that the objects we craft and send into the world do not only live in the hands and homes of a single buyer - typically predetermined via persona creation.  Rather my work might have multiple lives, resurrected anew by different actors in different geographies, than ever intended.  
Unfortunately, the knowledge these emerging cultures and practices in relation to technology creation and depletion remains ignored by corporations, design schools, and even the scientific community dedicated to scientific knowledge generated within low-income nations - as evidenced by DevNet. And in darker corners of the world, there are now places - such as in Batou Mongolia - where the death of technology does not even facilitate the creation of new social and economic activity, but can only poison the people and land. Designers do not directly contribute to such environmental atrocities, but are they not somewhat accountable?
Global Witness
It is challenging to design for the afterlife of a product, but it is certainly more doable to design according to the inputs. In the last ten years, there have been efforts to make companies more responsible for supply chains and material sourcing. John Pennderghast founded the Enough Project with the intent to end crimes against humanity with a focus on conflict minerals.  Other organizations have also risen to the task, including Verite, Global Witness, and Moabi. 
The Enough Project successfully lobbied for the creation and implementation corporate responsibility relating to supply chains within the Dodd Frank Act. By law, corporations have been responsible to regularly report and make public the communities, locations, and suppliers that create and allocate the goods for production. 
But like any law, there are no clear standards on the implementation of this law, and consequently, the degree of depth and general level of responsibility enacted by corporations has varied. In best case scenarios attention has been drawn to the quality of life for workers  and in the worse case, nothing has changed at the actual sourcing or economic processing of raw materials.
It seems that we cannot rely exclusively upon law, or NGOs, to facilitate the responsible design of technology to reduce harm. That responsibility rests on the shoulders of designers. The knowledge is out there, but we need to make the connections so as not to just design for the person who buys a new phone or a new watch, but to design for the people that took part in bringing that piece of technology to life and who will again breath life into it, or harvest its organs, upon its first death. As designers we might not be able to design away all the bad systems of our world, but at least we can design the world so as to change them.

Advice for Choosing a PhD in Urban Planning


When you enter a new city, do you immediately start deconstruct the environment into use patterns? While driving do you frequently get a thrill from clever interchanges or notice over-engineered drainage with pangs of anger? And perhaps, when you hear about a massive social or economic problem, your mind ignites with strategies to improve the situation?

So now after years of thinking about complex urban problems, working in the field, and reading all the current literature, your mind is suddenly probing the possibility of pursuing a PhD.  Or maybe you were always interested in research?  Or you like the idea of teaching in a university?

I understand all these impulses.  For over a decade my mind has been fixated on building strategies for social change.  Even when I was an art student dreaming of a career as a conceptual performance artist, I sought to do work that could facilitate profound social transformation.  And throughout my entire life, I've been drawn toward the satisfaction of writing and research offset with the engagement of the lecture hall.  I always wanted to be Indian Jones. In my own fashion this led toward the decision to pursue a PhD in Urban and Regional Planning.  

It may then come as a surprise that when I applied for a PhD,  I only applied to four programs, and 3 of them were not in urban planning. Why? The answer is fairly simple.

The compelling aspect of the planning is its interdisciplinary composition.  People come from all backgrounds to study and work in planning.  It is rare that a professional field can consists of engineers, artists, historians, and statisticians all working together, side-by-side, using a shared vocabulary toward a common objective.  Its amazing really. But when we focus this energy through the lends of doctoral study, the tectonics start to shift, and I believe the value of planning education begins to go downhill. I'll explain more about this in the sections below.

Yet perhaps you are considering a PhD in planning.  Where do you go? How do you choose?  And should you make sure it is labeled "Urban Planning" or can it be something else?  Should it? 


Is the PhD useful for you?
Because of the unusual nature of Urban and Community Planning, the pursuit of a PhD is peculiar. For one, among those who are dedicated to practicing planning, a PhD is popularly rumored to reduced employment prospects because it makes one overly academic.  I don't know if this is true, but if it is true, the situation is stupid. People need to stop believing this or the PhD Planning needs to change to become more relevant.


How much time do you have?
I spent several years looking at the curriculums of the worlds top PhD programs in Urban Planning. There are advantages and disadvantages to the US model vs other countries.  First you need to think about time.  How much time do you have to do this?

In the European model, schools such as LSE or UCL feature some decent programs, but only one year is devoted to coursework with 5 to 7 years devoted to research.  The problem with this model is that the research is typically focussed on a very narrow proposal, supplied at the time of the application, limiting options for exploration and experimentation in subject matter.  The resulting dissertations are boorish and that the personal experience of the PhD is rife with depression, cognitive dissonance, and grief.

When a professor at a famous university in the UK expressed interest in working with me about government issues in Somalia, my initial excitement turned dour. I've worked with the government of Somalia and it sounds absurd to spend 7 years proposing policies the government of Somalia will never care about.  They have only marginal support for outsider interest and zero concern for academic arguments, so this will not end well. To do such a project for 7 years of doctoral study would be equivalent to 7 years of lying to myself.

Within the American model, the timelines are shorter, typically under 5 years, so it can be a bit healthier for mental health, yet 3 years are occupied by in-class learning.  That takes us to the next issue.

Curriculums
Most American curriculums require 3 years coursework then 2 to 5 years for dissertation research. Typically one year of the 3 will focus on research methods. This is considered the standard gateway to expertise.

One problem is that hands-on experience is a better way to deepen specialized knowledge than through additional coursework.   For example, I frequently meet people in Washington DC who are experts on Afghanistan.  Those people have a PhD, twice went to Kabul for a week, and read a lot about the country.  They do have a very deep understanding of actors and context, but the reality is that local politics change so rapidly, that anyone not actively living in the country will always be far behind. I mean, I've spent 10 years in developing nations, and that experience has provided a far deeper understanding of planning issues than any class.  So why do I want to spend many years sitting in classes that are disconnected?

Another issue is that while a PhD is about deep expertise and slow learning, the motivation to pursue additional schooling is also based on the desire to learn new things.  I want to study new ideas to inform my thinking and reshape the way I structure information.  I want to experiment with my brain. I want to pursue some electives.  PhD programs typically do not support such divergence because they are designed for a deeper study of a small thing.

So look closely at the curriculum of each school... is that what you want to do?  For example, University of Wisconsin Maddison is a great school, but I found its curriculum to be outdated and traditional to issues like transportation and housing. In contrast, Ohio State features coursework on new technology and urban development. Super cool.  But if you want to build technologies, it doesn't give the flexibility to do that - not as part of the core curriculum anyway - you can only study their impact.  Same situation with Columbia University.

It is important you evaluate your need and interest for coursework.  Will one year suffice?  Two or three?  Are you jumping into new territory and require many foundation courses is a new skill?  Will the program facilitate flexibility?


Outcome Projections
Most of us know to ignore the rankings and focus on the specific industry reputation of the program. But there is more to the selection process.  For example, many schools in California have stunning reputations for Urban Planning, but none of them were churning out students that I saw as a model for my own career.  Rather than look at the rankings, I advise you look at the dissertations coming out of each program.  Do you want to spend 5 years writing the same kind of work?

Rather than looking at rankings, ask, what kind of funding does this department have?  Is it getting federal or corporate research grants?  Are the professors actively publishing groundbreaking work or running audacious companies? If you choose to teach afterward, what kinds of schools and programs would want to hire you?  Where are the recent graduates teaching? Will you be qualified to only teach in one department (planning) or several (design, social science, business, planning)?  Personally, I want options.


Changing Times
This part is really important. Realize that programs are constantly changing.  Are you applying to a program based on its history, its present configuration, or on its future?  What kind of faculty are they hiring?  What are the department goals?

For several years I was convinced that the only program for me was at MIT.  The DUSP program for international development (IDG) was inspiring.  Diane E. Davis was generating work about conflict cities, other professors were looking at technology,education, and humanitarian work.  Some of the students who came out of that program like Topher McDougal were rockstars to me.  

Then just before I sent PhD applications, everything changed. Dr. Davis went to Harvard GSD and many of the other faculty rotated as well.  I like some of the professors there very much, but I could not see myself working with them. In the meanwhile, I do not like Harvard's program at all, so I would never follow Davis there.  After years of preparing for one program, it changed so dramatically that I never bothered to apply.

Where do you want to live and work?
Four years will go by fast but of course you must consider the reality of living there.  Case in point, the University of Umea in Sweden is amazing and has sufficient doctoral funding - but it is nearly the north pole. Ouch.  They were interested in my work, and I was interested in their program, but after 3 winters in Afghanistan, my wife and I were not willing to move to the Arctic circle.

Also consider, will living there advance your career goals?  When my wife did her masters, she went to the American University of Cairo, Egypt because she wanted to work in the middle east.  That gave her far more advantage than any graduate program in America or Europe.  Likewise, after graduating you might continue to live in the same city for awhile, so make sure you like it enough.


Look Outward
As I mentioned before, I only applied to one PhD program in Urban Planning.  But I also applied to 3 programs in political science, sociology, and design.  I received 2 full fellowship offers from among the four programs.

If the interdisciplinary nature of Urban Planning is its strength, we should leverage this strength to break away from the limited vision of the profession. Consequently, I encourage planners to do their PhD in anything but urban planning. Computer Science, Economics, Geography, Political Science, and any technical discipline are valid options.  


Personal Outcome
Final decision? I am pursuing a PhD in Design at Carnegie Mellon University.  CMU has the technological focus I desire, but more importantly, the new PhD Design is focussed on transition design.  This concept is akin to my own methodology, wherein it embraces turbulence of complex systems to advance scaled instances of social chanee.  As this approach is based in the field of UX Design, rather than planning, it also introduces new perspectives, vocabularies, and breaks away from the historical inheritance of the planning profession.

The curriculum and leadership are flexible, and as a new program, it is future-focussed with a zeal for creating new opportunities and ideas. Consequently, this PhD has the resources I need to create whatever future I want to create.  For my goals, there is no better option in the world.

Designing a Better Tax Experience in the USA


I've spent enough time living and working among impoverished and struggling communities, from Detroit to Addis, to know the wonderful benefits of public services and infrastructure. I've also seen the depths of corrupt systems, having spent nearly 3 years in Afghanistan, and so I also know what can happen with tax dollars are abused - and the damage can be severe. But from these experience, I fully believe that taxes are awesome. Thanks to taxes, I have enjoyed luxuries such as clean water, paved roads, and breathable air.  I've been able to acquire student loans to access otherwise unreachable opportunities. I have enjoyed the deep knowledge and entertainment of libraries, bike trails, and the internet.  Taxes are good.


Then why is it is so painful and frustrating to pay to taxes?  

For many years I've been engrossed in a never ending flow of  interrelated IRS documents to sort out taxes owed to my own government. I have also paid much in taxes to other governments, which was equally frustrating from the lack of information and structure. Then of course there is the act of watching your personal balance suddenly diminish while media outlets continually cover abuses of federal spending. When you pay your taxes in America, you feel like you have been beaten by a complex system.  You do not feel like a winner.

I propose that the rate of tax payment and frustrations with federal spending are not really the problem. The US already has a low tax requirement. Out of the richest 114 countries in the world, the USA is way down at number 55 in tax expense upon the population. So the frustration is not an indicator of too much paid in taxes, but it is merely a symptom of something else. 


The poor Service Design of US taxation.

Historically the US government has had very poor service design for many of its service systems, but in the last 5 years, great improvements have happened. Regardless of what you might think about Barack Obama, his administration has made massive strides in creating information systems and interfaces for the American public so as to improve the service design of governance with platforms such as the following:


These websites are impressive. They provide the means for anyone to acquire comprehensive information, engage the federal government in a personal manner, and even go so far as to directly petition the executive branch of government to address specific issues (We the People). None of these tools are perfect. The biggest flaw is that most American's don't realize these tools exist, and thus continue to rely on popular news media for information about their government rather than investigate information directly at the source.  

So things are looking good regarding user-integration in governance... until you look at the IRS website. Suddenly the interface between citizens and government breaks down to a grinding slow-motion act of torture at the very moment that this interface is of greatest importance. As US citizens we are left feeling abandoned and dismayed, handing our money to an impersonal force while under duress.

The USA has one of the most complex tax codes in the world.  In fact, deconstructing and comparing our tax system across 16 different categories to the 220+ countries in the world, the USA is number 94 on the Tax Attractiveness Index.  Who is number 93?  Zimbabwe.  

Unless you work a standard 9-5 job for a standard wage and have a limited income, it is difficult to calculate the amount of tax owed to the US government. Add an additional variable, such as living abroad or having multiple investments, and you will find it gets quickly complicated.  Since millions of Americans do not live in the USA and yet are faced with with this really difficult tax structure, it is no surprise that many have been giving up their US citizenship. But we do not need to necessarily simplify the tax code.  We need to change the way we engage with the tax code and our government.


Creating a New Experience

Lets think about the tax payment process differently.  How can we structure this for the sake of the user?  How can we simply the process and how can we make the relationship between the citizen and the government feel more personal?  How can the payment of tax feel like a meaningful contribution to society and not a point of frustration?  Lets redesign the process.

The IRS does not offer an online site to determine or pay taxes.  This is a serious flaw.  Instead, tax payers must find a 3rd party site (such as HRblock) to determine the rate of taxation.  These sites vary in their user friendliness and in their ability to provide the customer with the proper guidance.  These 3rd parties also frequently charge fees and if the user has special needs, such as a side business of freelance work, then the fee can jump into hundreds of dollars.  I happily used one such site for about 6 years, but once I moved abroad, I found it didn't offer the services I needed and it took a lot of research to find the right tool.  Even finding a qualified accountant to work with the needs of a non-resident citizen was super difficult.

So once you find a tool to determine tax, then the act of payment is painful.  The IRS does not have a simple online payment portal.  Rather debit or credit card payments are available via 3rd party online services who charge a fee for the processing (often about 3 dollars + 3% of the payment).  Lame.

If you choose to pay via check, then you write the check (typically for a hefty sum), put in in the mail, and never have any continued relationship with your earned money.  It is no longer yours, and you don't know what came of it.  Then you turn on CNN and some politician or reporter says that millions of dollars was wasted on some pointless initiative... I'm thinking of the classic "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska.  How can you feel good about this?


Imagine for a minute how all this could be different..
  • Imagine, if instead of a 3rd party website, you simply go to the IRS website.
  • Imagine scanning your thumbprint and being connected to your personal account.
  • You input your income, are guided through a series of questions and your rate of tax is determined.  Much of the information passes across years and you only need to apply updates. Unused credits from the following year are automatically transferred and advice is given freely on the website regarding deductions.
  • You click "continue" and your final tax rate is explained to you in simple English, such as how that amount was determined and you are shown some data visualizations of how much other people are paying in your state and nationally, across different kinds of jobs, and at different incomes or with similar households (3 kids and a private business).  See this page at Brookings for an example... I was interested this morning to see how different counties take advantage of deductions.
  • After it is explained to you, you approve the processing of your tax fee, or the reimbursement if one is owed.  Perhaps it could even make a suggestion on how to improve your deductions for the next fiscal year to lower your tax rate.
  • After the tax is paid, your deposit is assigned a tracking number.  I'm thinking of a large-scale version of "Wheres George" in which individual US dollars are mapped on their movements around America. I'm not certain of the intricacies, but imagine if you could say "oh yeah, last year I paid for a road, or the year before I paid for a school."  Perhaps you can login at any time and see updates to the spending of your contribution.

Connecting your tax to its use would entirely transform our political system, reduce poor spending decisions, and make people feel better about paying their taxes. It might even shift voting patterns.


When you imagine what taxes can do to change the quality of life, and when you think of your personal ability to make a dramatic impact on your community, paying taxes can be a pleasant and rewarding experience.  

I am happy to share 2/3 of my income with everyone because we all benefit by working together.  But I also know the pain and frustration that comes from the tax process. Yet if I've learned anything from my last 10 years of working in economic development, design, education, science, and governance, it is that all problems can be managed.  

We must accept that there is no ideal tax system.  Debating over flat tax vs. sliding scales vs. VAT vs. income tax and so on is not only redundant, but the arguments lose relevance when we shift our perception on tax delivery and the interface of citizen engagement. Consequently, we can  even drop all the self-importance and egocentrism that are connected to the suffering of taxation. We can move onward, and to do that, we don't necessarily need to change the structure of taxes, but rather, we need to change the way in which we undertake the experience of taxation.  It needs to be more personal, more simple, and more rewarding.  It needs to be re-approached as a service. Better yet, it needs to be revisited to become an opportunity.