February 21, 2017

Foresight Design Initiative’s Lyndon Valicenti on the Inspired Practice of Design Methods, Systems Thinking and Inclusion

Lyndon Valicenti is Principal of Foresight Design Initiative, a multidisciplinary non-profit studio that collaborates to make sense and tackle tough challenges, such as “building climate change resilience and realizing Illinois’ smart grid-enabled energy future.” Here, she shares her perspective on intellectual rigor and mindfulness in designing, through design methods, systems thinking and giving a damn.

I’ve been curious about the term “design methods.” I was struck by your use of it in your Twitter profile. Though practiced a lot, it’s not popular to say, even claim, such as “innovation.” What do you mean by stating design methods?
The studio I am apart of, Foresight Design Initiative, conceptually defines its work as “bringing systems thinking and design methods to complex sustainability challenges.” What we mean by that is that we are leveraging the problem-solving principles, perspectives, approaches and tools of two disciplines—systems thinking and human-centered design—to think anew about how we tackle complex sustainability challenges, from climate change to natural resource depletion.

Sustainability issues have attracted many disciplines over the last few decades, each bringing their respective skills and perspectives. Lawyers at the Natural Resource Defense Council, for example, who have dedicated their talents and careers to environmental issues, bring legal and policy levers to the cause. Engineers bring infrastructural solutions. Ecologists and natural resource managers bring conservation land use strategies. Government officials bring regulations and enforcement. You get the picture, but silos are often to blame for our collective inability to respond at the scale of the challenges we face.

Foresight believes that, in order to drive bigger, better and faster impact on these intractable challenges, we need to redesign the processes, systems, interactions, conversations and collaborations that shape and govern the status quo. More specifically, we need an integrated, multidisciplinary approach to understanding root causes, aligning diverse perspectives and intervening in strategic ways.

Systems thinking and human-centered design offer fresh strategies, iterative practices and insightful research methods that can be leveraged to tackle the messy social and environmental issues of our time. Tim Brown, in his pitch book for design thinking, “Change by Design,” introduces its potential by saying:
“It is hard to imagine a time when the challenges faced so vastly exceeded the creative resources we have brought to bear on them…What we need is an approach to innovation that is powerful, effective, and broadly accessible, that can be integrated into all aspects of business and society, and that individuals and teams can use to generate breakthrough ideas that are implemented and therefore have an impact. Design thinking offers just such an approach.”
How did you discover “design methods”?
A handful of years ago, I had the honor of working as the first Environmental Strategist in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s global urban design practice under the visionary, Phil Enquist. It was there that I realized designers, in the broadest sense of the word, are the great inventors of our time. Those, like Phil, are not burdened by what is possible today, but focus their sights 100 years out and work backwards. I realized that it will not be the fields tinkering at the edges of our status quo for incremental change that are going to imagine, let alone drive, the transformative changes needed today. It is the long-viewed, big-idea designers that are going to lead us to a more prosperous, sustainable and equitable future.

Since that revelation, I have sought to better understand the emerging fields of design thinking, systemic design and transition design.

Your company works on “wicked problems,” for example, from your website, “climate change and natural resource depletion.” How do you cope with the constant of complexity? What’s your mindset in facing complexity? And how does design methods play a role in dealing with complexity?
I have a background in ecology and spent a few years studying the biogeochemical processes induced by earlier and earlier spring ice melts each year in the vulnerable ecosystems of the Arctic and Antarctic. Understanding and intervening in complex adaptive systems, be it an Arctic lake or city, has been a common thread throughout my career.

Dealing with complexity requires, first and foremost, eliminating the idea of "finding a/the solution.” The concept is too definitive, too stayed. It is hard to solve for something that is constantly evolving. We must instead adopt an adaptive approach and consider our work as interventions that should be tested, evaluated and revised as conditions change over time.

Design promotes rapid prototyping and iteration as a way to anticipate the risk and reduce the impact of failing, as products or services are introduced in context. This practice, done at scale and over longer time horizons, is the type of adaptive change management approach needed in dealing with wicked problems.

One of my favorite quotes is by the novelist Kurt Vonnegut: “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” What are key things that you and your team do to maintain the relationship with clients after findings are shared?
What a truthful quote! At the end of the day, my colleagues and I are capacity builders. We help our partners from civic, philanthropic, governmental, private, academic and non-profit institutions better innovate to address complex sustainability challenges; helping leaders lead, as we often say. The end goal in building the capacity of others is to, one day, no longer be needed (think Mr. Miyagi); so there is an inherent exit strategy in all of our projects.

However, capacity building work is very personal and requires immense trust. In most cases, we become great friends along the way. Being a small shop, these close and positive partner relationships are essential to our own sustainability (using it in a different context here); where reputation and trust are our greatest assets. To stay connected, we host a monthly morning networking event for our partners and friends. Catching up over muffins and coffee is the best way to start the day.

What is design?
I am most certainly not the best person to answer the question of “what is design?” But, I did recently have the pleasure of hearing Paul Pangaro give a keynote address on the subject. In which, he posited: “design = conversations for action,” going on to say that “designing conversations is the heart of (the) 21st Century design practice.” With that concept of design in mind, the importance of language becomes paramount, and the co-evolution of language to be inclusive and expansive is essential in revealing new frames and possibilities.

Given our current national (and international, for that matter) political climate, as well as the intractable issues humanity faces, I need to believe in the power of design to facilitate inclusive conversations for action.

How would you describe “good design”?
This question has been on my mind since reading the “New York Times Magazine” article (November 2016), “Look Again: Six Designers Take on Some of the World’s Toughest Challenges.” The title waaayyyyyyy overpromised. The featured designs explored topics like bicycle lock technology, airport baggage claim systems and smart toilets to analyze excrement. The world’s toughest challenges!?!?!

I think good design, in the context of our toughest challenges, must take on a systems perspective and seek interventions on root causes, not symptoms. Good design solves for the 5th or 6th answer to the question: Why?

At Foresight, when analyzing a system to identify impactful intervention points, we ask the question “Why?” over and over again to unpack root causes of the existing conditions. For instance, on the issue of widespread basement sewer backups in Chicago, you can ask a number of whys to get to a range of viable intervention points. Basements back up largely because the 100-year old combined sewer system in Chicago is overwhelmed during heavy and fast rain events. The sewer system is more insufficient now than it was when first built because of urban development, specifically the buildup of large swaths of impervious pavement (green spaces getting paved over). It is also increasingly insufficient because climate change is bringing more intense and frequent storm events to the city. Certainly, in this example, there is a need for interventions that reduce the immediate discomfort of having your basement flood. But, taking a systems view opens up a wider range of possibilities, like ensuring our existing green space is designed to take on more stormwater, building green roofs and replacing impervious pavement with that that is permeable. Not to mention strategies to directly mitigate climate change.

Designing with a holistic systems view of the problem you are trying to address is good design.

In doing the deliberative, research-intensive, collaborative and expansive work you do, how do you maintain your creativity, critical thinking, heck, your sanity too?
My team and I at Foresight are very emotionally invested in our work. As much as it is exhilarating, it can be utterly exhausting. And, honestly, I crash hard and often. Personal resilience is a big focus of mine in 2017 and (unplugging and) spending time in nature has always been an important respite for me.

What’s your media diet like? Who and what do you recommend to help be aware of current affairs/culture/your neighborhood and the world?
I really appreciate this prompt for framing media in the context of food, or any other consumable. Moderation is key, eh? To that end, I have recently cut way back on my Facebook usage to just occasionally on weekends. That has felt great! Another recent shift has been towards podcasts. The podcast conversation feels so much more rich, honest and unfiltered than other media outlets. Lately, I have been consuming those related to issues of racial justice, “About Race” and “Code Switch,” being two I would highly recommend. In terms of brain food: “Stanford Social Innovation Review,” Curtis Ogden on the Interaction Institute for Social Change’s blog, and Alex Ryan on Medium. And on the salty craving side of things: Samantha Bee.

How did you arrive at doing the kind 
of multidisciplinary work you do?
I spent nearly 4 years working for the City of Chicago’s Department of Environment. Nothing like working in the context of a highly siloed government to make you appreciate the need for more coordination and collaboration across disciplines.

That is not to say that the City of Chicago was more siloed than any other local government. I recently learned that every U.S. city has a charter which serves as the blueprint for its bureaucratic structure. Most were written over a hundred years ago and most were based on the same 2–3 early examples. This is to say (IMHO) the outdated way in which our local governments are structured is antithetical to our ability to holistically address interrelated urban challenges. Now more than ever, we must bring multidisciplinary teams, collaboratives and task forces together to address issues that are beyond any one sector or discipline’s ability to do so on their own.

I am fortunate today because many of Foresight’s projects involve cross-sector coalition building. So, to bring it full circle, we are essentially in the business of designing conversations for action.

How does Chicago contribute to your work? And what makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?
Chicago’s tight-knit design and sustainability communities are unmatched elsewhere. The shared hard work ethic, sense of community and love for the city contributes to feeling apart of something bigger than yourself or your studio. There is, on the whole, more camaraderie than competition across these communities in Chicago, which makes it a great place to build a practice and pursue your mission.

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All images courtesy of Lyndon Valicenti.

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With Valicenti’s championing of design methods in mind, designer John Christopher Jones wrote “Design Methods,” published by John Wiley & Sons in 1970. It’s deemed a major work on the topic, in addition to supporting ergonomics and multidisciplinary collaboration. View my video-short about this seminal publication—part of my ongoing series Rare Book Feast.

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