Thoughts on Design, Innovation and the State

I had a very interesting talk yesterday with folks at the Stanford India Biodesign Lab at AIIMS. We were talking about design and innovation in the Indian context, and I was sharing some of our methods and goals around the Bihar Innovation Lab when suddenly the question of design and state systems came up.

Dr. Prashant Jha, a medical doctor, engineer and 2013 fellow of the program raised the question of how one might be forced to design outside the existing public healthcare system because one cannot change it. In effect, that is what all social entrepreneurs do — they have no power to change the administrative machinery, so to achieve desired benefits or outcomes, they create a workaround. Would we at CKS or through the BIL endorse this line of solutioneering? Or do we have in mind another approach?

So, I began, you’re saying we’re in the same position, structurally, as a frontline worker is, in respect to having a bunch of systemic constraints and no ability to change them. So therefore we create workarounds. Which may be good or bad in terms of their immediate outcomes, but don’t certainly create a better system. It’s like India’s invertor and generator industries. We can’t make our national electricity grid work to five-nines (99.999%) so we endlessly invest in our own personal back-up systems. Lithium, cadmium, we don’t know what to do with it all, but we do what we must do in the private sector. It gets the job done, but it doesn’t make for a better system.

But none of us is only an entrepreneur. We’re also at various times a citizen, an op-ed writer, a decision maker. We need to think systemically at our own level, but more importantly, we need to ensure that the State is capable of thinking and acting and making decisions at a systemic level. Which is to say, we must ensure that the State must be capable of designing.

This has not always been seen as a function or responsibility of the State. Yet in this networked and mediated 21st century, it has truly become necessary for the State to be capable of synthesizing diverse priorities and interests in order to create legible programs and priorities within which diverse public, private, social, economic, individual, collective, large and small interests are all inscribed. The inability to do so, or the evidence of only partial capability in this regard creates a crisis of confidence in State mechanisms because they are now in disalignment with the capacities of the private sector.

Where the role of the state was hitherto restricted to planning through, for example, organizations like the Planning Commission of India, it must now become involved in designing and innovating. It must go beyond the traditional top-down macro-economic view of society, and develop an understanding of how diverse industries, state and non-state organizations, forms of infrastructure and everyday life interact through both formal and informal mechanisms. The authority of the State, in these socially-mediated times, can only come from being able to conceptualize and architect new kinds of ecosystems which cross-cut public, social and market activities. Example? Obamacare.

State processes are usually understood to operate through political debate and policy-making. At the highest levels it is true that policy-making is a result of processes that reside outside of what we think of as design. But the State machinery is also involved in regulation, operations and services delivery, and at each of these levels there are multiple touchpoints with citizen-users of government and public systems. Here a systems-design approach is critical for the conceptualization and creation of an interlocking series of systems that harmoniously create a whole. Counterexample? Well, think of just about any urban agglomeration which has sprung up in India since 1947 with the exception of Chandigarh.

This kind of systems approach to design addresses systems rather than discrete objects, artifacts or products. A systems approach requires us to think about design as a process that happens between people, rather than something that happens between the ears of a single person. It must be participatory and user-centered in its approach, rather than working technocratically and top-down. This approach also needs to be more widely understood and then put into practice. To that end I’m working with a small group of peers to create a study group for administrators and decision makers in Delhi to address systems design challenges in Delhi. We’re starting small so that we refine our approach and build momentum as well as clarity over time. We’re tentatively called the Systems Thinking Group, and we’re working together towards a public event in February of next year, whose working title is Delhi by Design (Not by Default).

The effectiveness of a citizen-centered and participatory approach to systems innovation will only be successful when we also see a degree of maturity and positive contribution from the people. In the light of several recent mobilizations across urban India, notably in Bangalore and New Delhi, perhaps there is already good evidence that we are seeing a new kind of energy and will among citizens to participate and contribute to the quality of life and overall conception of the city.

If economic liberalization was the absolute need and imperative of the India of 1991, design, systems thinking and innovation have that kind of priority today. Without them, we will meander and squander what progress we have seen in the past two decades. If, however, we can ensure that our systems of regulation, operations and public services delivery can absorb these capacities, we will be able to jointly build the kind of future that our people truly deserve.


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