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PHD-DESIGN  March 2013

PHD-DESIGN March 2013

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Subject:

On withdrawing from the List

From:

Miller | The Policy Lab <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

PhD-Design - This list is for discussion of PhD studies and related research in Design <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 21 Mar 2013 10:08:44 +0100

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

text/plain (75 lines)

Dear All,

After due consideration, and a review of recent correspondence — including my own, which I regret as I allowed my frustrations to get the better of me — I have decided withdraw from the list. This is a mechanical matter, so if anyone should like to contact me it will need to be directly ([log in to unmask]).

In doing so, I would like to explain why. I intend this as a sharing of my thoughts because I have been here for about three or four years, and am in close contact with Ken Friedman off-list as he is now a Fellow at The Policy Lab (among his many other titles and duties). I feel that I owe him the courtesy of an explicit exit and to ensure it is understood that my withdrawal is not a commentary on the List generally, but rather my relationship to it. Also, and over the years, I have been in regular contact with about a dozen other people I met here and I'm very grateful for having made those contacts. In respect of these relationships I think a few words are in order.

Lisa Rudnick and I — at UNIDIR — were working on "project design" on peace and security matters (including development and humanitarian action) since about 2002 together. In 2006 we launched a major project. In 2008 or so, I had an interesting and unexpected conversation with Lavrans Løvlie at live|work. In one of those "so what do you do?" conversations common to men stuck together for a spell, we started talking. We had a fascinating "ah-ha!" moment when we realized that Lisa and my efforts to change the means and methods of designing local programming were at least sympathetic to — and perhaps highly aligned with — imaging programmes as "services" and hence being able to make use of "service design" to reconceptualize the design process in Un programming.

This started an interesting dialogue that continues today among UNIDIR, live|work and The Policy Lab. And I expect it will continue for some time to come.

Lisa and I worked independently, and on the side, to develop the needed theory, lexicon and methods to bring "evidence-based programme design" to the UN system. And we are still doing that today. What I learned — from many cooperative projects, lectures, papers, and efforts to bring these fields together — was this: (and many here will not agree. But as I said, I'm here to share my thoughts, not continue arguments, and I do not speak for UNIDIR, live|work, or the Lab in general. Just me):

1. "Design" as a field, and as a product of design educations, has a great deal to offer my own field of policy and programme design. Perhaps the most powerful offering is that designers most often (dare I say always?) do not know the outcome of their design activity on setting out. That is, they are explicitly and professionally positioned as "humble" vis-a-vis the outcome to the problematic. In order to "design" a chair, a rocket, an exit strategy from Iraq, you must not know what the final set of instructions or manifest activities will be. You must have some criteria for success (as defined by the project itself), but whether it will result in X-Y-Z or A-D-F cannot be known at the outset, and one is always open to the possibility that the solution is as-yet unimaginable (ergo, not to be selected, but imaginatively created). This is very powerful, and very, very helpful. It also makes "design" different from "decision-making" and I'm qualified to tell people that the latter has had a very powerful impact on international relations theory since the 70s, whereas "design" has not. For those in touch with this literature" Imagine looking at the Cuban Missile Crisis as a design challenge, not a decisionmaking one. That would pull the rug out from under Graham Allison and redefine the field …

2. Designers from "traditional" design schools (RISD, Pratt, Parsons, etc) very often bring a way of seeing and engaging with "users" and even "uses" that my colleagues and myself often lack (as a product of our own educations. These are not personal failings). One key benefit of the design education — whether coming from a fashion background or a service design back ground — is a tactical sensibility, and a visual one. When in Nairobi recently, our design colleague who came with us wanted to see the UN staff's offices. See their desks. Their chairs. How they arranged books and other material. While I was immediately convinced of the value of this, I admit it did not come naturally and was not a product of my education. It made for an excellent collaboration. After all, sometimes the problem is not a high-concept problem, or an organizational behavior problem, or an operations problem, but sometimes an ergonomic one. Make people comfortable and they might read more, and therefore use knowledge better to solve evidence-based problems. It wasn't that easy, but the point is that it is still clearly helpful and a big contribution to a team to "think different" (ala Apple, and forgiving the grammar).

3. Designers — at least those I've been around — seem to be very driven to bring value to people. There are many forms of value, but often — and I appreciate this — there seems to be a desire (especially among younger designers) to engage in designing that is "virtuous." By that I mean, brings something good into the world, not simply something of financial value or absolute utility. There is nothing wrong with the latter, only I see many younger designers unsatisfied with the perpetuation of design in the service of the market. And so there is excitement about being able to move their design skills into areas of social impact.

4. And this is where things get complex. Because for all the value, and all the energy, I have experienced a notable preference for "design thinking" and less for "slow thinking." And when the designs introduced (i.e. the solutions to problems offered) are insufficiently grounded on carefully and often painstakingly produced knowledge to direct, and inform the design process itself, it can do harm. A lot of harm.

5. I came to the list to learn what is out there, and what could be of use to us in getting our jobs done (that is, my job). And I learned things. I also came to the list to get a sense of the "intellectual" design community. By which I mean, many designers are not pursuing Ph.Ds or engaged in theory building, so I wanted to listen in on those conversations specifically. But I am leaving the list now because I now see a pattern that has not changed in the time I've been reading the correspondence. As the famous teach of fiction writing — John Gardner — would have said, it has reached "logical exhaustion" rather than suggested resolution.

6. I see a consistent pattern of design scholars claiming exceptionalism from the very Academy they aspire to join and critique; I see designers teaching other designers in PhD programmes, and not nearly enough social scientists teaching designers (in courses specific to that, which are needed in the core curriculum — I am NOT saying designers should BE social scientists, but they should know the fundamentals, so they can work in teams with others); and I feel a wave of philosophical effort being exerted on, what i feel to be, extremely tenuous claims about "researching" which I think is regularly confused with "learning." 

This has been a big one — and is what I over-reacted to a few weeks ago. Clearly one can learn from practice. But it is the reflective move — the careful study of practice through the skills honed in the Academy for at least two hundred years now — that defines, classifies, theorizes, and measures, thereby making the contribution of said practices visible to the world (and the practitioners!) so that the new understanding can become part of the way we see the world and act in it. 

An example is film noir (this is merely an example, and pleased remember that undermining an analogy is the not the same as undermining the primary claim). Those making it did not know what they were making it. Or more to the point, they did not know they were making "film noir." It required French theorists to look back on American practice (mostly) and label something patterned and in turn bring something new into the world. They didn't bring those films or way of seeing into the world. The practitioners did. But they did bring "film noir" into the world, and thereby reified that practice, and turn it into something we could see, understand, explain and discuss. Which also make it as resource for practitioners.

Making the films was not "research" into film noir. Looking at the films was research, which created "film noir."

My primary concern — professionally — is generating empirical knowledge and turning that knowledge into a strategic asset in the design of actions for the social good. And then, of course, designing the policy solutions themselves. Hence "The - Policy - Lab."

And yet, I have reached a "saturation point" where I'm finding that the conversation about "research" is making it impossible to attend to the key problematics that so interest me (as a scholar and a practitioner), which is the movement of that knowledge into the creation of empirically-grounded propositions for action that can be informed by design techniques. And because the conversation almost always stops here, I can't get to the part that also excites me, which is using design processes to "manifest" these propositions into sets of activities (not usually artifacts, but sometimes …), and then prototyping them, and then blueprinting them, and then implementing them, and then monitoring and evaluating them, and then using this analysis to inform re-design.

The list is stuck for me at a place that will not allow the key problematics I need to address to be examined. And so, as a place for conversation, it is exhausted for me. As time is limited, I can follow along without a strong hope of hearing something useful to my challenges.

Ken and I are in contact. Should the "list culture" change, I'll look forward to returning. Clearly, the conversations happening now are of use and interest to many other people. And so 

A) this letter will more gracefully allow my departure, compared to my last outburst (sorry, Birger — we absolutely did not need to do that, and warmest congratulations on the new contribution to your family) or 

B) it will stimulate some conversation that may be more conducive to these topics at a later date. 

I know Ken will inform me if the latter takes place.

Until then, thanks and very warm regards. There is a rich and exciting convergence happening that I hope can be managed well, so that we don't miss the opportunity.

Derek Miller

_________________
Dr. Derek B. Miller
Director

The Policy Lab®
321 Columbus Ave.
Seventh Floor of the Electric Carriage House
Boston, MA 02116
United States of America

Phone
+1 617 440 4409
Twitter
@Policylabtweets
Web
www.thepolicylab.org 

This e-mail includes proprietary and confidential information belonging to The Policy Lab, Ltd. All rights reserved.



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