My nine steps to studying design

I’ve just accepted a life-changing offer from the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851 to study design. From October this year I’ll be on the Royal College of Art’s Service Design MA, thanks to the commission’s generous Industrial Design Studentship.

I’m a policy economist in international development, which means that I use economics research to help the world’s poorest countries make their citizens richer. It’s work that has taken me around the world — from knowing policy-makers in the Kremlin’s ‘outer ring’, to advising Indonesia on what to do with its science research, and being awed by the Whig ambition behind Britain’s aid spending — and given me fulfilment.

And now I’ve decided to dive into design. Why?

  1. Russia changed everything.

I moved to Russia in 2010 to do the Alfa Fellowship Program, thinking that I was going to a place that was unfairly maligned and actually doing well. Poverty had fallen a lot since the year 2000; the Georgia war of 2008 had not started with Russia firing the first shots but when Mikheil Saakashvilli, Georgia’s president, did; and the authoritarian political stability was at least better than the anarchy of the 1990s. I thought that I only needed a technical comparison to understand Russia— that it was unlike Britain because it had failed to implement the right policies and would, in time, rectify itself.

After the fellowship I got a job at the World Bank’s Moscow office. I weekly met ministers and advisers, learnt Russian, travelled the country, and absorbed as much of the political media as I could.

On this tour of Russian government, the economics and public administration skills I had been taught weren’t helping me that much. I would sit in meetings with ministers who argued that my super-educated Western colleagues had misunderstood some aspect of economics, such as competition or the regulation of financial markets. The ministers had a sophisticated system of beliefs with supporting evidence. It didn’t matter whether it was right, what mattered is that it was an alternative mental world.

I couldn’t understand that mental world without becoming an amateur anthropologist. It was then that I started to put together the beliefs of the Russian state — its different views of the relationship between the citizen and the government; the relative positions of the church, the president, and God; the purpose of power; and whether two things can be true at once. These governing beliefs shape Russia daily, from the actions of its politicians, to what children get taught in school, to how it presents itself abroad.

I could still use economics, but only once I had got a handle on the Russian state’s belief system. Incentives and the simple cognitive axioms of rational choice told me a lot about Russia and the behaviour of its rulers, but only after I grasped the beliefs — the tastes — that would motivate their choices.

And once I knew that beliefs mattered, I was off to the races on mental systems and how we use them to understand the world. I was adding anthropology to the way I worked.

2. Professor Scott E. Page of Michigan University taught me what a model was.

Before I did Model Thinking on Coursera I thought about the world only in terms of answers. Economics had taught me about incentives, and Russia about anthropology and beliefs, but only by doing the course did I understand how these could be combined into a model. Scott E. Page, the professor who created the course, spends 12 weeks talking about the many models that we use to understand the complexity of the universe and our place in it.

For many years I thought that 42 was the answer to life, the universe, and everything. I had one model — economics — masquerading as a theory of everything. Professor Page was showing that beliefs — he would call them hypotheses, claims, or interpretations — created models, and that there were many models because there were many beliefs.

Professor Page’s course was showing me that to understand the many combinations of the world I needed to grasp the many ways of explaining it. For example, might epidemiology tell us more about the spread of ideas in a public administration than economics? How do we best explain the effects of aggregating from micro’s to a macro, in any sphere?

Russia got me to belief systems and anthropology, Professor Page to multi-model thinking.

3. I like being tied to things I can touch and test.

Unlike the communists that effected modern Russia, I don’t want grand theories imposed on the world. I don’t care how clever you are, you’ll never know more than the accumulated wisdom of generations of people. Government is better in Britain than in Russia because it’s beliefs are different, but also because it relies on knowledge that has been tested and adjusted over a long period of time. Nobody has thrown it all away and forced the next generation to try again from scratch.

Respect for that body of sometimes dusty knowledge makes it easier to create new and better things. If I’ve got lots of things to choose from that I know are robust, when the world changes and new situations arise I can recombine what I know with reasonable confidence that it will work. If I need to invent something completely new, there’s a good chance that it will only be a part of the solution and that I can add useful things to it that other people have created.

Knowing the principles and beliefs that have shaped who we are releases us to update our actions for new worlds. And if you’ve got principles that you’re pretty confident in, I think it behoves you to test how much they can achieve — to have a system for modelling your beliefs and knowledge in new ways, testing them, getting feedback, humbly asking whether there are better ways of doing things, and making adjustments.

4. Like Karl Popper, I don’t like pure forms.

In The Open Society and its Enemies, the philosopher Karl Popper accused Plato of originating authoritarianism by claiming that there were pure forms of things. If one believes that our world has only flawed approximations of pure, transcendent things, then leaders will constantly try to rectify them. They won’t tolerate things that are only good enough. And they’ll attempt change with great force, because they’ll believe that their opponents are only defending impure things and need to be destroyed if they get in the way.

Popper also argued that pure forms had forced some philosophers into wanting to discover the pure essence of things. He believed that the phenomenologists and others had written such impenetrable work because they were forever trying to find out whether the red in a red jumper was pure ‘jumper redness’.

I think Popper was right to argue that doing things like a scientist is more productive and liberating. You do an experiment and are left with a hundred petri dishes. All you want to know is how the things in the dish have affected each other, relative to other combinations of things. You aren’t interested in whether petri dish 59 is a pure form of a petri dish, let alone whether petri dish 59 has its own pure form sub-category. You, the scientist, just put a sticker on it because the petri dish will only ever be no.59, with given components that produced given effects in the given conditions. That’s it. There’s nothing more to know. Just collect your beliefs into a model, note where they came from, test, adjust, and move on.

5. Once I was design thinking I couldn’t think differently.

I still remember the meeting. It was on the top floor of the World Bank office in Moscow, and our team had come together to discuss a new project. The president of the bank, Jim Yong Kim, had recently visited and promised money for Russia to host a new hub that would get things done using the ‘science of delivery.’ Tony Blair had been in DC to talk to the bank about how he and Michael Barber, a UK civil servant, had got things done in the British government. Jim Yong Kim had picked up on the idea and wanted the bank to help the Russian government to have its own delivery unit, showing the world — along with about five other countries — how to turn reform theory into results.

Because I had worked in Westminster and understood the Blair government, I thought that I knew exactly what we should do with the delivery hub. I researched it, probably wrote a brief, and gave my case in the meeting. Annoyingly, another colleague gave a different view. We debated our points, with little give-or-take.

Then a mentor of mine, Jean-Louis Racine, said ‘What if neither of you know the answer?’ and ‘What if I don’t either, and none of us will know until we’ve tried a proper process of discovery?’

The World Bank has an adversarial culture and I had never before heard anyone say that they didn’t know something — that they didn’t even have a theory, let alone an answer, that would fill the void left by the inadequate propositions made by me and my colleague. I didn’t have a response. And when Jean-Louis started presenting on design thinking and how it might help us to develop a model that would generate a better answer than arguments around a board room table, I was hooked.

6. Once I was design doing I couldn’t do differently.

Jean-Louis created Launchpad, a design-led project incubator for clean technology projects at the World Bank, that I had the privilege to work on. It sounds like any other innovation incubator, but probably isn’t.

There are many innovation programmes in international development, most often running ‘challenge funds’ to gradually filter through ideas. I suspect that lots of them set broad criteria for their projects early, and aren’t keen on changing them in the face of new knowledge because doing so means having to ask a donor or government for permission. This is probably what causes the bias towards newness — the shiny idea that hasn’t been tried before — because it creates excitement and the selection criteria aren’t specific enough to justify choosing something that’s less interesting but might have more effect. The Launchpad projects were to be continuously refined with testing, new knowledge, and adaptation.

Jean-Louis tasked me with writing Launchpad’s Innovation Management System — defining the team’s hypotheses, creating a system for collecting data on whether they were true, and having the team adjust as it learned about what worked and what it didn’t understand. By this point I was probably ‘design doing’ — working on a unique system, using a model with user insights and blended from many ways of looking at the world, and unable to say ‘My single tool is going to solve everything.’

7. Once I was design doing, it became obvious that I had been doing design badly.

A few years ago I co-designed a USD250 million World Bank loan. We used the best experts we could find, travelled the country that would be receiving the money, and had good peer reviewers. Despite our best intentions, the Project Appraisal Document became what World Bankers call a ‘Christmas tree.’ The initial project intentions had grown into large branches on which we had hung all manner of interventions, meaning that one could only stand back and admire its complexity, wondering how anyone would ever manage it.

It was complex because the country in question was complex. To help it achieve its economic development aims, we needed to consider how legal, financial, geographic, constitutional, and educational problems might be solved — all at once. A lot needed to happen before anything would be achieved.

And there was little connection between the big things and the little people. Despite the project ultimately being about them, it was hard to consider the needs of a manager in a factory or a recent graduate looking for a job. There was only so much time to analyse the data and discuss things with the government — we were stuck at the level of broad theories of how USD250 million would change the behaviour of 10,0000 people and produce USD1 billion in economic output.

If you don’t really understand the needs of the people you’re designing an international development project for, you’re likely to get swamped by institutional demands from your donor bosses and political positioning by your country counterpart. There’s a lot of money on the table, and it will be pulled one way if you can’t push it in a direction marked ‘Here’s a clear set of micro-level, behavioural problems that we can be reasonably confident of solving.’

8. The Royal College of Art is probably the world’s best design school, so why not go there?

‘Why isn’t the toolkit working!’, I cry. ‘I’ve done the online course and properly filled the boxes in the template, so why isn’t the design process going as the textbook said it would?’

This is where I am now. Because analysis naturally leads to recommendations, whenever I’m working on an economic development project I’m inevitably creating something new. But whenever I try to work with models, to put different views together into something that can be tested, and to identify the needs we’re trying to meet and the problems we’re trying to overcome, I fail. I’m doing it wrong, or I’m failing to help others to do it right. I need training.

About a year ago I began researching the design courses that I could do. There are many impressive design schools around the world, but the RCA was on my doorstep and seemed the ideal place to spend a few years. When the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851 offered me support to combine my technical, economics skills with creative, design ones, my journey was nearly complete.

Going to the RCA in October will be the tenth and biggest step in my journey: what it means to learn and practice design for the improvement of services, systems, and institutions. Perhaps my hypotheses for what it means to be a designer are wrong, but I’m about to test them and find out.

Wish me luck.