The Lofty Aspirations of Human-Centred Design

Application for IIT Institute of Design’s Strategy Conference Tour posed three questions ostensibly around the most pressing challenges of our times and how innovators, strategists, designers, and entrepreneurs could deal with those (another matter that practitioners looking for these answers probably span a much wider spectrum of disciplines). It is a Design Strategy Tour hosted by a School of Design and so perhaps my answers would read like I played to the gallery — but hand on heart, I believe that there needs to be a way for people to connect with the realities of the world they are trying to change. Far too often, our decisions are based on assumptions of how our actions will play out in the real world and that in part comes from the comfort of distancing ourselves from what is otherwise inherently complex and messy. I speak here of human relationships and emotions especially of the large mass of faceless and nameless “users”, “beneficiaries” or “stakeholders”.

It is indeed too lofty to pitch human centred design as a panacea for this — but what can’t be faulted is that once embraced as a way of thinking and working, it becomes the voice that eggs you on to engage with these complexities. And perhaps in that light, the answers below hold their ground:

Q. What are the most imminent challenges of our time?

A: The gap that exists between intent and action — whether it concerns human development goals through responsive governance, or social equity through responsible businesses — needs to be bridged through application of new ways of working. The scale of these problems has widened in absence of credible ways to design systems, programs and policies that are sustainable, equitable and relevant. I believe therefore that while the challenges of our times are multiple and daunting — whether it pertains to environment, poverty, education, health, employment — the most pressing one is the lack of personal and organisational capacities to drive the change.

Q. How can innovators, strategists, designers, and entrepreneurs effectively deal with change?

A: Change is no longer an external stimulus that practitioners need to find ways to respond to. I believe it has come to define the very essence of human endeavour in contemporary times. Change has to be internalised as a process — if you are not iterating your business model, reframing policies as new data emerges from the field, or prototyping and refining technologies in response to people’s needs and aspirations, as a practitioner you are perhaps setting yourself up for disillusionment and disappointment. Technology, media and information have changed the rules of the game — the dogma of rigid, inflexible visions has been replaced with an agile, lean and highly adaptive work ethos. If this isn’t a part of your manifesto and your skill-set, it’s time for a rethink.

Q. Where do you see the next point of change emerging?

A: As a practitioner in the field of human centered design for the last decade and an enthusiast marvelling at the emergence of non-institutional, cross-disciplinary teaching and learning mediated through self published platforms on the internet, I believe these are the two areas that will drive change in the coming times. I am convinced that HCD will find a way to embed itself within institutions of learning whether it is liberal arts, science, technology or management — and transform the way citizens of the world approach problem solving. I believe that information access and consumption, mediated through technology, will help drive change at a much faster pace in emerging economies and bring forth innovations that are rooted in the realities of two thirds of the world.

Originally published at quicksand.co.in on November 6, 2015.

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