When it comes to design thinking, the bloom is off the rose. Billed as a set of tools for innovation, design thinking has been enthusiastically and, to some extent, uncritically adopted by firms and universities alike as an approach for the development of innovative solutions to complex problems.  But skepticism about design thinking has now begun to seep out onto the pages of business magazines and educational publications.

The criticisms are several: that design thinking is poorly defined; that the case for its use relies more on anecdotes than data; that it is little more than basic commonsense, repackaged and then marketed for a hefty consulting fee. As some of these design thinking concepts have sloshed into the world of policy, and social change efforts have been re-cast as social innovation, the queasiness around the approach has also begun to surface in the field of public policy.

However, most critics have missed the main problem with design thinking. It is, at its core, a strategy to preserve and defend the status-quo — and an old strategy at that. Design thinking privileges the designer above the people she serves, and in doing so limits participation in the design process. In doing so, it limits the scope for truly innovative ideas, and makes it hard to solve challenges that are characterized by a high degree of uncertainty — like climate change — where doing things the way we always have done them is a sure recipe for disaster.

A New Name for an Old Method

To understand why design thinking is fundamentally conservative, it’s important to look at its antecedents.  Although it is often advertised as a method that is as innovative as the solutions it promises to produce, it bears an uncanny resemblance to an earlier model of problem-solving, celebrated in the 1970s and 1980s for the superior solutions it was supposed to produce. Called the “rational-experimental” approach to problem solving, it was a simplified and popularized version of the scientific method, in much the same way that design thinking is a stylized — some say ‘dumbed down’ — version of the methods designers use.  It, too, was enthusiastically embraced by managers and policy makers, and was invoked to reshape practices in firms and government.

The similarities between the steps in the two methods are so literal that design thinking can come across as a knock-off.  Rational-experimental problem solving was built around a series of stages, each leading up to the identification of a solution. Likewise, design thinking is generally described as being made up of modes, stepping stones in the design process, with each mode reflecting a different aspect of design thinking.

Rational-experimental problem solving begins with a presumption that the search for a solution starts by relying on existing data about the problem. Design thinking, in a slight divergence from the original model, suggests instead that the designer herself should generate information about the problem, by drawing on her experience of the people who will be affected by the design through the empathetic connection that she forges with them. This mode is called, in the “can-do” imperative tense that design thinkers favor, “empathize.”

That is where the procedural differences between the two approaches end.  The next step in both approaches, called “definition” or “define,” is to define the problem or design challenge.  Then, both approaches move toward developing a theory about how to solve the problem or design challenge.  In rational-experimental thinking, this step is labeled the “hypothesis” phase, while design-thinking calls this phase “ideate.” Next, both methods advise trying out the proposed solution. It’s called “implementation” in the older approach whereas the newer version exhorts adherents to “prototype.” (Though similar, the latter requires more Post-It notes.)  The final step in both methods is to evaluate the effectiveness of the experiment. In both the “evaluation” phase of the rational-experimental model and in the “test” mode of design thinking, this step sets in motion the iterative aspect of these approaches to problem solving, with adherents encouraged to use the information they glean from this phase to return to earlier phases of the process in order to refine either their hypotheses and their solutions, or both.

Protecting the Powerful

Both design thinking and the rational-experimental approach implicitly establish problem solving as the remit of the powerful, especially when it comes design for social ends.  They turn the everyday ability to solve a problem into a rarified practice, limited only to those who self-consciously follow a specialized methodology.  In fact, problem-solving is always messy and most solutions are shaped by political agendas and resource constraints. The solutions that win out are not necessarily the best — they are generally those that are favored by the powerful or at least by the majority. Both rational experimentation and design thinking provide cover for this political calculus. They make a process that is deeply informed by social and economic structures seem merely technical or aesthetic.

There has been long been a push to make problem-solving and design more open and democratic. Experiments with participatory policy design — from participatory budgeting to public consultations on policies ranging from zoning ordinances to bureaucratic reforms — have long trundled alongside more restrictive practices policy design. Likewise, designers and social innovators have sought feedback from the populations they target, and have even looked to harvest the creative ideas generated by users who have improved products by tinkering with them. However, even in these more open processes, the designer or policy maker ultimately decides which ideas and preferences are included in the solution.

One difference between design thinking and rational-experimental problem solving is that the former names and celebrates the ambiguity that is a precursor to any creative design solution. In some ways, that’s a good thing. However, it reaffirms the privileged role of the designer, positioning her as the vessel through which all the implicit understandings that make it into the final design must first pass. She is the instrument that transforms messy ambiguity into the clean lines of an elegant solution.  Because the input she brings into the design process can’t be articulated, she is to some extent liberated from the requirement to explain and defend the rationale for her design choices.

Moreover, because the designer herself generates the tacit understandings she uses by connecting empathetically with potential users — the “empathize” mode — whatever needs of product users and communities she perceives are refracted through her personal experience and priorities. As any ethnographer worth her salt will admit, this subjectivity is inevitable, and that is why disciplines that rely on empathetic engagement for data collection stress the importance of paying attention to the researcher’s identity and political positioning. The design thinking method does not stipulate rigorous attention to positionality, however. This omission signals that the designer, as creative visionary, is somehow suspended above the fray of bias, blind spots, and political pressure.

Preserving the Status Quo

The trouble with privileging the role of the designer, or even a small circle of designers, in this way is that it radically narrows the potential for innovation. The value of ambiguity stems from the array of meanings that bump up against each other when problem is still undetermined, and from the opportunities for new connections that those collisions evoke. Design thinkers celebrate these connections, especially those that span very different perspectives, disciplines, and categories of things, and view this kind of abductive reasoning as core to creativity.

When the designer acts as a gatekeeper for the meanings that are included in the design process, the potential for connections becomes limited not only to what the designer views as significant, but also to the relationships she can imagine. If the design space were flung open to meanings that users and communities view as significant, we would surely read fewer stories of design interventions gone wrong — such as whimsically designed water pumps that were abandoned to rust because they were unusable, innovative distribution systems for mosquito nets that prevent most people from accessing them, and the distortionary effect of shoes distributed to the poor as a marketing pitch to the rich, to name just a few.

The political dimensions of design thinking are problematic enough on their own, but the method is particularly ill-suited to problems in rapidly changing areas or with lots of uncertainty, since once a design is complete the space that the method  opens for ambiguity and new alternatives is shut down. Climate change is one such area. The natural environment is changing at an astonishing rate, in ways that are likely to be unprecedented in human history, and that we are unable to fully predict, with each new scientific discovery revealing that we have far underestimated the complexity of the systems that are at play and the shifts on the horizons may very well mean the end of our existence. Yet, design-thinking approaches, adopted with much fanfare to deal with the challenge, have offered formulaic and rigid solutions. Design thinking has allowed us to celebrate conventional solutions as breakthrough innovations and to continue with business as usual.

Unsuited to Uncertainty

After Hurricane Sandy caused more than $60 billions of damages in the New York region, the Obama administration launched the Rebuild by Design competition to generate new solutions for reconstruction that would rehabilitate devastated infrastructure and protect the region from the fierce storms that Hurricane Sandy and the best climate science presaged.  The competition billed itself as using “collaborative, design-driven problem-solving to help communities and cities build resilience,” a process that would allow urban areas to “overcome existing creative and regulatory barriers by cultivating collaboration between designers, researchers, community members, government officials and subject-matter experts.” True to form, the 10 teams of international designers selected to participate in the competition held numerous community consultations, where they gleaned information about what mattered most to residents in the recovery process. The design teams combined this feedback with data about the physical damage and the economic prospects of the region in several iterative cycles of design and produced half a dozen designs that were allocated funding for implementation.

The lion’s share of the almost $1 billion on offer in the competition was awarded to the Big U, a proposal for a ten-mile segmented wall, made of landscaped bridging berms and moveable gates, to protect the lower half of Manhattan and the very valuable real estate locate there. Now rebranded as the Dryline and projected to cost anywhere between $1 billion and $3 billion to complete, the wall would protect the city against the ravages of storm the size of Sandy, but likely not much larger. Current projections of storm-force sea-level rise suggest that the wall will guard against storm surges only through 2050, after which point the walls of the Dryline may turn into the sides of bathtub, holding floodwater inside the city.  In the short three intervening decades, valuable real estate will continue to be built behind the seeming protection of the wall, increasing the risks to the city when the barriers are inevitably breached.  The first phase of construction on the Dryline will be in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, alongside one of the last pockets of affordable housing on the island, and the worry is that as the manicured berm adds a new public park to the area, residents — many of whom participated in good faith in the repeated community consultations — will be displaced from their neighborhoods by a wave not of water but of gentrification.

In selecting the Big U/Dryline, Rebuild by Design affirmed the political, economic, and physical status-quo. The design thinking process yielded a wall, an ordinary if costly piece of infrastructure that will hold back the waters for a while and allow residents to pretend that the sea most projections believe will flood a substantial portion of Manhattan will remain in its basin. Behind the ramparts, the city will be able to hum along as usual, with the value of real estate continuing to rise, and with the poor and middle class continuing to face displacement from the expensive heart of Manhattan to the outer edges of New York.

A Radically Open Alternative

Happily, the Rebuild by Design process also produced a solution that might offer an alternative to design thinking as the premier vehicle for innovation. The Living Breakwaters proposal is to create a “necklace” of small islands along south shore of Staten Island, one of the areas that suffered the worst erosion effects of Superstorm Sandy. Breakwaters are generally piles of rubble, amassed to slow waves barreling to shore, but the proposal, which was awarded  comparatively modest seed funding, suggests using them to revive marine ecologies and to turn them into hosts for all kinds of life, including plant, animal, and human.  The breakwaters are constructed with concrete boxes that offer lodging for oysters, seals, fish, algae, and other marine species, and they provide a physical and symbolic platform for educational and economic engagement with the ecosystem. With its floating schools, the project prioritizes the needs of the next generation, and positions the breakwaters as part of an ecological heritage that the youngest can claim and fashion. The premise of the proposal is that the way to address climate change is not to barricade against it, but instead to embrace the change that it represents and to reimagine catastrophe as an opportunity to create a new ecological future.

Both the design process and the solution itself are radically open. Residents in the area continue to engage in the design process, not as providers of feedback to designers but as lay designers themselves. They help shape both the physical elements of the solution and the social and economic projects that they support. The water hubs, envisioned in the proposal as a land-based necklace of physical spaces that follows the arc of the breakwaters, are deliberately left undetermined in the design, inviting residents to define both their form and their function. The project is radically agnostic about the water hubs, and contemplates uses in the different centers as wide ranging as a business incubator, a lighthouse, a lab for the study of wildlife, a kayak depot, and a place of contemplation. Non-human life forms also assume an active role in the process by taking up residence in the breakwaters and remolding and expanding the physical “housing” components that the project provides them, and even attracting new species to the area, with the promise of abundant food and even perhaps balmier waters. By keeping the design process open, the Living Breakwaters project deliberately resists the closure that is so characteristic of completed design thinking solutions. The project entertains the possibility that the breakwaters will have to be reinvented as the seas around them rise. In much the same way that the project shelters the young, it protects nascent ideas by providing a protected space for the on-going and collaborative engagement with the ambiguity and uncertainly that climate change creates.

The aperture embodied in the Living Breakwaters project offers an alternative to the closure built into design thinking. It illustrates a design process where the designer is dethroned and where design is less a step-by-step march through a set of stages and more of a space where people can come together and interpret the ways that changing conditions challenge the meanings, patterns, and relationships that they had long taken for granted. That process of interpretation can be unpredictable, sometimes unwieldy in both form and in duration, impossible to chart, and often only visible in retrospect. But it is precisely this inchoate messiness that makes interpretation generative: the insights people stumble upon by accident or patch together on the fly not only provide the basis for innovative solutions. They also allow a complete re-imagination of what counts as a solution to begin with.

Elsewhere, I have called this approach ‘interpretive engagement,’ and have described it as a process of collaborative and wide-ranging interpretation, where participants revisit the understandings they have about themselves and others, as well as about the changing world they live in. It represents a commitment to a process with no clear beginning and end, with a goal that is often no more explicitly defined than imaging and articulating new ways to meet changes that are still murky and immeasurable.

Interpretive engagement is not without tension, and the politics that shape design choices are dredged out in the back-and-forth between participants and often forcefully challenged. But this kind of interpretive engagement offers the possibility for radical innovation, not merely because the solutions it surfaces are often highly creative, but also because the solutions tend to be open and receptive to incremental adjustment. This openness extends and shelters interpretive engagement, because it welcomes people affected by the solution into the ongoing interpretive design process and invites them to amend the solution to better meet their need at any given moment.

The open, continuously transformed and transformative solutions supported by interpretive engagement represent a break with traditional approaches to problem solving — whether the approach is rational-experimental or design thinking. They allow us to engage with change, instead of barricading ourselves against it.

For companies, social innovators, and political actors, the recommendation to embrace a messy, inclusive process of interpretative engagement, to say nothing of championing open solutions that sustain and encourage participatory creativity with their design, may seem unworkable or profligate. But, as New Yorkers may discover, perhaps sooner than expected, the barricades that neat design thinking steps produce are no match for changes that we cannot yet imagine or fully comprehend.

Summary – Design thinking is, at its core, a strategy to preserve and defend the status-quo – and an old strategy at that. Design thinking privileges the designer above the people she serves, and in doing so limits participation in the design process. In doing so, it limits the scope for truly innovative ideas, and makes it hard to solve challenges that are characterized by a high degree of uncertainty – like climate change — where doing things the way we always have done them is a sure recipe for disaster. The alternative is a design process where the designer is dethroned and where design is less a step-by-step march through a set of stages and more of a space where people can come together and interpret the ways that changing conditions challenge the meanings, patterns, and relationships that they had long taken for granted.