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Public Design and Facilitation

The Why

In some ways, this is the obvious career direction my work as a facilitator has been leading me over the last four years, without even trying; I have already been hired many times to work as a design thinker on local or policy issues that really excite me. But in many ways I haven’t realized or named it until now. So let’s name it:

I love design. I love facilitating the design process. And I’m good at it. And, importantly, this is the kind of career and work that could allow me to work very directly on the kinds of complex, social issues I care about through clever, human-centered design. It has many of the same appeals to me that filmmaking has; it gives me an excuse to learn a lot about both complex systems and the lives of many very different real people, but it is project-based and so would allow me to learn about many different kinds of systems and people over time, and it relies on strong facilitation skills and lots of creativity.

So, perhaps I’ll be a filmmaker one day, or remain primarily a grassroots educator or political activist… but, perhaps, I’m realizing, maybe one day I’ll call myself a designer or design facilitator one day, or even a design thinking educator.

What Design Is (and Isn’t) to Me

As soon as I started researching more formal projects, work, and learning opportunities around design, I immediately learned just how widely and diversely this term is used. Design can meean fashion design, landscape design, product design, policy design, urban planning, curriculum design, web designer, and many other things.

It feels like “design” has become a catch-all trem for people doing work to create something new that didn’t exist before. That part really resonates to the very core of me: the part that hungers to create and show people other ways the world around us, and communities, might look and work.

But I want to go ahead and name the specific fields of design that I feel drawn to–and roles as a designer I feel drawn to–and the ones I don’t.

I don’t see myself becoming a product designer, fashion designer, architect, or urban planner. I don’t see myself working at Johnson & Johnson’s Innovation Lab, nor do I picture myself designing better solar pumps for African farmers or designing a game changing app to revolutionize voter engagement in India.

I don’t really desire to make (product) stuff, no matter how cool or socially revolutionary, or becoming a cog in the  larger urban planning / architecture / real estate mess that decides how the fabric of our cities look. Nor do I desire to become part of the fashion or high art complex.

What I do want to do a lot more of, and to learn to do much better is to facilitate the design process with normal folks who want to understand and change the world around them for the better, in ways that don’t require new policy or big budgets.

This kind of work is best exemplified by the work of organizations like the City Repair and the Center for Urban Pedagogy; or by great facilitators who are working hospitals or schools to help teams collectively redesign their own environments and systems in ways that work better for them; or by government innovation labs, to engage marginalized citizens in designing policies or budgets that work for their community.

The How

This one is a slow-growth learning goal that will start small this Fall (2016) with a single podcast, grow with seeking out more opportunities for mentoring / facilitating again next Spring (2017), and perhaps setting myself up for some bigger moves later, if it still feels right a year or two hence.

Where is this Heading?

One possibility is that it could lead toward a lot more mentoring in another phase of my life with local citizen design squads in the community, probably as part of other schools or learning programs, e.g. Youth Impact Hub, DFA, Project Breaker, etc. And that could quite easily be all this inquiry is ever meant to lead toward.

But, I am starting to realize; this could also be leading me toward a totally new and exciting career path that a few years ago I hadn’t really imagined for myself, but now I can. There are two different versions of that which I have imagined:

A New Dream: Working for a Public Innovation Lab or Major Policy Initiative

A dream that has emerged lately is that I would love to one day join the implementation team of a major policy roll-out as a designer, facilitator, or adviser, such as for the roll-out of a Universal Basic Income, sweeping gun reform, or climate change legislation. Or, I could see myself one day joining one of the growing number of government design or innovation lab, e.g.

Or, maybe even one day helping start a new one, one day, e.g. for City of Richmond, CA?

An Old Dream: Teaching Designers

But an old dream, which was actually the original inspiration that eventually led me to particular inquiry, has more to do with one day being a teacher of the design process to others, but actually developing a new, much deeper approach to how we do this that what design thinking training currently looks like.

This is the extension of a dream that has been brewing in me for a long time, to maybe one day create a 2-3 year, immersive curriculum for a new kind grad school in systems design at the same level of rigor and prestige as medical school or law school, but for designers and facilitator working with complex systems and policy.

As long as I have had this dream, though, I have had a problem with it; I have always had difficulty imagining for whom, exactly, I would be designing this curriculum? (which is actually very backwards thinker as a designer anyway.) Does anyone else want or need this to exist?

I finally began to realize; maybe this is just something I just really want to exist for myself. That reflection is what led to this new learning goal; it finally occurred to me that behind this dream was a really deep desire to be able to work on bigger design projects that affect the underlying rules, institutions, and policies that shape our lives, like designers and design thinking facilitators for social / public good get to do, and often in government innovation or design labs, or just in informal groups of citizens coming together to do participatory action research.

That led me to some important realizations:

  • There are some training and educational programs designed for people who want to do this (e.g. the Design for Social Innovation program at the School for the Visual Arts)
  • And then, perhaps, if I would like to work in this field one day, I should think about just going to one of these, anyway!
  • And yet, I do still think, from the outside, that we could do a lot better in what these programs offer in terms of immersive education on systems (by looking through their curriculum from afar).

So, I think the world will need many more people with this skillset as design thinking spreads from the private to the public and social sector, and maybe my real dream is just to get to be one of these people one day for my career. But, I also still imagine perhaps one day getting to help design a really amazing, totally next generation way to prepare (educate, train, whatever…) people for this job.

Either way, by putting myself through the best graduate-level design education I can find for social thinking for social good, I would set myself up to be someone who could do the job myself (my new dream above), or become a teacher / design educator, to design better ways to train others for the job (or both!).

If so, I could see this inquiry possibly leading me to applying to design school (gasp!) some time over the next 2-3 years, such as:

The Who

Patron Saints

Left to Right: Jane JacobsBuckminster FullerBill Millison, Maria Montessori.

Learning Crushes

Left to Right: Edgard Gouveia JúniorChristine CorderoChristine GasparUffe Elbæk, Majora CarterRoman MarsJuliette LaMontagne, Candy Chang, Mark Lakeman, Christopher Alexander 

Learning Buddies

Left to right: Axle Brown, Kate MyttyIvan Cestero, Joe Burgum, Ben Riddle, Aden von NoppenIngrid Helsingen Warner.

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