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On Wicked Problems

4 min

We are living in an infinitely complex and rapidly accelerating world. Ray Kurzweil beautifully describes this phenomenon as such — Advanced societies can progress at a faster rate than less advanced societies because they're more advanced. Hardware, software, systems and structures are all evolving rapidly. To aid this evolution, even our professional roles are becoming more hybrid and diffused than ever before. Gone are the days when we could neatly define our roles and responsibilities on an org chart. We have become more T-shaped, X-shaped or even Y-shaped in terms of the roles we take and the activities we choose to do.

Especially for designers, this has been quite a challenging transition. Traditionally, designers had to be equipped with the ability to create nice drawings, 3D renders and also research and understand users more effectively. However, I have realised that a designer's role doesn't stop here. Especially for the social sector, we are expected to grapple with the complexity of multiple stakeholders, bureaucracy, red tape, social stigmas and other such inertias. Wicked problems are now requiring wicked roles that can navigate such muddy waters.

Although society has snowballed at such a fast pace, the rate of acceleration of progress has been different for different sectors. The social sector has especially been the most badly hit amongst all such sectors. While we were busy launching spaceships to the moon, we still didn't have trolley wheels for bags. That’s how lopsided progress has been. Even now, while we are talking about landing on Mars, almost a billion of our world population do not have access to clean drinking water. One of the main reasons why development in the social sector has been lopsided is owing to the underlying requirement for a mindset shift. Designing for social change is indeed complex work.

For instance, a push towards healthy, positive behaviour might require careful coordination across multiple individuals, organisations and even governments. And perhaps that's one of the major reasons why it's so difficult to orchestrate. Feynman, the great physicist, once said, "Imagine how much harder physics would be if electrons had feelings". We are facing a similar conundrum in terms of designing for social systems. Navigating this landscape might require us to wear multiple thinking hats. Right from the lens of design, technology and management, we are also required to utilise the lens of people, process and product.

Another key reason why we see these issues especially in the social sector is the absence of 'product-mode' of execution. We are still stuck in the project-mode of thinking struggling with lengthy end-to-end cycles. The social space has to slowly shift to product-mode which the tech industry has gracefully embraced decades ago with open hands. The product mode through an emphasis on metrics and delivering benefits over merely monitoring  'scope' could potentially be a gamechanger in the development sector. We need more iterative loops over waterfalls. We need to focus more on 'working products' over extensive documentation. We need more focus on outcomes rather than activities.

Previously, as a co-founder of two social-tech startups, I had witnessed this distinction quite vividly. Through my journey as a co-founder of a healthcare startup, I had applied the product-mode of thinking in the public healthcare space while scaling the product across 8+ major hospitals in India, impacting 1000+ healthcare workers every day in this process. This allowed me to get a systemic overview of the challenge, navigating multiple stakeholders ranging from hospital admins, infection control nurses, project managers as well as patients. Similarly, even with the previous non-profit I had founded for children from marginalized communities, I have witnessed the requirement of careful coordination across NGOs, governments, fundraisers, policymakers as well as marginalised communities. The product-mode through design enabled me to look beyond the act of building products but to also navigate the complexities.

That design was not just about the doing. It was also about thinking as well.

These experiences bring my focus back to the public health system where I want to direct my next decade of work and effort towards. As the public health system slowly transitions from patient illness treatments to more preventive ways of providing care, it becomes even more important to rope in the project-mode approach. Providing self-health care has become even more important for those who need it the most. The elderly, the differently-abled, the marginalised, the vulnerable. As a Product Manager consulting for Noora Health, I've been working towards building better hospital education platforms in Bangladesh, allowing family members from marginalized communities to take care of their loved ones better.

On reflection, designing products and services for the social sector that ARE ethical, ARE equitable and ARE impactful is easier said than done.

We face an inherent asymmetry of power while dealing with social structures. On one side of this power law, you have the law enforcement officials, the doctors, the employees, the teachers, the funders and even the landlords who yield a lot of power on their shoulders, getting to pick, choose and decide. On the other side, you have the detainers, the patients, the employees, the students, the renters and even the front line staff who might have no say in the decision-making process.

Designing for social impact would require designing for the vulnerable at the receiving end of such lopsided power laws.

Over the past five years, I have extensively worked in designing products for various sensitive groups such as deaf-blind runners, Alzheimer’s patients, healthcare workers, pregnant mothers as well as marginalized children. And to work for such vulnerable groups, I've realised that design has to go beyond prototyping with hot-melt glue guns, spray paints or Figma wireframes and be better equipped with even drafting B-plans, designing pitch decks or even mapping customer-journey maps as and when required.

As designers, we need to be equipped with creative confidence and strategic foresight to do whatever it takes to make social change possible.

It's necessary to tackle wicked problems in a wicked manner in this wicked world. After all, reality is much more fuzzy, complex and circuitous than we can ever imagine.


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