This article has also been published in Mandag Morgen
Former American Secretary of State and peace mediator Henry Kissinger is an active man. At the age of 91, he has just published his latest work, World Order, a comprehensive mapping of the world’s problems and challenges. I have not yet read the book, but according to The Economist, it amounts to a fairly depressing experience: there is war, conflict and instability wherever you look in the world, and no prospect of things tentatively improving. All the more surprising is that Kissinger uses 400 of the book’s pages analysing all the problems and only about four pages of suggestions and recommendations. Obviously there is not much of substance to get hold of here.
In the same issue of The Economist you can read about a pretty much equally depressing book, namely the prestigious Financial Times journalist Martin Wolf’s analysis The Shifts and the Shocks, on the financial crisis and its causes. This is another massive tome, which admittedly allocates a bit more space to recommendations. The reviewer nonetheless notes that the proposals would have benefited from significantly more detail.
We’ve gone analysis-crazy
The two book reviews prompted me to think about how we live in a time and a culture that have, in a sense, run amok with analyses. We spend incredible amounts of resources conducting investigations, collecting data and disseminating analysis results. This applies to public institutions, such as those I deal with on a daily basis, but also to private businesses and not least the media that willingly disseminate “brand new” figures and results at an ever-increasing pace. And it applies to our university researchers, many of whom them see themselves exclusively as knowledge-producers. It is up to other stakeholders to put their research into play in practice, if they discover that it exists.
Even insightful writers such as Messrs. Kissinger and Wolf – when they analyse such crucial issues as our military and financial world order – choose to expend a very great preponderance of their intellectual energy on analysis and its dissemination.
It often seems as if the analysis itself is the goal. Over the years I have met quite a few officials who gladly spend a year on an analysis project and preparing a comprehensive report, after which they will be completely convinced that they now have a final “result” in their hands, and then move on to the next analysis.
The same trend applies to the infatuation we currently see in many private enterprises with big data. Many managers are preoccupied with the large amounts of data available via new sources such as social media, and are curious about how they are collected and analysed; a lot fewer are concerned with how the insights on gathers are then translated into specific actions and value for your customers and your organisation.
I believe there are at least three reasons for our insatiable appetite for analysis. First, employees in both the public and private sectors increasingly are highly educated and schooled in traditional university environments, where the ability to acquire an extensive material and analyze it – i.e., to separate its elements, break it down to its components and different types of knowledge and data in certain ways – is in focus, and is rewarded. Second, analytical work is relatively harmless for the organisations in which it is implemented. It is not a matter of deciding to do something, it is simply a matter of becoming smarter – and fortunately, dangerous analyses can always be shelved or neglected. Third, analyses have become easier to carry out. Anyone can manage to retrieve data or conduct surveys and get the results summarised with the help of various digital tools. It quickly becomes a lot more difficult to come up with thoughtful, effective and convincing solutions for what we should do about the problems that are revealed.
The problem is just that we thus keep thousands of people busy making themselves (and sometimes others) smarter and not much else. Faced with the many analyses one generally feels like asking: “So what?”
Creating a better future
I myself come from an analytical background and cannot say I am immune to going through large amounts of information in order to create order and clarity. But at the same time, I am absolutely fascinated by design and design processes as a second and more forward-looking way to relate to the world. Most designers I know are more concerned with finding possible solutions to problems than to chew through them from end to end. In fact, many designers take a fundamentally different approach when they need to understand the world and its problems: instead of collecting data sets, they quickly put unfinished solutions – prototypes – into play in a specific context in order to be able to see the reactions of customers, users, stakeholders and decision-makers.
Designers’ proposals are often quite specific, for example, in the form of graphic sketches or physical models; thereby they gain insight into something that is often only uncovered at low levels of traditional analyses. They gain insight into the experiences and opinion formation that a given solution will potentially trigger and how it will affect human and organisational behaviour. Thus, they systematically explore the possible futures and apply what they learn from prototypes to improve ideas, concepts and solutions. Design researcher Joachim Necks calls the process evocative visualization in Design for Policy, a new book I have edited. So the ability to make abstract, strategic concepts – such as we find in the world of politics and in business – so concrete that we can experience them and engage with them. In the book he illustrates this with complex energy and waste systems that are made more sustainable and efficient through the use of visual dialogue tools in workshops with all the stakeholders in the field. A central notion in this context is that new proposed solutions can thus be created together with those who can help to make a reality.
A new balance
It would be interesting to see how Henry Kissinger’s book about our world order would have ended had he spent half of his time and energy trying out potential policy ideas in practice. He could indeed draw on the vast network of current and former decision-makers he still has by virtue of his role as former statesman as well as via his active work as an adviser and consultant.
By the same token, it might have been interesting for Martin Wolf to have engaged the financial sector pressure in a thorough pressure test of his radical new ideas about management reform for our financial institutions.
Of course, it is not that the ability to understand and analyse problems is not important. In fact, many designers themselves say that the way a problem is represented often contains the seeds of its solution. I just fear that today the production of knowledge has to a great extent become a goal in itself. The objective – in the short or long term – must be to improve our world. It is a much-needed activity – a design activity – to which we all can give higher priority than we do today.