Breaking Down the World's Biggest Problems with Empathetic Design

The concept behind human-centered design is intuitive but often overlooked. It is the reasoning that when approaching a project, one should begin with the wicked problem, and not—as is so easy to do—the brilliant solution. Allison Arieff wrote a concise and thought-provoking op-ed last summer for the NY Times that addressed this issue. Arieff notes that the far-reaching power of ‘hack’ culture has deluded us into believing that any innovation is good innovation, and that through incessant remodeling, we are somehow (abstractly) making the world a better place.

This semester I’m taking a course that has exposed me not only to innovation, but to innovation performed thoughtfully and empathetically. The class, aptly named “Collaborative Innovation,” utilizes the lenses of art practice, theater and dance, and business to examine how we can reframe our solutions in recognition of the problems that most need fixing.

Last Tuesday, our work over the past 8 weeks converged on a deceivingly simple assignment: give a one-minute pitch to the class on a “wicked problem” you’d like to work to help solve over the remainder of the semester. A wicked problem is one that is inherently complex, perhaps even contradictory, and certainly fluid. The “wicked” nature of it stems from the difficulty in coming up with a simple solution to the problem at hand. That day of class played out in rapid-fire mode, fifteen seconds per slide, four slides per person (one displaying the presenter’s name), zero time in between presentations, sixty-three presentations total.

You learn a lot about a person from hearing what they’ve done and what they know how to do. You learn a lot more from hearing what they’d like to do, what they are passionate about, what big problem(s) they’d like to take on and tackle. My classmates provided a plethora of options and insight with their wicked problems: they wanted to tackle inequality when it comes to food, education, gender stereotypes, healthcare; they wanted to harness the powers of social media and click-bait to make an impact; they wanted to revolutionize travel and foster creative spaces and teach kids the common-sense life skills they don’t learn in school.

There were some projects that I was immediately drawn to, others I wasn’t. That’s not to say that any presentation was bad or that the problem proposed wasn’t important enough to warrant addressing. On the contrary, the day as a whole made me think long and hard, particularly about that article by Allison Arieff. Arieff derides the Silicon Valley mentality by shooting off a list of recent inventions that, far from world-changing, seem to be mostly aimed at coddling the laziness of an increasingly privileged, sheltered class of people. The list is a compilation of real proposals by supposedly intelligent, educated, in-the-know people. My class, made up of UC Berkeley undergrad students, knocked those proposals off the shelf.

It can be understandably daunting to begin work with a huge, complex problem. When put in that position, it might feel like you have to tackle the problem all on your own, and any intelligent, educated, in-the-know person would tell you that is an errand for fools. But what if we changed the narrative, trading in flashy proposals for realistic, impactful goals to do our small part toward inciting change? What if instead of remodeling an old design that worked, we reframed the world’s biggest problems to fit our niche of expertise?

Take the project my group is working on as an example. We began with the goal of teaching kids common sense life skills. But we don’t have access to all kids, and we don’t have access to all skills. So, we’ve niched our project: we want to address UC Berkeley students, probably in their first or second year; we want to teach them basic home management, financial planning and navigation of the working world, healthy lifestyle and wellness; we want to reach them possibly through a decal class. Our project isn’t going to change the whole world, no. But it might change our little sector of it.

Another group is tackling an even broader, more complex issue: education inequality. That group voiced concern to the class that they don’t have the authority or expertise to propose viable solutions. My classmates suggested that they step back and realize that they’re not going to solve that gigantic issue all in one go. But in the eight weeks they have, they could raise awareness. They could get people to look around at the towns, cities, communities that surround them where perhaps there are radically different schooling practices and education levels. They could do their small part in closing the gap.

In today’s world especially, where there is access to a plethora of information, it’s easy to be seduced by the promise of changing the world. We just need to make sure we’re changing it in the right way, implementing some thought and care into that headstrong drive. In a classroom of just sixty-three students, I caught a glimpse of how we might take the world’s biggest problems and go about addressing them piece by piece. I’m confident that it’s possible to do, if only we are willing to sacrifice a bit of the romance of the venture. If only those who are intelligent, are educated, are in-the-know, are also willing to roll up their sleeves and do a little more work for a little less glory.

Opinion, OtherNicola Phillips