What is Design?

The dictum for which Einstein is famously quoted,”You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war,” bears a pointed similarity to the way we are presently enmeshed in a no man’s between an unknown future and well-trodden past. That is, we are generally accepting of the fact that our world has changed from its industrial-model platform; yet we continue to plan, design, build, educate and think as if it has not. The comparison to war and peace is inexact but illuminating. The idea that one will get us the other is a fantasy lived and re-lived throughout the ages. By the same token, new systems for human viability will not emerge from continued industrial machine age thinking.

There is a chasm, therefore, between the way we built our industrial age society and the manner in which we will navigate a post-industrial future. They bare so little resemblance that we have a hard time imagining that future, letting go of some of the major characteristics of the past to grab hold of… what? We’re not sure. And reaching for something we’re not sure of makes little sense to us. We have spent no small amount of energy greatly trying to eliminate uncertainty in many aspects of life. But this situation requires us to orient ourselves in this chasm of great uncertainty – a feat which points to our greatest weakness.

The even greater conundrum, it seems, is that it is up to us to change our own thinking and ways of learning about the world going forward. Instead of honing in on small problems, reductive elimination of unwanted elements and specialization, there is a need to zoom out to a point where can ask very broad questions, like, what is design?

The systems scholar Bela H. Banathy wrote extensively on this subject of societal transformation, asking some great questions and positing some rather intuitive points about changing the ways we live.. The following is from his research paper, We Enter the Twentieth Century with Schooling Designed in the Nineteenth. (Copyright 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.)

The design of social systems, such as education, is a future-creating human activity. People in these systems engage in design in order to create and implement systems, based on their vision of what those systems should be. Or, they may redesign their existing system in order to realize their changing expectations and aspirations and the expectations of their environment. Competence in design enables us to create systems that enrich the quality of our lives and add value to the systems in which we live and work.

In general, people in our educational systems are not yet aware of the potential and power of systems design. Education in design and expertise in design are limited to a few technical professions. But when it comes to the design of systems in which we live and work, we are the experts. When it comes to designing educational systems, the right and responsibility to design are shared by those who serve the system, who are served by the system and who are affected by it. It is such collective involvement in design that makes a system authentic and sustainable. Furthermore, each and every community is unique. It becomes the task of each and every community to design its own unique educational system. Nobody has the right to design educational systems – or any social system – for someone else. The age of social engineering by outside experts is over. We have arrived at the age of ‘user-designers’ people designing their own systems. That is what true empowerment is about. But empowerment cannot be given; it has to be learned.

A precondition of engaging in educational design is the development of competence among ‘user-designers’ that enables them to design their own system. Only the attainment of design competence makes empowerment a reality. Without it, empowerment is just an empty word, nothing more than political rhetoric. Thus we have to create opportunities and programs for design learning, for the development of design competence. People empowered by such learning will become competent individually to design their own lives and, collectively, to design the systems in which they live and work, design their communities and design their systems of living and human development.

Emphasis mine.