in Profiles | 01 MAY 11
Featured in
Issue 139

Whatever Works

How the US Army is adopting design methods normally reserved for the creative disciplines

in Profiles | 01 MAY 11

Scientists from RAND meeting to discuss post-nuclear strategy at the house of Albert Wohlstetter (centre foreground), 1958. Courtesy: Time & Life Pictures/ Getty Images. Photograph: Leonard McCombe. 

'Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like,’ Steve Jobs told The New York Times Magazine in November 2003. ‘That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.’ When Jobs decided to develop a portable media player less than a year before he launched the iPod in October of 2001, his key ambition was hardly to produce another cool Apple product with an incredible user interface (although it did have a high coolness factor and amazing interface), but rather to design a system for connectivity that promised to fundamentally shift the music industry in his favour. Seen in this light, the iPod is a relatively minor player in the Apple-designed system. Another player in the same system, the more recent iPad (launched in 2010) affords Apple a substantial stake in the publishing industry (it is almost incidental that the iPhone happens to make phone calls). Connectivity is to Jobs’ iPod, iPhone and iPad what the electric grid was to Thomas Edison’s light bulb. Edison and Jobs are systems thinkers.

‘Systems thinking’ emerged in the 1950s when scientists feared that the explosion of knowledge and an increasing emphasis on excessive specialization would prevent them from sharing ideas across disciplines. Early adopters of systems thinking, like the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, sought to establish a general set of laws or principles that would apply to analogous structures occurring across various disciplines, thus keeping the door open for cross-pollination. It gained traction in the art world with Jack Burnham’s essay, ‘Systems Esthetics’, first published in the September 1968 issue of Artforum, in which he wrote: ‘In the past our technologically conceived artifacts structured living patterns. We are now in transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture. Here change emanates, not from things, but from the way things are done.’

Burnham’s prescience is mind-boggling, but at the time he used systems thinking to reveal analogies underlying the work of Carl Andre, Hans Haacke, Les Levine, Robert Smithson and others. His article is every bit as relevant today to artists like Tomas Saraceno and Olafur Eliasson. More recently, systems thinking has become nearly ubiquitous in the design world, instrumentalized as a method called ‘design thinking’, an iterative approach to the design process. This method originated at the innovation firm ideo, which helps organizations change their culture by using design thinking to change the internal systems that nurture creativity, from healthcare to brand development and social innovation. In effect, they create change through the way things are done. As Tim Brown, the ceo and president of ideo explained in June 2008 in Harvard Business Review: ‘As more of our basic needs are met, we increasingly expect sophisticated experiences that are emotionally satisfying and meaningful. These experiences will not be simple products. They will be complex combinations of products, services, spaces, and information. They will be the ways we get educated, the ways we are entertained, the ways we stay healthy, the ways we share and communicate. Design thinking is a tool for imagining these experiences as well as giving them a desirable form.’ Brown’s statement closely mirrors Jobs’ assertion that ‘design is how it works’.

Design thinking has become pervasive because it consistently sparks iterative innovations in multiple directions across systems – the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad is an obvious example. It has also proven to be a highly adaptive method effective in the arts and sciences. In three recent studios I led at the Experience Design Group in Stockholm, design thinking was the core research method for collaborations carried out with partners as diverse as palliative care centres in Sweden (designing end-of-life experiences for patients, their families and palliative care staff), the New York City Opera (the future experience of opera), and Karolinska Institutet’s Center for Molecular Medicine in Stockholm (designing hybrid research methods scientists and designers could share to combat problems).

E.S. Quade, an early innovator who developed systems thinking for military planners while working at the rand Corporation, foresaw the creative potential of the systems approach. In his Methods and Procedures in Analysis for Military Decisions (1964), he wrote: ‘Systems analysis, particularly the type required for military decisions, is still largely a form of art. Art can be taught in part, but not by the means of fixed rules.’ Quade’s analogy to art foreshadowed the way design thinking would eventually be adapted from systems thinking to design. At rand, in the early 1960s, collaboration across departments was not only encouraged but rewarded. There are no lone geniuses in design thinking; what happens is what Ronald Burt, a sociologist who did much of his research at rand, calls ‘an economy of borrowed ideas’. In his 2004 article in the American Journal of Sociology entitled ‘Structural Holes and Good Ideas’, Burt wrote: ‘The usual image of creativity is that it’s some sort of genetic gift, some heroic act. But creativity is an import-export game. It’s not a creation game.’ He continued, ‘Can you get an idea which is mundane and well known in one place to another place where people would get value out of it?’ According to Burt, social interaction and cross-disciplinary thinking benefits the distribution of knowledge: ‘People who live in the intersection of social worlds are at higher risk of having good ideas.’

Retired Colonel Stefan J. Banach of the United States Army, who was the Director of the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, is the sort of person at risk of having good ideas. Beginning in 2008, Banach, a combat veteran, along with a few other senior officers, began a campaign, conducted through scholarly articles written for Military Review, to initiate an overhaul of the Army’s Field Manual 5-0: Army Planning and Orders Production (or FM5-0). The manual serves as a guide for all Army commanders in planning, preparing, executing and assessing both offensive and defensive operations. Banach’s revised manual, titled Art of Design, explicitly uses design thinking to drive the core of the Army’s planning and battle doctrine. The second chapter, titled ‘Design Thinking’, discusses how the method might be enlisted in planning and fighting an asymetrical war in an ‘era of persisitent conflict’.

By March 2010 the new version was operational. The 337-page manual describes design as ‘a methodology for applying critical and creative thinking to understand, visualize and describe complex, ill-structured problems and develop approaches to solve them’, which is as relevant a definition of design I’ve read. While this new approach towards creating an army more ‘efficient by design’, particularly with regards to engaging in war, raises obvious ethical and moral debates, nevertheless the Army leadership has begun to see their battlefield commanders as ‘designers’. In a Military Review article titled ‘The Art of Design; A Design Methodology’, published a year before FM5-0, Banach accurately contrasted the role of the scientist with the role of the designer to suggest that battlefield commanders must be able to act with the agility of designers in order to succeed at the US Army’s core business: winning wars. ‘Design’, Banach wrote, ‘is focused on solving problems, and as such requires intervention, not just understanding. Whereas scientists describe how the world is, designers suggest how it might be. It follows that design is a central activity for the military profession whenever it allocates resources to solve problems, which is to say design is always a core component of operations.’ Within these ‘operations’ the Army includes everything from armed conflict to building community relationships.

Banach characterizes the process of design thinking with unexpected insight. The US Army’s adoption of methods normally reserved for the creative disciplines might be considered paradoxical, but is it unethical? These methods, used today on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, serve as a deep lesson in the geniune effectiveness of interdisciplinarity. As Banach writes: ‘In practice, design progress is neither smooth nor orderly, it is iterative and recursive as problems and solutions emerge, new experiments are conducted, consequences are evaluated, obstacles are overcome, and old problems are reframed […] all of the design effort to explicitly frame the environment, problem, and solution is performed to enable the ability to reframe – to shift perspectives and reset the problem as circumstances change […] the near future promises even greater change, as the design community of practice expands and design is codified into U.S. Army doctrine.’ However ideologically loaded, Banach trades innovatively in Burt’s economy of borrowed ideas.

Refitting design thinking to US Army doctrine, Banach employs hybrid thinking to exploit the full spectrum of innovation, imagination and entrepreneurship in a way that is as rare in the creative disciplines today as it is common within the military. Increasingly efficient war-making carries with it moral dilemmas and obvious dangers, but it is also true that Banach is a systems thinker at the forefront of design thinking; his sophisticated and cross-disciplinary application of a post-critical perspective to wicked problems – war and peacekeeping – is of a rank with Burnham, but few others within the creative disciplines. Why? Because so few possess his deep understanding that change emanates not from things, but from the way things are done. It remains to be asked: what for?