Post-pandemic product design is systems design

Product design has been systems design for a while, but the current crisis has made it obvious. Times of crisis call for more design, not less.

In Germany, there is an age-old misunderstanding that design is about tools like Photoshop and about pretty pictures. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we really witnessed over the last couple of decades is that design is about everything. We live in a world that is designed and redesigned all the time.

Times of crisis call for more design, not less. While engineers are desperate to fix what is broken, designers head back to the drawing board. They are redesigning our world for the era of an unprecedented pandemic. First and foremost, this needs to be a systemic endeavour: a systems design practice.

Of course, this is nothing new. The pandemic has only laid bare what was hidden in plain sight in almost every part of our world, and design is no exception. A crisis amplifies and accelerates trends that have been there before. The good thing is that design is part of the solution. Granted, it is part of the problem as well.

But there is no way back to a world before or without design. Romanticism and the ecological movement tend to dream of nature, as something opposed to culture (or civilisation), and as a good that needs to be preserved. In reality, not much is left of nature that is not influenced by humans, at least in the industrialised world.

While we clearly need to preserve what may remain of nature, it’s way more important to properly design our systems around principles like sustainability and resilience. Systems are regulated by the difference between system and environment. However, it would be an oversimplification to equate system with culture and environment with nature.

We’ve made little progress

We’ve seen this divide between nature and culture echoed in the dichotomy of natural science and social science. But, as Niklas Luhmann pointed out, every system problem is ultimately down to the difference between system and environment. He refers to

the particular characteristic of thermodynamically open systems, which relate to their environment via input and output, engage in exchange relationships, i.e. environmental dependency, and can nevertheless guarantee their autonomy through structural self-regulation.

Luhmann published this thought in 1985, and it is disturbing to see how little progress we’ve made in 35 years. Quite the contrary, the discourse today is even more moralised than it was back in the 70s and 80s. Instead of analysing systemic structures, we still get distracted with discussing environmental ethics.

Clear and cold analysis of systemic structures would be the first step to an overdue redesign. Viewed this way, a global pandemic has structural similarities with climate change. Both are changes in the environment of our social systems that need to be addressed. Both are interfering with social systems, requiring them to adapt.

And both are governed by exponential growth. Yet a major difference lies in the time scale: while the pandemic is moving astonishingly fast, climate changes quite slowly. In both cases we have, if we follow Luhmann, to develop more competence in intervention. But we have to practice it under criteria that include their own repercussions.

We need better product design

Simply put: we need better design and better engineering. We need to carefully design the input/output of our systems. For designers and developers of digital systems, this sounds familiar. For other systems, this might be something new. The industrial world used to design systems like factories which turn input into output, while minimising input and maximising output.

Social systems are more complex than factories. And digital products are social systems. Hence, we cannot model them like machines or factories. Luhmann describes the connection between system and environment as resonance. Systems can only have selective contact with their environment, since the environment is too complex.

By the way, it puzzles me that German sociologist Hartmut Rosa has built a whole theory on the term resonance, three decades after Luhmann. Ironically, critics accuse him of a retreat to the intellectual world of Romanticism – a subject we briefly touched above.

The pandemic has highlighted systemic issues like, for example, the current state of meat production. To some degree, we have been there before. In his book How to Fix the Future, Andrew Keen reminds us of the history of New York’s Meatpacking District:

In the mid-nineteenth century, many New York slaughterhouses operated outside the law, running filthy factories that produced unsafe meat and “employing” impoverished workers without providing any job security. It was bedlam. Half of every cow slaughtered was inedible, and much of this foul-smelling animal waste ended up in local rivers and lakes.

Redesigning our systems for a new normal

Things have been considerably worse in the past than they are now. It should be possible to redesign the meat industry. And indeed, some measures have been on the table even before the current crisis. The pandemic just may be the final push to reach the tipping point – if there is enough resonance.

With their interventions during the pandemic, many countries have proven that they can deal with an exponential threat. Wherever the pandemic is now contained, these interventions are refined and redesigned, to minimise damage and maximise benefits.

The resonance caused by the immediate threat was so overwhelming that extraordinary measures were possible. Now, we are slowly approaching a new equilibrium. Our world has been changed, and we are now redesigning our systems for a new normal. Even if the new normal is that there is no normality.

Digital technology with its fast iterations has both driven the end of business as usual and given us powerful tools to deal with it. Post-pandemic product design is systems design, in the broadest sense of the word. Product design has been systems design for a while, but now this has become obvious.

Photo by Edho Pratama on Unsplash