Last year, a now famous book on the financial crisis was published under the title “This time is different.”
Its main thesis is this: never believe anyone who tries to tell you that anything is really new and different. Technology changes, but the human condition remains the same.
So let’s turn to history, or more accurately, to classical literature.
The founding book of Western European culture, Homer’s Iliad, opens with design thinking and social innovation as it existed in the Mediterranean world 3,000 years ago.
The great epic poem starts with the Greek warriors bluntly telling their supreme leader, King Agamemnon, how to co-create the solution to their public health problems let loose by the god Apollo, angered over Agamemnon’s poor leadership and directive decision-making.
They decided to work out loud, and so called upon the king to categorically eradicate hazards, not just manage risks.
At that point the great warrior/facilitator and mentor Achilles, who had clearly done an advanced course in Athens or Sparta on co-design of public policy, sought to foster collaboration between “bottom-up” and “top-down” innovators in the Greek forces. And so he called his soldiers together in a social innovation camp.
He instructed them to scale up, then empathize with, and, finally, solve a very practical problem that they faced camped outside the walls of Troy, namely this: How to get over the walls of the besieged city. And could the wrath of the gods be assuaged by sacrificing many of their remaining lambs and goats, or would the Greek army simply loose half its food supplies?
Homer, being ahead of his time, continues to expound on design thinking. He explains how the ancient Greeks identify and disentangle the problems of besieging Troy, recognizing a web of factors and direct and prima facie indirect causal relationships, rather than moving straight to specifications.
Let me quote from a famous translation:
Then Calchas, son of Thestor, wisest of augurs, who knew things past present and yet to come, rose to speak. With all sincerity and goodwill he addressed the Design Lab thus:
“Achilles, beloved of heaven, you bid me tell you about the anger of Apollo. I will therefore do so; but consider first and swear that you will stand by me heartily in word and deed. For I know that I shall offend one who rules with might, to whom all the Greeks are in subjection. An ordinary man cannot stand against the anger of a king, who if he swallow his displeasure now, will yet nurse revenge till he has achieved it. Consider, therefore, whether or not you will protect me.”
And Achilles answered, “Fear not, but speak the truth as it is borne in upon you from heaven, [...].”
With these words he sat down, and Agamemnon rose in anger. His heart was black with rage, and his eyes flashed fire as he scowled on Calchas and said, “Seer of evil, you never yet prophesied smooth things concerning me, but have ever loved to foretell that which was evil.
That’s sounds very much like a consultant’s report, albeit not from any one of the eight innovation camps we have sponsored over recent months across the region.
But the Greeks camped besieging Troy were displaying design thinking in action, while concerned for its boundaries.
For what bigger co-creation of the solution to a public service problem could there be than stopping the Olympian gods spreading disease? Surely inventing the Trojan Horse was the world’s most famous episode of the techniques of prototyping, experimenting and testing that we will be hearing more about over the next few days.
Let me turn from the ancient to the developing world.
In Botswana for centuries, the Tswana people have met in traditional village assemblies in which all people – men and women, young and old – have always been entitled to talk freely. The aim is collective problem solving. The kgotla, the assembly, allows tribal leaders to play a vital role in the development while giving a platform to individuals to solve problems.
So asking people, debating and examining problems together is not new. What is, then, the innovation, what is really different about design thinking and social innovation?
How do new methodologies get us beyond where King Agamemnon and colleagues were 3,000 years ago – or help Botswana advance beyond the existing methodology they have evolved for themselves?
To answer those points decisively, let me say I think we need to have concrete answers to the following three questions:
- How will developing countries with very different levels of need and capability, benefit from greater knowledge of the processes and methodologies of design thinking and social innovation? In other words, what practical results can we offer?
- Where does political ideology fit in, or is this merely yet another technocratic exercise? In other words, how legitimate is the process? How relevant or different are these methodologies in countries with very different conceptualization of the nature of the state and of state-citizen relations?
- And third, what are the knowledge and evidence gaps? What more research is needed? How do we really prove that these approaches really make any difference? How are we going to come up with some innovative answers to these challenges?
This post was taken from a speech at the opening of the Consultation on the Co-Design of Public Policy and Services (part of the Public Service Innovation Lab) on 1 December, 2013.