Introduction

A few months ago I shared the proposal for a talk titled Design Thinking for the End of the World that was fortunately accepted by the Colorado Emergency Conference. The short description from the conference materials is provided below.

This presentation brings together storytelling, design thinking, and complexity as it discusses approaching the difficult challenges facing Colorado’s emergency management community. Focused on problem framing, storytelling is explored as a key step in engaging with complex issues while the audience is invited to think about the stories they are currently telling about problems and consider how they might begin to craft different ones.

Just before stepping up to the podium moderator Ashlee Delventhal asked if I would be shedding some light on what I meant by the "End of the World" as it seemed ominous. The truth of the matter is that I am not great at naming presentations. On the other hand, I wanted to in some way capture the feel of the present emergency management landscape scattered with big problems, dynamic change, growing severity, and unexpected events. Albeit dramatic, I wanted to convey a sense of urgency grounded in what I hoped would be a shared feeling for novel problem-solving methods.

As is often the case, the talk evolved over the months between the proposal being accepted and the day of the talk. Central to this evolution was the grounding of the discussion of complex problems in the shared issue of disaster losses presented as a complex system through the work of Dennis Mileti. From here, design thinking as a process was introduced as a potential avenue for coping with the complexity of the problem of disaster losses throughout the problem-solving process. Taking a step backward, design thinking was then presented as sense-making tool that might be used to better inform the conventional, popularized design thinking process. Storytelling was then introduced as a key element of design thinking as sense-making tool by focusing on a few of the stories we tell when we design in the context of problem-solving: Stories about the problem that define and frame it, stories about the solution state that provide the design process with intention, and stories about the thing that we will create or the way we will act to transform the problem state into the solution one.

The talk concluded by suggesting that if we are to confront the complexity of the problems that appear as if they are threatening the end of the world we need to learn to tell certain kinds of stories that then underlie our design work. Emphasized was the need to tell stories about the change we want to make/can feasibly make today that are coherent with the stories we tell about the change we want to see in the distant future over the "long game." Noted was the fact that the complex problem of disaster losses and other adjacent problems will take longer to address (solve is perhaps too strong a word) than most careers are long. Informed by insights from the study of complex systems, it was suggested that stories about future "solution states" by malleable and even a bit vague - more like outlines than complete pictures - that can accommodate unexpected changes and the integration of new information. It was also stressed that the stories we tell should be made explicit and revisited often to evaluate their relevancy to the constantly evolving problem.    

Of the talks I have given so far, this was by far my favorite to write and deliver. I have been playing around with sense-making through the work of Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, and Ezequiel Di Paolo for a while now. Aside from a few blog posts, tweets, and conversations this was my first time sharing my ongoing thinking with the emergency management community in a formal setting. I remain grateful for the opportunity to do so and am eager to deliver the talk again.