Design Thinking in Emergency Management: On Design Thinking

Folded into practice, design thinking as an awareness is envisioned to have the capacity to change how we are present with our work and how our work is present for us.

Design Thinking in Emergency Management: On Design Thinking


Leading up to and including my involvement with the Design Network for Emergency Management, I have been asking questions about how design can be moved into practice and what it might look like when it gets there. Of these questions, one of the earliest in need of answering is what design thinking means to the emergency management community. While design thinking has already come to mean something as a process within emergency management, the design literature suggests there is opportunity for it to take on an additional, more fundamental, meaning as a way of engaging with and understanding work. It may be easiest to term this other proposed meaning an “awareness." As an awareness, design thinking brings to the fore the connection between action taken in the present and the production of the future while opening a space for its purposeful creation. The following discusses design thinking as an awareness and offers direction for its integration into emergency management practice. As its goal, design thinking as an awareness seeks to add additional layers of consideration into routine working life.

Beyond Hexagons

In what may be its most popular form, design thinking often appears as a process visualized using five different hexagons. In this form, design thinking provides a structured process that can be moved through repeatedly until the desired product/service/outcome is reached. In my experience, design thinking's movement into emergency management has so far taken this form. For further reading on design thinking as a process, this article provides an introduction.

While the value of design thinking as a process to emergency management and the broader community continues to be recognized, the design literature leads to the imagination of a more substantive role for design thinking. In addition to a process, design thinking can also come to mean something as awareness within emergency management. This awareness builds off first recognizing every member of the emergency management community is already a designer. Design thinking as an awareness then seeks to make the design thinking and designing already taking place both explicit and deliberate.

Design Thinking as an Awareness

In moving towards a more fundamental role for design thinking in emergency management it is important to first consider what design is (a notable drawback of design thinking as process is that does not draw concern to what it means to design). An early definition comes from the work of Victor Papanek (1984) who writes:

“All that we do, almost all the time is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process” (p.3).

It is worth mentioning that Papanek's (1984) words bear a striking resemblance to the earlier and perhaps more often-cited words of Herbert Simon (1988; originally found in the book Sciences of the Artificial published in 1969):

“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” (p. 66).

From Simon (1988) and Papanek’s definitions (1984), design thinking emerges as a mode of thinking concerned with bringing about envisioned and desirable ends whereas design may be seen as the action of doing so. With a working understanding of design thinking in place, it is now possible to begin discussing how it may be engaged with as a way of understanding and approaching work in emergency management.

The Pre-Existence of Design Thinking

In the above definitions, both authors begin by first dissolving an imagined boundary between designers and non-designers. Breaking down this boundary and realizing members of the emergency management community are already designers is a key step in integrating design thinking as an awareness into practice. By beginning to identify as designers, the community is likely to find it is already design thinking throughout daily professional life. This is to say members of the community are already often thinking in terms of envisioning, selecting, and bringing about imagined ends. For example, design thinking is present in the creation of emergency response plans intended to produce the foreseeable end of a coordinated response that meets key objectives, in the development of risk communications aimed at fostering resilient communities, and the conducting of exercises held to strengthen relationships, hone skills, and prepare for hazard events. In all these examples there is the envisioning of a desirable end followed by the patterning of activity towards it. To Papanek (1984), Simon (1988), and others this is the very essence of what it is to design.

Making Design Thinking Explicit

Approaching design thinking as an awareness invites members of the emergency management community to be increasingly intentional about the future state their actions are generating and the way they go about creating it. It is important to recognize any action taken (e.g., a project, the holding of a meeting, the sharing of a message) is always intending toward some end whether it consciously selected it or not. Design thinking as an awareness encourages the deliberate selection of the end being created as well as the means involved in bringing it into existence.

Decisions Spaces

Design thinking as an awareness illuminates two decision points, or spaces, for purposeful engagement. The first is the decision about the desirable end, or future, while the second is concerned with how to produce it. Both decision spaces invite considerable forethought and engagement with multiple possible outcomes including unanticipated ones. These decision spaces rely heavily on the use of imagery, storytelling, or both. Through either medium or combination of the two, the intent is to develop a shareable sense of the decided upon desirable future and the actions that will bring it into being.

Decisions About the Future

Stepping purposefully into space of deciding upon a desirable  future invites imaginative thinking about what should exist. In this decision space, a group or individual crafts and selects an image or story of a desirable future. The tendency to think of futures five to ten years in the distance often runs into difficulty when meeting the dynamic change found across the emergency management landscape. As the present is evolving in unexpectedly and generally unpredictable ways over longer time frames, it may be more practical to tell stories about and compose images of futures that can be brought into being over shorter time horizons. This approach reduces the commitment of resources, the “gap” between identifying a problem and proposing a solution where the problem may continue to evolve, and allow for adaptation to changing conditions (Ackoff, 1999; Cilliers, 1998).  At the same time, it may be of benefit to develop a malleable, guiding sense of what the desirable future should look like forty to fifty years from the present to provide coherence to all the stories told about how things should be one to two years from now (or less; Grin, Rotmans, Schot, Geels, & Loorbach, 2010).

It is important this imaginative thinking does not stop with the desired future. Instead, what the imagined future state will bring into being should also be considered. Concern is then drawn not only to the initial object of design but how that object "goes on designing" (Fry, 2009, p.46) once it is created and released into the wild (Willis, 2006; I have written about how design goes on designing in greater detail here). The question this line of thinking brings to the fore is what effect a design will have once it has been completed. From this perspective, creating the desirable outcome does not signify the end of one's designing. Rather, the designed thing continues to design as it invites ways of acting and discourages others (Verbeek, 2006). When considering how something will go on designing, it is important to think about intended effects as well as unintentional ones. For example, what type of response will the emergency response plan we are writing produce? What will the plan direct resources to do and how will these actions affect the community as it recovers? How will the affect existing social issues? What risk will resources assume? What type of response environment will it create? Can the future the plan looks to create change if it begins to produce unwanted effects? How much adaptation is possible?

In speaking about the end design seeks to create, Papanek (1984) and Simon (1988) use similar language. While Papanek (1984) refers to the end designers work towards as "desirable," Simon (1988) uses the word "preferred." Design thinking, then, is not only concerned with realizing envisioned ends but realizing envisioned ends that transform something "as it is" to the way someone wants it to be. Implicit in this decision is the placing of value upon the desired end state over the present. If the desired future is more desirable than the present, the question "who is it desirable for?" deserves consideration.  Consider the following from Scuppeli (2015):

However, Simon's definition begs the question: how might one evaluate 'designed courses of action' that are beneficial to some and detrimental to others? For example, is the design of a delightful user experience a 'preferred situation' if workers are handling toxic chemicals in unsafe conditions and are exploited in faraway countries to fuel extra-large corporate profits and increase the digital-divide at home? For whom is this a preferred situation: the customers, the workers, the stockholders, the local community exposed to toxic manufacturing materials, the digitally excluded? Even if all problems mentioned impacting humans directly are addressed, is the situation also 'preferred' for the natural environments, natural resources, and other life forms on the planet? Is the solution preferred for present and future generations (p.77)?

In the above, Scuppeli (2015) draws attention to a key consideration that should be part of any process of imagining and deciding upon a desirable future - Who is it desirable for? To place this within the context of emergency management, an aggressive wildfire suppression strategy is desirable for present generations who will in turn deal with less smoke, fewer blackened forests, and less closures of public lands. However, this same strategy is at the same time less desirable for future generations who will meet the fire risk deferred by the aggressive suppression strategy. Later generations in turn will encounter (as we are now) larger, more frequent, harder to control, and increasingly destructive wildfires. Across a less distant temporal horizon, is this strategy also desirable for the fire resources who implement it? Will they find working in closer proximity to the fire's edge during extend shifts preferable over less aggressive indirect tactics? It should be noted considerations of how something goes on designing introduced in the above also play a role in evaluating the desirability of a foreseeable end state.

Consideration of a future's desirability should not be limited to the expected stakeholders or even the immediate future. In fact, the broader the horizon and population considered the more thorough the evaluation of the desirable future is likely to be. A way to help ensure the future is desirable for the intended audience or others it may affect is to engage them in the process especially if decisions are being made about what is desirable on behalf of someone else. The engagement of others in this process may help it to align with the actuality of the situation and reduce the ethical dilemma of deciding what is preferable for others.

Somewhat concealed in deciding upon desirable futures are decisions made about what is not preferable in the present. Especially if deployed in a problem-solving capacity, design thinking as a process and an awareness seeks to "get away" from some thing or some set of circumstances in the present thought to be undesirable (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012). Decisions about what is not preferable serve as an antecedent to those that specify what is. For this reason, attention should be paid not only to decisions made to what will be preferable to have in the future but what is considered to be undesirable in the present as well. The same set of questions posed by Scupelli (2015) about the desirability of the future are also applicable to interrogating the undesirability of the present: Why is it undesirable and for who?

Decisions About how to get There

The second decision space is concerned with what action will be taken to bring the imagined desirable future into being. Of course, decisions about how it will be produced are ultimately tied to the decisions already made about what future should be brought into being. For example, if the end state of a more fire resilient community has already been selected it would be incoherent to then begin drafting a flood risk communication strategy.

In this decision space, designers and their audience work together on devising a course of action intended to achieve the imagined preferable future (Simon, 1988). This course of action may be a series of actions or a material "thing." In a recent presentation titled Design Thinking for the End of the World, I referred to purposeful action as well as material creations intended to bring about a desired end collectively as "the thing.” It is "the thing" that is ultimately responsible for the "transformation of existing situations into preferred ones" (Simon, 1988, p. 66). Illuminated by this decision space is the pathway from the present into the imagined future. Of course, there may be multiple pathways ("things") worthy of consideration. The pathway or pathways selected should be evaluated in an equivalent way as the desirable future they will create. Developing and evaluating each potential "thing" can take place through the telling of stories or creating of visualizations. Here, stories and images can provide a shareable sense of how something will feel, act, and invite interaction from those who use it.

After dedicating considerable thought to alternatives and the effect a particular "thing" will have, design thinking as process may be of value. Perhaps unlike the rapid materialization and testing cycle belonging to design thinking as process, design thinking as awareness encourages spending more time thinking about the effects a "thing" will have and how it will function and less time physically bringing "things" into being and evaluating what happens next (Bloom, 2016). Still, design thinking as process may help to devise "the thing" through an iterative process with continuous stakeholder engagement centered first on the telling of stories and the use of abstract concepts, experiences, interactions, and expected value more than actual designed objects. Through its use, design thinking as process has the potential to ensure what is created is usable by the intended population, wanted, and correct for the problem it is intended to solve or the future it is intended to create. Then, design thinking's full iterative production cycle may help to successfully travel the last mile where the actual "thing" is made. For example, prior to developing a website where homeowners can check on the wildfire risk around their home, the concept, value, and experience of the website can be tested with the intended audience before creating anything substantial. Through this lightweight method, no "real" time is spent on anything the audience cannot or will not make use of.  

Already discussed was the potential for design thinking as process to engage with stakeholders. However, it should be noted that this is not a given of that process. Rather, participatory design requires the purposeful engagement of stakeholders throughout the entire design process beginning with the crafting selection of a desirable future state and carried through the creation of "the thing" intended to produce it.

An Open-Ended Conclusion

As it has been imagined here design thinking as an awareness seeks to make visible the future creating nature of the work the emergency management community engages in every day. Further, design thinking in this modality invites the community to consider not only what they will create but what it is their creation will bring into being as well. This extended horizon encourages planning over varying time scales, added forethought, and the maintenance of a keen sensitivity for unexpected outcomes. Folded into practice, design thinking as an awareness is envisioned to have the capacity to change how we are present with our work and how our work is present for us.


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