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The Design Dilemma—Curse or Blessing?

Submitted by on May 28, 2009 – 1:40 amOne Comment

Imagine a middle aged, community leader that has gone out into the wild world for years…to bring mammoth meat home to his family, clan, and tribal nation. But now this chief is faced with an accumulation of problems, and problem number one has been the recent baby boom. It’s gotten to the point where splitting up clans of about 100 to 150 into smaller bands just isn’t sustainable any more. Problem number two seems to be with the usual business of hunting and gathering. The mammoth migration patterns are changing, they’ve picked every berry and root, and yet they still need more. Will his people have to move from their ancestral lands?

Thus, the chief goes to his young, intelligent son who always seems to be improving the aesthetic of cave walls and coming up with new ideas. “Son,” says the chief, “We need to do something with this mammoth situation. I need a new solution.” And so, the son pondered from one full moon to the next and presented his plan, “Father, we can gather not just the fruit, but the seeds. We should put them in the ground ourselves, help them grow, and we will know exactly where to get our fruit from year to year.” The chief’s son became a hero, and farming became the greatest phenomenon since sliced antelope. A whole new wave of innovation ensued. Spears and atlatls were adapted into hoes and shovels. Stone weapons were recycled into manos and metates, mortars and pestles.

However, after ten years, the tribe’s enthusiasm began to vanish. New problems they have never known were now rampant. How were they to deal with the bugs that devoured their crops and the mice that swarmed their food storage? They now had to beg the rain to fall, jobs became more stratified, and the shamans questioned if farming really made them more productive. They had made the investment, the mammoths were not ever coming back, and they were trapped. The innovative chief’s son was forever exiled for putting the tribe in the state of both blessing and curse.

Fast-forward to A.D. 2009 and the same phenomenon exists. Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, Google, and others make software and programs that promise to solve all sorts of problems and bring convenience, and they do, but end-users will complain that the software solutions are not working. Automobiles connected the United States and gave the common man mobility, but this invention has given us deadly accidents, urban sprawl, and pollution. Medicines rid maladies and can save lives, but not without a host of side affects. And don’t forget the farmers, they are still trying to solve the issues of our truly oldest profession. The pesticides, hormones, chemicals, and genetic engineering made crops and meat plentiful, and cheap. Nations have been fed. Businesses and industries boomed on the simple knowledge that food will be on the table. However, these miracles have harmed wildlife, reduced crop varieties, and may even be carcinogenic to humans.

Therefore, humanity continually buts its’ head against this law: All solutions beget problems. I truly appreciated this fact in my study of the ancient Anasazi. Corn filled their bellies and sustained their culture. Manos and metates allowed them to prepare the corn. But, ancient remains reveal the problem they learned to live and die with. Spongy looking holes on the bone around the eyes reveal malnutrition. The corn didn’t give them all the sustenance they needed. Worn down teeth show that the porous stone of the metates mixed rock bits with corn meal—a big problem with every bite. Some of my museum visitors would say that the Anasazi were so stupid for not knowing better, but can you really blame them? Would you give up your dishwasher if you knew it was taking days from your life? Hand washing dishes can be a waste of your life as well.

So I ask you dear reader, what are the likes of IDEO and other industrial designers to do? Can a product be invented and so well designed that it is free from a tail of problems? Or, is that even the right question to ask at all? Should humanity embrace problems to keep the cycle of innovation going?

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One Comment »

  • Gary Allen says:

    Naturally, all solutions beget new problems (e.g., pharmaceutical “side effects”). I suspect that the real problems appear as a result of large scale of adoption, that is when huge masses of people adopt the same solution. This is a subset of the notion that diversity is safer, in the long run, than monoculture.

    Perhaps we need to be “omnivores” of solutions.

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