Travis Wall

(Sometimes Graphic) Designer. Working on a PhD: Design Thinking +/= Heterogeneous Engineering. General flâneur. Chronic knowledge gatherer.

Location: Sydney, Australia

Design Thinking as Heterogeneous Engineering

Design thinkingThe methods and techniques used by creators of the material world. It is a non-specific and non-linear process of creative synthesis and situation analysis that is more toolkit than prescriptive methodology. It is often a playful process associated with crafting style and aesthetic appeal, but there is developing evidence that it can be used to generate more general innovation in complex problems facing individuals, organisations, business and government.

Heterogeneous engineeringA particular way of treating the ordering of the material and the social grown from science and technology studies. All things, from people to procedures to objects to institutions to social relations, are viewed as complex networked swarms of things – actors are made of networks and networks are made of actors. Networks are made of human and non-human components of equal influence, no matter how big or small, tangible or intangible – the network is topologically flat. All things, from people to procedures to objects to institutions to social relations are results of continual realignments of the network entities – existence is an ongoing performance. This might seem quite abstract and messy, but it has been used to characterise the nature how things come into or fall out of existence, from mundane objects like hotel keys, to processes like pasteurisation, to technical innovations like electric cars.

Who is this for?

This is for designers (and design researchers) working with complex problems where humans are tangled in scenarios involving other humans, objects, systems, organisations and issues.

What does it do?

It focuses on using heterogeneous engineering as part of design thinking in two related ways:

InsightHetereogeneous engineering as a particular method of tracing and gaining insight into the makeup and trajectories of actors (people, procedures, objects, organisations and issues) as complex, networked and evolving tangles of people, procedures, objects, organisations and issues with uncertain trajectories.

Ideas to action for learningImagining and creating possibilities that will help reveal the tangle of entities making up problem scenarios.

As engaging and thought provoking as Bruno Latour's texts are, his ideas and thinking can sometimes be more digestible delivered by natural means of audio and visual communication. I've collected some of Latour's more interesting talks into a single place, which sometimes require a little bit more digging to find than a single search on YouTube. Many of these videos take angle at things from his later "modes of existence" work, but the general principles of the actor-network theory that Latour is known for is (arguably) present in everything. A similar compilation is available at Anthem group (The Actor-Network Theory – Heidegger Meeting), although it has not been updated with talks after 2012.

The word design is thrown around a lot: we have people called graphic designers, industrial designers, fashion designers, interior designers, interaction designers to name a few… and these are just job titles using the word… to go along with all the people who generate designs, such as mechanical engineers, civil engineers, computer engineers, architects, urban planners, policy makers, and so on. It could be very reasonably argued that just about everyone designs as part of what they do, professionally or otherwise. What does this mean for the word design? What does design actually mean? Does it even have any useful meaning anymore? This is an on-going project collecting attempts people have made at pinning down this design word into something meaningful.

What if we thought of the 'wickedness' of problems in terms of temperature instead? The 'wicked problems' concept was first created by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in the early 1970s through their study of the structure of governmental policy and planning problems, finding them as structurally different to problems found in sciences. Wicked problems were argued to be more unstable, complex and subjective than a typical science problem (a tame problem), and therefore require a method of dealing with them different than typical scientific enquiry. Richard Buchanan then successfully imported the idea into conversation around creating material objects, arguing that the built environment and technological culture has become so embedded in human existence that the kinds of problems people creating material objects deal with have the same structure as wicked problems. Things may not be this simple though - using Michel Callon’s concept of integrated socio-technical structures and economic analysis to the tame/wicked model suggests categorising problems might be better considered on a spectrum - cold to hot. Building this new direction on top of Rittel and Webber's original concept handles the messy reality of problems, and provides a helpful jumping off point for further exploration and development.