Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Design Thinking and the Church: Ministry as Mitigation of Wicked Problems

I have recently been immersed in varied readings and resources related to design process, a method of product innovation and social entrepreneurialism that has quickly gained traction in the realm of ministry. Design process has become particularly important in addressing "wicked problems,” social and cultural dilemmas that wreak havoc on individuals, organizations, communities, and the larger world and are difficult if not impossible to solve. Wicked problems are vast, complex, and interwoven with so many contributing factors unable to be reduced or ignored. Wicked social problems range from poverty to racism, homelessness to discrimination, mass incarceration to pervasive violence and much more. 

It would be foolish for me to try to unpack design process as if I was anything but a novice, entry-level learner. Instead, check out the book I am currently reading and related resources below.  Here is a sample that caused me recent pause:
"So most social problems- such as inequality, political instability, death, disease, or famine- are wicked. They can’t be ‘fixed.’ But because of the role of design in developing infrastructure, designers can play a central role in mitigating the negative consequences of wicked problems and positioning the broad trajectory of culture in new and more desirable directions. This mitigation is not an easy, quick, or solitary exercise. While traditional circles of entrepreneurship focus on speed and agility, designing for impact is about staying the course through methodical, rigorous iteration. Due to the system qualities of these large problems, knowledge of science, economics, statistics, technology, medicine, politics, and more are necessary for effective change. This demands interdisciplinary collaboration, and most importantly, perseverance.” (Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving 11)
The implications of design process and the church are very real- even urgent.  Every day we are exposed to gross symptoms of wicked problems. We need only mention Philando Castile and the recently returned verdict, current propositions for healthcare legislation, lead in Flint water and Kensington soil, Bill Cosby, closing public schools, pulling out of the Paris Accord, and all things American politics today. This is only to scratch the surface. The temptation is to become either stunted by despair so we do nothing or scramble from one issue to the next as if we can solve wicked problems through a collection of hastily manufactured programs.

Design process, on the contrary, dares social innovators to enter into an intentional process that combines empathy, abductive reasoning, prototyping, and constant evaluation to create collaborative impact and sustainable social change over time (Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving 10).

Design process is not afraid of failure. In theological terms, design process is once reformed and always reforming. When applied to the realm of practical ministry, design process pushes the practitioner towards enhanced listening, learning, and creating alongside leaders in congregation and community as we incarnate localized expressions of the gospel right where God has called us to serve.  Our starting place shifts from how to solve wicked problems to focused and collaborative efforts to reduce impact, change the wind, and cultivate alternatives to whatever may be creating conditions that are far from whole, good, and just.  

Ryan Hubbard says it this way:
“You have to pick something very concrete and very tiny, and not worry that you won’t fix all aspects of the problem. You start on one of the smaller problems, someone else focuses on something else, and eventually, after a long period of seeing no change, you will have enough scaffolding- support base - in place for the community to enjoy some results" (Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving 34). 
In many ways, design process is much like the agrarian, mustard-seed laden kingdom of God of which Jesus spoke. Each seed planted is a small contribution to an invasive movement of subversive growth that fosters new possibilities for the birds of the air to make their home in even the most wicked of environments.  

The question then posed by this methodology: what seeds of subversion have you been called to design and plant in the face of wicked problems? May the church dare to engage in this redemptive process with gracious empathy, humble reasoning, and a commitment to community-based innovation that embodies holistic love for neighbor.

Design away...and don't be afraid to fail.

"Transformative innovation is inherently risky. It involves inferences and leaps of faith; if something hasn’t been done before, there’s no way to guarantee its outcome. The philosopher Charles Peirce said that insights come to us “like a flash”—in an epiphany—making them difficult to rationalize or defend. Leaders need to create a culture that allows people to take chances and move forward without a complete, logical understanding of a problem."

There is much to be gleaned, probably even critiqued, about design process. That said, it is wise and faithful to at least engage. Here are helpful resources and introductions to Design Process: