During the last SIDELab meeting, I’ve never heard the word ‘model’ mentioned so many times and with difference meanings. In order to expand the scope of the conversation about models, we had to start creating new words to describe the kind of model that we were talking about—like baby models, meta-models, and modified models. One of the problems that we—as a society—face is that there are so many models available to understand a problem and design a solution, that it is hard to choose the most appropriate model to design the most effective solution to a problem. The essential question we seemed to be asking (according to this author) is what is the best way to go about designing a solution?
The initial purpose of SIDELab was to discover, learn and apply the various models associated with Systems, Integrative, Design and Evaluative Thinking. While each method of thinking has its own ‘best’ model to conceptualize and design a solution to a problem, we decided early on in SIDELab that each method of thinking and associated models works best in varying situations and contexts.
For example, in Integrative Thinking, the methodology is a way to think through problems that have solutions that are in tension with each other and asks the problem-solver to create a better model that combines the best of both models. But what if there are hundreds of solutions that aren’t in tension with each other? Can you unify all those solutions into one that contains the best elements of each? Or in Systems Thinking, there is a model to understand the feedback loops in a system. But what if there are so many feedback loops, that trying to understand them only exacerbates the problem to a point where a solution seems almost impossible to design.
One of the models that we are currently working with is called, Solution Search, which is a model that comes out of the SIDELab discussions. But considering that we are not even able to decide on a single model to use to find a solution, maybe we should take a step back. I think that a much more apt name would be Model Search—but without the drama and pageantry that goes along with its TV counterpart. In this model—or meta-model—we would use a process to decide on a specific model to use which fits the problem and its associated context so as to maximize the time and energy spent designing a solution. For example, if we attempt to solve the problem that there is excessive garbage produced as result of food vendors in Toronto’s PATH system (an underground walkway in Toronto that links 30 kilometres of shopping, services and entertainment) we may use an Integrative approach because there are two clear solutions (re-usable dishes and cutlery or a better recycling procedure), rather than understanding the hundreds of feedback loops that occur in high traffic retail spaces.
One of the greatest assets that SIDELab is its rich diversity in professional and academic experience. Each person that attends our meetings is bringing with them a set of models and tools with anecdotes and case studies that help illuminate the problem and solution. As a result, one of the greatest challenges that this group faces is how to reconcile all these models and ways of thinking into a common language and process that attempts to maximize our energy spent designing solutions to complex, or wicked, problems.
We may get there…stay tuned.
Written by Nick Petten.